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

For Plender, meaning is created through this cinematic concept; she states that comics and film are "intrinsically linked", perhaps most strongly through their narrative formulation. Each individual, isolated image-caption, or syntagm (to use the cinematic term), is re-stitched into any limitless possible option. The images, or montage cells, adopt a "liquidity of meaning" (Kelley 2), where their meaning is generated from the semiotic arrangement of images appearing directly before and directly after the image in question. Arranged within a comic format, "the meaning of an image [is] defined by its context" (Kelley 2), and the formal composition of the comic-structure is as integral to the reading of the images, any difference in arrangement or structure changes the work's entire meaning. As a result, meaning in Plender's work, like film, is a derivative, associate process. She cites Chris Martin's 1962 film, La Jetée as an influence. In the film, a science-fiction from the French New Wave, still images appear slide-show style, telling the story of a man in a surrealistic, post nuclear-fallout torture camp, searching through time-travel for his lost love. The film, which incorporates a Vonnegut-worthy plotline with stylishly gloomy and circular New Wave conventions of mise-en-scéne and structure, and a dark, graphic aesthetic, seems custom-built for Plender, who cites interests in the supernatural, fantastic, and of course - the overtly romanticized. Like Martin and Fahlström, Plender uses "a technique similar to collage" in order to expose the relations between the images within their new space.

Politics of Display, Reception, History, and Content
I asked Plender if it was important that her work continue to be seen in the comic-format or experienced as enlarged frames singularly mounted on gallery walls, as they have also been exhibited in the past. Plender uses the comic-format to subvert the exclusionary practice of painting: its one-of-a-kind status and the privatization of ownership. In comic-form, The Masterpiece, is both affordable and potentially ubiquitous (selling for about $2 a piece,) and as she claims, anti-elitist. She states that her interest in comics is partly due to a desire to create accessible work that defies the class restrictions of so-called 'high-brow' art. However when displayed in the gallery, its presence is in direct contrast to the piece's very intention, eliciting the very notions of 'elitist art' of which she wishes to dissociate herself. However, Plender's intentions are not meant to circumvent or complicate these issues of art politics. She states that although the comic challenge the 'unique' artwork, or 'masterpiece', she is not preoccupied with its presentment in the gallery system. Above all, Plender's work is engaged with the politics of meaning, offering a proliferation of texts and resources from which meaning manifests.

In the most simplistic context, the work is perceived as a comic, which historically has not been accepted as high art. Of Plender's 'comic contemporaries', Robert Crumb has been praised with much esteem and attention in the popular media as a true comic 'artist'. However, Plender's work does not share many qualities with Crumb's, and she is more inclined to reference traditional sources, such as the surrealist/symbolist academic drawing styles of Bochlin or Greiner, as primary influences. In discussion, Plender talks about Crumb's recent elevation in the public realm to something of a 'comic-genius'. Similarly, Harvey Pekar has received the same treatment with the biopic, American Splendor (Springer-Berman and Pulcini, 2003). The creation of an 'automatic' personage for both of these artists is something Plender might be compelled to explore and critique through her own work, which is itself concerned with the (often pejoratively) mythologized artist: Jackson Pollock, Austin Osman Spare, even Zola's fictional Claude Lantier, all of whose infamy is, at least to some degree, due to their 'fall out' from the art-world respectability.

Despite dissimilarities, Plender's work, like Crumb's or Pekar's, inhabits a seemingly un-classifiable space - it is neither a comic, nor a veritable artwork. Plender believes that Crumb's work, for instance, adopts new meanings depending on its audience; a contemporary audience understands Crumb in a different manner than an art audience does, and they differently than that of a comic audience. Yet Crumb's comics often display aspects of racism or sexism, and contemporarily, he is assumed to automatically offer societal critiques implicitly in his work. According to Plender, these works "would not have been viewed that way in the 1980s, or 1970s," but through a sort of collective-retrospect, today this "auto-critique critique of American culture" is not only acceptable but expected. Plender's work similarly benefits from this critical reception; her work parodies conventions of form and content and it is left to the audience to decode. Her use of the comic is considered automatically reactionary, subversive, and satirical. "The structural identity of the text [depends] on the coincidence, at the level of strategy, of decoding (recognition and interpretation) and encoding" (Hutcheon 34). A keen reader will revel in the palimpsestial exploration of the text. Plender hopes the reader will take the time to seek out differences in order to extrapolate meaning from her work, endlessly decoding to uncover the secondary and derivative meanings. Many of The Masterpiece's success may be attributed to its multiplicity of meaning. Whether understood as generic comic, or going beyond this label to actively surpass its visual construction, "[its] final meaning…rests on the recognition of the superimposition of these levels. It is this doubleness of both form and [cultural content to accentuate or even establish] parodic contrast" in the work's constitution and intended/extracted meaning (Hutcheon 34).

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