UBC | Digital Visions
Digital Visions
Olivia Plender
Writer: Andrew Johann Salgado
The Masterpiece

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".

Languages of Narrative, Visual Constitution, and Film
In conversation, I asked Plender which she considers her most important role in the constitution of her work - visual artist, in which the storylines come to life, or master storyteller, in which she gleans and arranges an endless number of textual forms to create new storylines, including dialogue between characters in The Masterpiece. Her answer is appropriately nondescript, she considers both as integral to the delivery of her work; one could not exist without the other. "One of the reasons that I am currently drawn to film and comics is because they are forms where words and images are mutually supporting". She quotes Fahlström as one of her primary influences, stating that he "saw the comic as a narrative form lying halfway between the short story and film. He was not interested in comics as kitsch. Comics present [their material and their rhetoric] in clear tropes understandable to the public at large" (Plender). Plender avoids considering the comic-book's engagement in the high/low culture binary, and rather emphasizes its relation to visual and literary semiotics.

"[With comics,] the viewer tries to read a collection of images and make sense of them [through] a common visual language" (Kelley 1). Still, like film, comics have their own semiotics, or visual language system, based on sequential narrative through which they are generally understood. In an essay on Fahlström, artist and critic Mike Kelley draws further connection between the comic-book and cinema, writing of its paradoxical formation. Despite its compartmental arrangement upon the page, suggesting the 'sequential-reading' established for pictorial-narrative forms, each of the sequential frames in a comic is presented communally upon the page, so that this temporal sequence is thus eliminated from the viewer's visual comprehension of the work. In this politics of meaning, every image in the composition is considered to be of equal importance. "Each part must be considered in its autonomy first, then related to the system as a whole" (Kelley 2).

Simultaneously visual and narrative-driven, the comic is at once like and unlike film. Just as Kelley describes, the comic operates in flux with aspects of temporality and narrative, predominating each as a complex whole, while the interrelation of its parts are also responsible for the development of its overall meaning. In a study on the relation between the textual/narrative image and the cinematic features, influential Soviet filmmaker and originator of the film style known as conflict, Sergei Eisenstein claims that the connection between the single image and its constitution in cinema (or, in this case, the comic,) is "the shot [or the comic frame," what he calls the "montage cell" (21). Montage results in "a complete transformation…The point is that the copulation [or combination] of two [images] of the simplest series is regarded not as their sum total but their product…their combination corresponds to a concept" and creates a third, derivative meaning (16). Plender's work in comics functions in precisely this semiological manner: "juxtaposing representational shots" to formulate new meaning from them.

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