Dominion and Panterville
Seth and Gary Panter are two artists who create alternative, "indie" comics, but that's about where their shared ground ends. Seth is a nostalgist and a traditionalist, a massively skilled designer and cartoon artist whose understated, whimsical narratives and schooling in the high New Yorker drawing style produce aching, elegant comics that seem most intent on crystallizing the experience of memory itself, of stepping into the golden-hued better world of the past. Panter, on the other hand, is comics' most accomplished futurist, a ragingly iconoclastic pop artist whose gloriously messy, ink-blasted pages and deconstructed narratives go beyond the post-apocalyptic to hint at something rising from the ashes of the end. They're bound together by the medium of comics, of course, though both do more work outside the form than the vast majority of its artists. Past that, though, it's tempting to say they've got nothing in common.
Tempting. But if you actually did say it you'd be wrong, because both Seth and Panter hand-make little buildings from scratch in their spare time. What? Yes.
This is a pretty weird hobby, one which only one other comics artist (Chris Ware) has to my knowledge indulged in. But we'll put Ware aside, because it's these two guys alone when you look at the scale of what they've done. Both artists have created massive collections of their shoebox edifices, and both have showed them off to the public in print, Panter in his sprawling self-titled Picturebox monograph and Seth in the most recent issue of his one-man comic arts anthology Palookaville. This is more significant than it may sound at first: both men's miniature public-works endeavors are admittedly secondary to their "main" oeuvres, but both have also been deemed worthy of presentation, taking on the cast of art projects as opposed to accumulations of creative marginalia. They're three-dimensional sketchbooks, if you will, and the fact that both not only keep them but have allowed their hobby to bleed into their profession is telling.
Most all comic art has its genesis in the comics-collecting hobbyism of the kids who grew up to draw it, and what Panter and Seth are doing by presenting their buildings to the public is pulling back the curtain on the fully-formed artist's mind as it works through its own creativity, same as that kid's did while he was sitting on the floor with the funnies. More than that, by allowing us access to these non-comics projects Panter and Seth give us a new viewpoint from which to consider their art. The houses themselves are easily as individual and creatively striking as the comics, both men's cardboard concretes obviously outgrowths of the personal aesthetics they developed making sequential art.
Seth's buildings are neat, precise, often painstaking. Water towers sit atop delicate latticeworks, a delicate craft brought to bear in replicating pure utilitarianism on a delightfully unworkable scale. The ascending box shapes of skyscrapers sit neatly one atop the other, straight rows of tiny windows sometimes painted on, sometimes created by applying minuscule squares of cardboard to the larger sheet that forms the wall. Brickwork is deftly lined in with a meticulous verve. Seth's trademark midcentury advertising-style typescripts adorn signs for chophouses, radio stations, record stores, cinemas, the businesses of a bygone world. Complicated, precariously balanced ornaments -- awnings, marquees, columns -- bedeck the simple rectangles, adding elegant touches of class.
Despite the regularity of shape -- boxes, boxes, and more boxes -- that characterizes the place the artist has named "Dominion City", there's a refreshing variation-on-theme at play among the individual pieces. The squares and rectangles fit together asymmetrically, sections fixed at odd angles or unexpected inclines. They are unmistakably old buildings, charged with the quaint pleasantness of the antique, and speak directly to the intention their creator states in a self-penned Palookaville essay on his little city: Dominion "satisfied some urge to possess the old buildings I saw out in the world... putting them in amber -- saving them from the wrecking ball." This cardboard snowglobe is as much a display of Seth's powerful, driving nostalgia as any of his comics works.
Panter's buildings are just the opposite. Bold, alien-looking minimalist constructs, they evince little of the intense attention to detail found in Seth's charming municipality. Instead, Panter puts his mind to the conceptual, innovating architectural forms as the ideas and the materials come. These structures are not to be found in Seth's newspaper-age city, and probably not in yours, either: toilet-roll silos that look over Olympic sized masking-tape pools complete with diving boards, geodesic-roofed huts flanked by wine-cork storage barrels, low-slung bunkers with packing-foam earthworks strapped on by thick rubber bands. Panter rarely adds illustrative detailing to his media -- perhaps an ornamental strip of tape here or a hastily scribbled door there -- achieving his architectural nuances by recontextualizing the original materials. An almond box's cheery labeling literally gets turned upside-down to become a glowing piece of advertising, while clear plastic sheeting is cut into made-to-order tinted windows and the wavy surface of corrugated cardboard becomes the material of choice in this bizarre assemblage of a 22nd-century border town.
Here we can begin to identify aesthetic differences between the two amateur architects, ones that lead us back into their more widely seen works. Panter the pop artist is delighted with trash-as-it-is, merely rearranging it into new life. His alchemy is not so different from what Marcel Duchamp pulled off with his readymades: looking at everyday things differently here, monkeying around with their shapes and spatial relationships there, and imbuing them with an absurdist beauty that makes us see them as more than the are by stripping them of all functionality, turning them into art. Seth's process and intent are completely different: he literally paints over every inch of his cardboard husks, removing their original appearance entirely and telling us a story that makes us believe in them as buildings only, the strangely touching creations of his artistic mind alone rather than Panter's collaboration with whatever interesting looking junk his day-to-day has thrown at him.
