Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London, UK
Bacon and the Cartoonist: the emergence of the figure through two opposing diagrams
Day 1, 9 November, De Bijloke Kraakhuis, 15:30-16:00
In The Logic of Sensation, Deleuze describes Francis Bacon’s practice as a constant struggle to avoid or surpass figuration, illustration, and narrative, all of which are central elements of the art practice most commonly known as “cartooning”—the drawing of comic strips, books, and graphic novels. This paper will focus on Deleuze’s use of the concept of the “diagram” and the “figural” in The Logic of Sensation to argue that comics create sensual experience through discursively articulated depictions.
Deleuze opens the chapter on the diagram by saying “We do not listen closely enough to what painters have to say. They say that the painter is already in the canvas, where he or she encounters all the figurative and probabilistic givens that occupy and preoccupy the canvas.” The probabilistic givens are the established figurative practices that surround the painter, a bombardment of imagery and methods of representation that threaten to pull the painter into illustrative cliché. So how can they be avoided? Bacon says, “make random marks (lines-traits); scrub, sweep, or wipe the canvas in order to clear out locales or zones (color-patches); throw the paint, from various angles and at various speeds.” Through this act of exorcism, the figurative givens, the clichés, are removed, expelled from the canvas. This process creates the diagram, which is not a painting, or an image, but a set of possibilities.
For comics scholar Thierry Groensteen, the cartoonist’s diagram is created through a process of “gridding.” Like Bacon’s givens, this process can pre-exist the making of any marks on the drawing surface. It is “a stage of reflection that is not always incarnated,” and operates as “a primary repartition of the narrative material.” Rather than avoid figuration, cliché, cartoonists must create their own set of clichés—a set of marks that allow serial recognition, potentialities that allow them to give form to the narrative material: this is the diagram of a cartoonist. And it is through this seriality, this repetition, that the figural—in the sense described earlier of a presence that is dependent on depiction but not contained within it—is created in comics. It is also through seriality that the figural, which Deleuze describes as a sense of presence and awareness of identity created by a work that, while dependent on depiction, cannot be located solely in that depiction.
If you take individual depictions of a character in a comic to be serial appearances of the same character pulling different expressions, then you have in mind a figure that is not contained within any of these individual figurations; this, I want to suggest, is comics’ equivalent to Deleuze-Bacon’s figural. Deleuze characterises Bacon’s creation of “the improbable visual figure” as a constant negotiation between free manual actions and the presence of a pre-existing visual whole. My comic Starts Out Vague magnifies the opposition of these pictorial and prepictorial acts in attempting to analyse the figurative regime operative in the act of drawing known as cartooning. It is built from sequences of figurative images produced using the following process: perform movements, copy these movements by manipulating a digital three-dimensional model. This process begins with movements that are transcribed in a medium that has no edges or surface, and ends with reinjection into the overdetermined surface of the comic’s page, where not only specific places but also a specific order of movement through those places are privileged by the constraints of gridding. Finally, the reading protocols that guide the navigation of a comic are fundamentally discursive: in comics, the figurative is placed into discourse, and through this interaction emerges the figural.
Personal Introduction. The familiar question regarding the ability of the art object to embody or communicate knowledge that artist-researchers frequently encounter is inverted in the case of the cartoonist-researcher: the art form is frequently used for factual narratives and explanatory texts, and held by educators to be a highly effective means of transmitting information. Developing my artistic research methodology has largely consisted of resisting the urge to explain rather than explore theory. My work as a scholar emerges directly from my work as a cartoonist: it was through artist’s talks at academic symposia that I was introduced to the emerging discipline of comics studies, and the desire to develop my cartooning motivates my research. My PhD explores the role of visual metaphor in meaning making in comics, and my ongoing research aim could be described as an attempt to frame the making of comics as primarily an act of drawing rather than of storytelling.