Tuesday, August 21, 2012

What you missed if you’re not local enough to hang with Anders Nilsen

Last Friday night (August 17, 2012), cartoonist Anders Nilsen, creator of the astonishing brick of a book Big Questions, appeared at the Elmhurst Art Museum in Elmhurst, Illinois to do a reading/slideshow and talk about the exhibit of his works that has been on display at the museum since June 2012 (and which ends on August 25, if you’re in the area and haven’t had the chance to check it out). It was definitely worth attending, since any chance to see an artist talk about his work is bound to be fascinating, and seeing the art in person is always a treat, especially when it’s presented at a scale which is impossible to replicate in reproductions.

The centerpiece of the exhibit was the drawing which shared its name, Adam and Eve Sneaking Back into the Garden to Steal More Apples, a 5’ x 8’ monstrosity that Nilsen said he struggled with for quite some time, often feeling that it defeated him. It’s a marvel of detail, from the dense tangle of thorns which the couple (who are presented as adolescents) are climbing over, to the various animals and creatures populating the garden, to the anachronistic implements of modern life (a computer keyboard, a tire, etc.) scattered on the ground, to the tiny blades of grass that provide the signature Nilsen texture to the image. Nilsen described the image, and some of the others that he worked on, as ones that he doesn’t fully understand, presenting several possibilities, including a post-apocalyptic world, which, along with mythological/religious stories, was a theme that several of the exhibit’s works shared.

It’s an impressive work, one that can be studied and pondered endlessly. That’s true of several other works as well, including the above study for Adam and Eve, called Jesus and Satan Playing in the Garden of Eden, which depicts the pair as children romping through the same thorny landscape, which includes a huge chunk of concrete that, again, suggests some apocalyptic ruin. Nilsen spoke of trying to reinterpret or adapt mythological or religious stories, filtering them through some of his own interests and incorporating modern details, while still retaining some ambiguity.

Another large piece, which Nilsen drew while taking a break from Adam and Eve, is Last Remnant After the End of the World, although he says that the title is kind of incidental, and it was more of a study of the root ball of a tree that he found interesting. It was also an expansion of another drawing that was more of a simple rock, adding details and making it much more dramatic. It’s another marvel of detail, packed with texture and palpable dirt and decay, yet including a hint of life after death with the branch sprouting from the top of the stump.

For the slideshow presentation, Nilsen read from an “accordion book” which he had on display called Rage of Posiedon, which takes the form of a series of silhouette images accompanied by text, making for a series of short stories that continues the theme of reimagined or recontextualized mythology. The title story follows the god of the sea as he struggles to understand the modern world, while other stories included a take on the Biblical story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac from the boy’s perspective, a poignant look at the fall of Lucifer, and an amusing scene in which Jesus hits on Venus in a bar in Heaven. The simple art style is a bit of a change for Nilsen, who usually packs imagery with palpable details, but it frees him to focus on the text of the stories, which incorporate the dry humor of his sketchbook work in books like Monologues for Calculating the Density of Black Holes.

The book itself was also on display, making for an interesting artifact, a 28-foot series of images that could be compressed to fit into a cover. Drawn and Quarterly will be publishing a version of it that will include a few more stories in the fall of 2013.

Other works on display included a few pages from Big Questions, and a scene of Batman, Wolverine, and the angel Gabriel all lying unconscious around a hole in the ground, suggesting some sort of unknown catastrophe and inspiring any number of stories in viewers’ minds.

Another drawing shows what the title says is a prototype for human life, presumably created by God, and it’s another lovely accumulation of weird detail, inspiring a story through its title and suggesting all manner of narrative around it.

As a collection of an artist’s work, the exhibit is fascinating and inspiring, a testament to the artistic skill and ambition that Nilsen has coming out of his pores. Whether he continues along this path, creating gallery-presented images, or makes more comics and narrative works, it will be a treat to follow him and experience what he has to show us.

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