This inherent difference in approaches finds a perfect mirror in the two cities' print presentations. Seth's Dominion is presented as what it has become: a traveling art installation, complete with in-situ photos of the works in gallery settings, an incisive, deeply considered essay on the project's genesis and subsequent exhibition running along its consummately designed pages. It's very much like an Artforum article as imagined by a top comics creator, the beauty of the houses presented next to a scholarly explanation and history for them. The supplements included in the article speak to Seth's architectural process: pointed, deliberate, moved through with specific goals in mind.
Panter's city, on the other hand (not named, but designated "Panterville" in its own feature article) is prefaced with a brief summary by architectural writer Karrie Jacobs, who uses her paragraphs exhorting the gorgeous originality of the individual constructions rather than providing much rationale for the existence of the whole. It's enough that they exist: "Gary builds his models from whatever is lying around in his studio," states Jacobs by way of explanation, and in this case we really don't need much more than that. While Seth's buildings have much subcutaneous reason to exist, much procedural thought behind them for us to grapple with, Panter's simply are -- there just so people, their creator most of all, can look at them. Panter's abdication of the writing chores on the Panterville article speaks to his whole outlook on the project: it just happens because he's a creative guy and has this stuff around, while Seth regiments his own creativity into serving a larger purpose.
This difference in the articles that reveal our twin cities to the public is a mirror onto the two builders' differences as artists. Seth is fundamentally a storyteller, one who creates epic comics novels and has rigorously documented the "history" of Dominion in a thick sketchbook ledger that makes forays into virtuosic design and straight comics storytelling (from the excerpts included in the article, anyway) appears likely to become the crowning achievement of Seth's career. Massive amounts of time and thought have gone into this sketchbook, into Dominion: from a hobby, it's become a major work of art. This is actually not unprecedented with Seth, who turned his book-collecting hobby into a comic/documentary about his best finds in 40 Cartoon Books of Interest.
In the gallery setting, Seth's craftsmanlike, spatially-conscious arrays of his buildings turns them into something not too dissimilar from a comic: an accretion of art pieces that, taken together, tell a larger story. "A street plan," Seth informs us, "is still many years away," but the mere fact that he's conceptualized one is telling. In comic artists' hands, cities too become narratives.
Panter's city also reflects his comics work, which is full of recontextualized stories (Dante as punk rock opera, for starters) and seemingly unconnected panel-to-panel transitions. "Part of the fun is putting them in arrangements," Panter muses, "like making a compound." It's a spontaneous, freewheeling approach that sounds awfully similar to the way Panter puts together his comics pages. The single sketchbook drawing that accompanies the Panterville article is a chaotic mass of lines that only occasionally submits to representation, labels for "a enclosed kitchen" and "sand" scrawled over the art itself. There's no indication that the drawing was done with any connection to Panterville in mind -- it's just there, a parallel track in penwork instead of cardboard, to illustrate the way these concepts, the buildings, take up Panter's headspace.
But it illustrates more than that. There's an off-the-cuff, energetic quality to Panter's cardboard creations that's absent from Seth's more finely-done, elegant realist structures. It's a tradeoff that's present in the two artists' comics work as well: Panter, who has one hell of a sideline as one of the greatest living American painters, is a visual artist first, a recycler whose pieces are only connected by the thread of their architect's personal aesthetic and the fact that there are more than one of them. His city, like his comics, changes whenever he takes it out. Seth, on the other hand, is an illusionist, a story man who draws his own unique vision of reality so tightly over your eyes that you become enmeshed in his world to a degree that Panter's art brut never allows. Both cities have their limitations, both their enviable strong points, and perhaps it's inevitable that they'd be the same as the ones that crop up in their builders' other visions.
What strikes me most about these tiny cities is their status as perennially unfinished projects, hobbies that no amount of time or cardboard can ever turn "fully realized". Seth's building's are full of the imaginary lives he has created to run through them, and Panter's are hot with the immediacy of the mind that made them; but both, when all the pieces are proudly on display, are empty cities. Silent of sound, dark of interior light, no people walking their streets. Despite the illusion of life that charges them, that makes them so beautiful and interesting to us, these cardboard shells will never convince us like a comic can, will never carry bodies and minds of their own. The stories of these buildings will never hold in them the stories of lives. Panter and Seth both chase the illusion of life in their "real" work, while in their cities, set to play, they are content without it. As such neither Dominion nor Panterville, I believe, could ever be the sole focus of either creator. But as outgrowths of minds and hands that simply will not stop, that make discarded boxes and leftovers into beautiful imaginary places, they reaffirm my faith in and wonder at the glory of art. Just as much as any comic ever could.
Of course, you know the real reason I wrote this was to ask everybody whose houses they like better and why. So if you're still reading, tell me in the comments!