UBC | Digital Visions
Digital Visions
Olivia Plender
Writer: Andrew Johann Salgado
The Masterpiece
I was thinking of the apocryphal anecdote that Clement Greenberg told about the first time he met Jackson Pollock, in which he claimed that a drunk Pollock was wearing just a t-shirt and jeans, and did something appalling, like growled at him. Lee Krasner, on the other hand, claims that Pollock was wearing a suit, was sober, and had a polite conversation with Greenberg.
Olivia Plender, in conversation, April 3, 2005

Let no one parody a poet unless he loves him.
Sir Theodore Martin

There aren't many cultural forms that artist Olivia Plender hasn't unearthed for her current project; a gorgeously drawn, intensely detailed, and cross-referential 'comic-book' called The Masterpiece. The list of sources Plender draws from includes comic culture, 1950's pulp novellas, movie adverts, film stills, screenplay dialogue, literary quotes, art-legends, cultural anecdotes, historical personalities, as well as fictional mythologies, all of which are integrated together to create a new form of fiction. "I am to some extent rifling through the rubbish bin of high culture" she states in conversation; "[I am using] the comic as a narrative form [that offers] a rich pictorial source reflecting contemporary mythologies"2. Working in the comic-book format has enabled Plender to challenge notions of storytelling and art-production through content, style, and format. Influenced by the works and ideas of Swedish artist Övyind Fahlström, Plender's comic-sensibilities share fundamental aspects of film semiology, challenge the comic's reception in the art realm, and rely on appropriation, reference, and parody to generate new meanings. Plender's awareness of postmodern techniques and intertextual resources thereby allowing The Masterpiece to successfully critique mythologies created that transcend in past artists into geniuses and their resulting work into 'masterpieces'. As a result, her work occupies binaries-- straightforward yet complex; candid yet humorous; didactic and ironic. Plender's use of these elements is informed, never aloof, and operates as a means to challenge and critique the constituents of the contemporary art society, dismantling it as a system form within.

The Comic - Tackling Conventions of Art?
Although each of The Masterpiece's four episodes are drawn by hand, Plender almost exclusively 're-constructs' the imagery used from 19th century technical manuals and visual materials, pop and pulp culture artifacts, historical adverts, commercial stock imagery, and other commercial comics themselves. The result is a generally widespread, ahistorical form, imbued with a deeper social context; the appearance of which borrows from a variety of 'retro' or 'trash' subject matter. Structured as a conventional 'comic-book' with black and white drawings inside of narrative 'cells' or 'image frames', Plender's publication, of which she is now working on a fourth episode, charts the adventures of "Nick", a short-tempered and romanticized artist struggling through an imaginary, 1960s avant-garde London. Plender's characters roam this imagined milieu in hopes of creating exactly the perennially-sough after artistic 'masterpiece'. "One of the things I am trying to do is explore the origins of the genius myth," Plender states, "I am fascinated with the 19th century, because the genius cliché as we understand it these days very much comes out of the romantic and symbolist movements through the high cultural forms in fiction and fine art during this time". To doubly allude to this, The Masterpiece borrows strong stylistic influences and literary references from early 19th century material. "Now, this very anachronistic idea about the artist's role is to be found in popular culture" (Plender).

As a comic strip, The Masterpiece is expectedly dichotomous, inhabiting dual roles as an avant-garde form and popular form. The work takes strong visual cues from the stylistic and narrative conventions of film-noire, pulp-horror magazines, and even what Plender refers to as a pre-televisual vaudeville, situating the illustrations and content comic somewhere in a timeless, almost Victorian-chic mod-scene. Plender references, whether through visual clues or direct excerption, from an endless variegation of sources. These sources include the retro and popular, such as Fritz Lang's classic science fiction film, Metropolis, the surrealist, including the films of Buñuel and Dali, as well as the abstract with sources ranging from superhero comics to French New Wave film. Specifically, the work draws its name from Emile Zola's 1886 novel of the same name, which Plender lightheartedly quotes as "a literary portrait of an artist, [fulfilling] all the necessary romantic stereotypes".

The genius or mythologized artist came to fruition in the Romantic age, with artists and poets like Lord Byron and William Blake, who led the archetypal 'tortured' artist life, producing breathtaking masterpieces at the expense of their sanity and physicality. Plender disassembles what she considers tired or trite conventions of art and artist as the underlying formal strategy in her art. Whereas Zola's original literary Masterpiece was expected to challenge preconceived notions held by the art canon, Plender eagerly does the same, contesting notions of acceptable high art as well as the status of the comic as an acceptable form for art and narrative in the contemporary art world. "I am criticizing these art world structures" she states, "[because] I am interested in a hybrid position where an artist is not confined to one form or medium - can be a writer as well as an artist".


1 All quotes from Plender in this paper were taken in discussion, via e-mail, between April 1 - 10, 2005

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