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Jordan Schnitzer

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Joe Sacco, art from Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-1995

“There was this Sumerian leader whose face appears over and over. There are lots of statues of him,” said Joe Sacco.

“Yes! yes! His name was…” I said, as enthusiastic and stupid as a golden retriever puppy. “It was… umm…”

Gudea,” said Sacco. “I was looking at statues of him at the Louvre. Sometimes, his head has been cut off from the statues. I saw tourists posing behind a beheaded statue and taking pictures, putting their heads where his was. I thought, this would be perfect material for a comic.”

Sacco is featured in an exhibition in the Jordan Schnitzer MOA, and I was at a little “meet the artist” luncheon in the Marche Museum Cafe. I was pleased and shocked to end up sitting right across from him.

It’s crazy. Last week I remember pondering the fact that Mesopotamian and Egyptian steles, which often show plot sequences in stacked registers, are the original comic books. Now, I was discussing this idea with an internationally renowned cartoonist and journalist.

Sacco is known for his in-depth investigative reporting and its products- ink-and-paper journalistic epics. His comic books tie together the stories of people caught in war zones and areas of conflict, from Palestine (his most famous work) and Gaza to Bosnia.

Sacco’s Schnitzer exhibition shows original work from Safe Area Gorazde, which follows the residents of a small Bosniak town literally caught in the middle of the Bosnian War of 1992-1995. After reading the book, it was great to be able to lean in close to the original drawings and inspect the line work, some of which is so dense and detailed that a single panel must have taken hours.

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Joe Sacco, the evidence

Of course, every page of the book couldn’t be hung on the walls, but additional materials bring the story alive. Photographs, work permits, maps, objects, press sketches… two glass cases on either side of the exhibition room are full of interesting knick-knacks, some of which are instantly recognizable from the book. The shots of Gorazde are especially thrilling to see. The intricate black lines of the comics are suddenly blasted with color.

Here’s a little interview I did with Sacco by email the other day about the exhibition:

Me: What’s your research and recording process? (While you’re on the job, do you sit down every night and write in a journal? Do you pencil and ink the pages in short bursts or all at once? Do you doodle while you’re taking interview notes?)
Sacco: My process begins with research so I feel I understand some of the background of whatever place I’m traveling to.  When I’m “in the field” I basically do what any journalist does — I interview people and take notes the scene.  I seldom sketch because I find it takes away from interview time; I take photos for visual reference.  I do doodle somewhat while I’m taking notes, but those doodles are for informational purposes.  For example, if I am in a room with some people having a conversation and I think that conversation might appear in a book, I might quickly sketch out the layout of the room and where people were sitting.  That helps me build a realistic image when I’m drawing that scene later.  Anyway, after I’m back home, I index all my notes and photographs, transcribe my tapes (most of my interviews these days are taped), and then begin the long process of writing a script.  I seldom start drawing before I complete the script, which can take weeks or months depending on the nature of the material.  The drawing itself can take years, but I have a fairly good idea of how far I can get each day.  Writing is actually the hard part.  The drawing is either pleasurable or tedious, depending on the day or the material.
Me:  Why did you choose Safe Area Gorazde for this exhibition? What do the book and exhibition mean to you?
Sacco: Though Palestine was my first extensive journalistic work, for me Safe Area Gorazde is a more fully formed and, for better or worse, self-conscious journalistic project.  When I went to Bosnia in 1995, I had a better understanding of what I was trying to accomplish and how I should accomplish it thanks to the experiments, successful or not, I’d tried in the Palestine series.  I think my drawing is better, too.  I treasure the memory of the time I spent in Gorazde because I met some amazing people there.  They let me into their homes and getting to know them was a privilege.  So the book remains dear to me.  As to seeing my art in an exhibition, I’m a little ambivalent because comics art is meant to be published in book form, not seen hanging up on a wall.  On the other hand, I’ve always enjoyed seeing the work of other cartoonists on display and seeing their line and brush work up close.  
Me: Can I be your apprentice please please pretty please? Take me with you!!!!
Sacco: (answer pending)
Sacco repeated that part about his ambivalence to the exhibition during the luncheon. The idea of hanging comics on museum walls struck me as a little strange as well- until I entered the exhibition and was suddenly surrounded by those stark black-and-white pages. The style and themes of Sacco’s work are suited for the interactive art exploration that is a gallery exhibition. Just as the residents of Gorazde are trapped in the awful limbo of a war, so the exhibition traps us in a black wicker cage of sometimes terrifying images. 
Sacco’s most recent book, Footnotes in Gaza, investigates two 1956 mass killings that were swiftly bumped to footnote status for history books. “It was awful,” he said of the research process, which was at times incredibly emotional. “It took seven years to make, and now I’m done with it.” After one more reporting project, he’d like to verge away from journalism altogether and do a comic book on ancient civilizations, which is why he was hanging with Gudea at the Louvre.
I’m with you, Mr. Sacco. Like, seriously with you. I’ll buy my own plane ticket, just let me stalk you to
the Louvre.
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Joe Sacco, “Down with vases! Up with comics!” 

