Sometimes the internet does show extraordinary things.
Today, I stumbled upon an artist’s work in tunnelzine, a new online ‘zine I was poking around in.
Most striking is a two-painting piece called “Free Expansion.”
Here’s the first one:
And here’s the second:
It’s worth it to see them on the tunnelzine site, though.
When I consider art, I tend to have a gut reaction first, then an emotional one, then a thoughtful one.
Gut-wise, the first piece made me feel: damn. The second, oof, but then that smoothed into a melancholy relief.
I found myself thinking of these pieces later in the day and returning to them, so I’m going to try to write out why I think they hit me so hard.
First, the theme of leaving a place you outgrew: maybe you loved it once and your love was unrequited, or maybe you felt it might strangle you and all that kept you is you felt that it’d take so much time for a new place to get to know you like this place does. But either way, you left it, furiously. You tried to find yourself, or find a home, but now you find that settling somewhere else is hard, or you miss what you miss, so you want to go back but…you just. Can’t.
You’re afraid it changed. You’re afraid it didn’t change.
You’re afraid that what you miss maybe never even really existed: maybe you remember your group of friends in high school like you had deep bonds, truths, trusts in one another, that your personal language built of inside jokes repeated into something nigh unrecognizable, that your shared memories of laughing at your own adolescent mistakes, your hours spent driving in the car, just making the loop from Wal-Mart to Steak’n’Shake and back while showing off music you found Soundcloud diving as you traded access to the MP3 hoookup: maybe that was all nothing.
Maybe there was no substance there. That bonds were all aesthetics thrown together by geography. What if everyone drifted apart because nothing you loved was real?
(Maybe, for you, it wasn’t friendship but family. Or maybe a dream of who you might become that could make these teenage years endurable. And when the dream flamed out, what was all that mockery and solitude for? At least the popular kids were happy in the moment…)
Maybe I haven’t stayed away long enough. Maybe I need to get better before I can go back.
So, astronaut-man, “but I’ve stayed away too long this time,” I feel you.
But that’s not the key to why the piece was so moving.
First, the astronaut’s expression. It’s not obvious. He’s concerned, perhaps wincing given the eyebrow crease. The washed-out nature of his blue eye, touching the edge of the cast shadow that shrouds the rest of his expression, makes it seem like he has been moving towards a darkness for a long time.
The words behind him are yellow, a sharp, almost garish contrast to his melancholy. The shape reminds me of a flower petal, or perhaps a cartoon speech bubble. The sans-serif font (helvetica bold?) looks very commercial. Who is pushing him to “Go!”? Someone or some force that’s freakishly positive– either in denial about the dark place, or aware of it but refusing to acknowledge it because it gets in the way of what they want. Either they want to get rid of the astronaut man, whom they cannot kill off in good conscience because he is not bad by any sane measure, or they merely want to use the astronaut man to some ends (capitalistic gains?) and so must push him, push him, push him out into the darkness against his concerns because they need him to do the thing.
But this pushing seems to be a distant memory. What began his journey, but not what continues it. The face of th astronaut touches nothing but shadows, and the “Go!” sayers have been submerged into the background — their yellow-painted words becoming blue-painted, a more saturated blue imprint, the most present, foreground thing. The blue paint is the immediate, unforgettable present-ness of the pale-blue, distant world the astronaut has been pushed away from. It is this vivid blue world-ness that makes the astronaut desire to turn back, realize half-consciously that the words that pushed him towards this were not wise.
All this takes up two-thirds of the page, which is an excellent choice in terms of composition. Asymmetrical composition is more interesting that something even-sided, especially when exploring themes of emotional extremes (like despair) and roads taken that cannot be taken back.
Also a wonderful compositional choice is the perfect rectangle of grayscale photo-prints, reminiscent of a haunted photo-booth strip, which serve as a dividing line between our first panel (introducing the astronaut man and his dilemma) and the incredibly abstracted, uncontained wreck of bent color and shape that surrounds the astronaut’s first line.
If the top of the picture is the astronaut’s present reality, contending mainly with the objects of his own person (his face and suit), shouted words, and the physical object of the planet he’s left, the bottom of the picture is the future. It is unknown, 100% made of abstractions and non-objects. Fears. Any hope (symbolized by the planet’s horizon) skewed awry. The garish yellow of commercial profit (gold?) or the positivity police or the poisonous pus of a bad wound infects this future, letting in the swirling darkness of the void.
