December 30, 2014

Five Moments in Comics That Left an Impression in 2014 -- Part 2 -- Stumbling Into the World of Theo Ellsworth

I don't need to tell you that life is complicated. The amount of data we pull in over the course of a year is staggering. Reflection is more of a guessing game than a science. Still, some things linger, events gain significance in hindsight, and the prick of a moment can fester or bloom. Here's 5 moments from 2014 that left an impression.

Stumbling Into the World of Theo Ellsworth

There's that weird moment when you stumble upon a work of art that just grabs you by your thought senses and tumbles you into that gelatinous place where you lose contact with the person you thought you were only moments before. It becomes even weirder when you start pursuing other works from that artist and all of it seems to be specifically talking to you – directly – face to face, over drinks at your kitchen table.

Such was my experience “finding” the work of Theo Ellsworth late in 2014.

And I can't even tell you how it happened. Somehow I ended up with Ellsworth's book Capacity #8 in my ever expanding “To Read” pile a few months ago. I don't remember buying it. I don't remember it getting sent to me in the mail. It was just there, having made its own way to me – because it was what I needed without even knowing it.

Trying to talk about an Ellsworth comic is almost impossible as our available lexicon breaks down quickly. It's like what James Ryerson wrote in his introduction to David Foster Wallace: Fate, Time, and Language about Wittgenstein's response to solipsism, “language is seen as a messy human phenomenon, part of social reality – a rich variety of everyday practices that you figure out the way a child does.” When you encounter something so wildly outside of that “social reality” then, by their very nature, words fail.

And so it is with Ellsworth's art. There is a direct address therein; the artist speaks to the reader under no uncertain terms. The expectation is that regardless how alien the words and images are, the reader has the capacity to understand. Ellsworth works under the assumption that since his book is in your hands, it gives him access to your brain. He operates in a command center located near the pineal gland in your epithalamus, apt as Descartes declared it the “principle seat of the soul.”

Structured logic comes unglued quickly in Ellsworth's art, and it's not fully replaced with a primal or visceral understanding either. Rather, it demands a different way of interacting with the material. You have to step outside your skull, listen for Ellsworth's directions with both your eye holes and your ears, and then proceed blissfully drunk on the trust inherent in being led by someone who knows you better than you know yourself.

This way you get to go places you never even imagined existed. Those places are wonderful.

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