Look at the date! I haven’t updated this thing in two whole days. Two is also the number of essays I’ve written IN SPANISH in that time, which I hope gives me a little more leeway. I know, I know. It’s really all my fault for procrastinating.

Anyway, just because I haven’t posted doesn’t mean I haven’t been up to some art shenanigans. I hung out with cartoonist/journalist Joe Sacco today, which I’m still geeking out about. I WOULD tell you all about that adventure (It involves Paris, ancient Mesopotamia, journalism, chicken paninis, the kitchen sink… ya know, all of the usual things), but I’m going to have to procrastinate a bit more because it’s 1:00, and one is approximately the number of hours of sleep I’ve gotten in two days.

So I leave you with this tantalizing sketch that Sacco did in the museum copy of Safe Area Gorazde: The War in Eastern Bosnia 1992-95, which is also the name of his current exhibition at the JSMA.  So til tomorrow, down with vases! Up with comics!

Xiaoze Xie, April 2004, T.P.

Brace yourself for this news, dear readers (get it, news?). That stack of old papers is not a photograph. “I just want to know how he did the typography,” said my boss Debbie Williamson, squinting at the perfect, slightly curving font that Xiaoze Xie meticulously painted. The work is a (nearly) photo realistic representation of a photograph Xie took in the newspaper archives of a library.

The painting gives us tiny glimpses of faces and news bites from days past, hinting at the momentary importance and swift obsolescence of the newspaper as a cultural product. Some of the headlines are ominous, some are funny, and some are frustratingly cut off. Happy faces, strange blobs of flesh and eerie eyes poke out at us. Who do they belong to? Perhaps it doesn’t matter. Why look back when you can crack open today’s paper and distract yourself with the funnies?

Xiaoze Xie, Chinese Library No. 41

The rest of Xie’s Amplified Moments exhibition, which is at the Jordan Schnitzer until December 31st, explores similar ideas about the life, significance and slow decay of works on paper. There are paintings of tattered and neglected library books, a grainy fly-on-the-wall view of a George W. Bush era cabinet meeting, and even an ominous black-and-white portrait of Dick Cheney. I interviewed the prominent Chinese contemporary artist by email about his influences and inspirations:

Me geeking out: Your father was a school principal who was charged with censoring and destroying banned books. How did this affect your view on books and information as a child?

Famous artist that I’m geeking out about:
It was probably towards the end of the Cultural Revolution when I was around 10. I remember once seeing piles of old books accumulated in my father’s office at school – at that time, people were urged to turn in books deemed “poisonous”: feudalist, reactionary, subversive, etc. (In rural China, a school often also functioned as a kind of political institution with tasks such as propaganda.) In my mind, old, thread-bound Chinese books always carry something mysterious and forbidden. I would not say that the experience directly compelled me to paint books; but it stays in the back of my mind and might have had some influences on me unconsciously.

Me: The works in Amplified Moments seem tied together, but they were created over more than a decade. How have the themes and ideas behind your works changed over time? How have they remained the same?

Xie: One theme leads to another, ideas and styles shift; but I hope the bodies of works over the years are linked by conceptual threads. All the works in the show are tied together by an interest in time, memory and history.

Me: In the description of Amplified Moments on the JSMA website, your exhibition is described as evoking “the tenuous nature of history.” Is that an accurate description? What is the nature of history?

Xie: To me, memory and history are fragmentary, constructed, malleable, fragile, and yes, “tenuous.”

Me: There are elements of realism in your works, but there is also a sense of separation from the events and information portrayed. How did you walk that line, and for what reason?

Xie: Painting from source photographs, I want my paintings to have a matter-of-fact look and want to maintain a reference to photography; I am also interested in the subtle dialogue between painting and photography. I do not want to be a classic “photorealist.” The events and information portrayed are mediated several times – the newspaper paintings are not about direct experience, but more about the way we perceive the real world through the media.

Me: What was it like for you mentally to paint such a dark and foreboding portrait of Dick Cheney?

Xie: I was compelled by what he (or the Bush administration) did. It wasn’t a pleasant subject but it gave some relief to be able to say something about it.

Did I mention there’s a wall of books in the exhibit that forms a crazy, textured video screen? You should probably go see this thing!