Which is why separating the two with the greyscale astronaut pictures is brilliant. The upside-down, distant astronaut, his movements recorded one slow frame at a time, show astronaut man’s past since his journey began. It is long, seemingly dull, changing only by inches. He is alone, not in the void of space (which could be romantic) but just in front of some wall. His past is even-patterned, with perfect black-white balance. He’s detached from it, and in turn, these replicated past pictures barely engage with the yellow or blue.
This allows the reader of the picture two things. First, we get a visual break, so that we might re-orient ourselves and thus better process the intensity of the top of the page and the chaos in the bottom. This visual space for mentally “touching base” is a necessary relief, preventing the piece from being visually overwhelming.
In this way, it reminds me of perseveration. With certain mental illnesses (like OCD, which I’ve got), perseveration is a spoken word that someone with say to “clear” the language-processing part of their minds, to circumvent a thought loop. While this is not literally the same, it somehow feels similar: the wordless line of greyscale snapshots clears away the debris of the “Go!” phrases, so we can better here the line, “But I’ve strayed away too long this time.”
Second, I suspect this allows the reader to better empathize with the astronaut character. This emotionless examination of his past, in which he sees himself inverted, is something many people on the edge of an emotionally heightened experience can relate to. An awful or strange event is remembered numb.
Looking at the piece as a whole, I’m also struck by how all the yellow and blue sticks to the left side of the page, and the right side is dominated by the black-black, the only color allowed is the astronaut’s physical self– his skin, his eye.
This is really cool looking. I’m unsure what it means symbolically.
I’m re-thinking the blue paint now. It comes across as more of a soothing or nurturing element with this observation. Maybe it represents is true self? His true dreams? It is more comforting, now that I see it as trying to mitigate the harm of the yellow, and pulling the astronaut man away from the deep, despairing blackness.
I love astronaut man. I want him to be okay. Let’s look at the second piece in this 2-part series.
“and I’ve got too big to fit this time.”
The yellow and blue have merged!
This picture is all about movement. The astronaut is moving now: we see his whole body arcing across the page, both dipping behind and cutting in front of his greyscale memories at once. He crosses every vertical line. In his memory, he appears to be leaping backwards, or maybe he’s knocked off his feet. Suddenly, the past is no longer a slow, dull place. In the second-page’s memory, the planet takes up more and more of the shot in each frame. That past isn’t set in a nowhere place.
And he is still moving. He is moving right now. While the past still bisects the object-oriented present and the abstract future on this page, the overlap suggests that these things are not as separate as we’d like. The abstract future barely takes up, like, a centimeter line across the bottom of this page. It’s approaching quickly.
The yellow and blue are no longer relegated to the left hand side. His whole head is on fire with yellow! On the right hand side, there is another small astronaut. On first read, I thought the artist was depicting the same astronaut rushing forward at great speed: far away, then very close. He’s too big to fit now because he’s very present.
But, upon a second look, it could be that the little astronaut is another, like-minded person. Or, perhaps the little astronaut is the idea the astronaut man as about how he used to be: someone small and pushed around. Or, someone small and gentle.
Because, see, this is better than the stagnation and crumbling into despair, but the movement of the astronaut, and his sudden yellow-headed-ness, could show that he’s become perhaps manically infected. That he has bought into the idea that he must move because they want him too.
“and I’ve got too big to fit this time,” then, is a rationalization. He is trying to put away his desire to go back to where he was, or who he was, before.
Honestly? Maybe that place what both good and bad for him. Maybe it loved him, but it couldn’t accept him or understand him. Maybe he can embrace the “Go!” and turn it into something good, something that pushes himself to a kind of fulfilment that is worthwhile.
Now his abstract future, on the very bottom of the page, has no void-black in it. It’s got a lot of bluish green, and maybe that’s the best he can get right now: his own dream mixed with their wants and pressures in a way that’s motivating. Maybe slightly noxious. But also soothing. Soothing in an attainable way, this time. In a way that casts out the darkness and brings visions of planet home back into place.
Dang. Alright. Some good art today. I have no idea if Meridian will ever read this; her bio didn’t link to an Instagram or a blog of any kind. But, I hope they do.