“Yes, the professor is a monkey”

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

In Microtones, our newsletter-first column.

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MICROTONES by Scott Gordon, editor-in-chief and publisher

The only Lynda Barry story I have to offer is really just a Lynda Barry sighting, but it still makes me really happy. A few years ago I was in the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery building on campus for a work meeting, when I saw Barry pushing around a big handcart with a sculpture on it. I’m pretty sure the sculpture was some kind of big monster-head thing, but that could be my memory filling things in. I can’t seem to find a photo of that specific art piece anywhere, but it was part of Barry’s “Stealth Sculpture Project.” 

As Barry, the renowned comics artist, defined her singular role in the academic world at UW-Madison, she placed an assortment of large sculptures around the building. Her stated goal was to surprise the variety of scholars who rush around the WID building doing #interdisciplinary things all day, shaking them out of their concentration and forcing them to reckon with their everyday surroundings in a new way. Actually physically carting these ungainly, wonderful pieces of art around the building, Barry was opening up the world of artists in a frank, welcoming way that I just wasn’t used to experiencing. Not only that, Barry’s world was knocking over into other people’s worlds, re-ordering our perceptions whether we asked for it or not. If there’s a nice or playful way to snap your fingers right in someone’s face, this would be the artistic equivalent.

Barry’s status as a newly minted MacArthur fellow has prompted a good few people to take stock of her contributions to the larger world of art and comics and to the Madison and/or campus communities. It also made me really wish I’d read more than a couple of her books and an assortment of comics I’ve encountered over the years in free newspapers and comics anthologies. There’s a big place in my heart for her 2014 book Syllabus: Notes From An Accidental Professor, an in-depth look at how Barry designed her classes at UW. In the format of an oversaturated Composition notebook, Syllabus takes a both instructive and deeply self-referential approach, incorporating students’ work into its welcoming flow and often depicting Barry herself with annotations like “Yes, the professor is a monkey (later she becomes an old skull).” The advice that stuck with me the most from Syllabus is this: When you’re creating or taking in a work of art, it’s crucial to try and ignore whether or not you like it. “Liking and not liking can make us blind to what’s there,” Barry writes. It underscores how hard it is to untangle our relationship with art from emotion and subjectivity and all sorts of unconscious reactions. Those things are all important, but pushing back against them, to the extent I can, has often helped me push through a piece of writing or get my head around a piece of music.

I also asked around over the past week for Lynda Barry reading recommendations. And Madison’s a good place to ask, because there are all sorts of folks around town now who’ve taken classes with her. The most common answer was 2000’s Cruddy, and there was a strong showing for books where Barry delves into the creative process, especially What It Is and Picture This (and of course Syllabus). Folks who know way more about Lynda Barry (and about making art) than I do also really love One! Hundred! Demons!, and reminded me that a new book, Making Comics, is due out in November.

Beyond the actual books, Barry’s Tumblr, The Near-Sighted Monkey, is an absolute blast and a frequently updated testament to Barry’s frankness about teaching and creating. Barry has also recruited the singer Kelly Hogan into her operations, which also makes me really happy. I’m totally blanking on who pointed me to Barry’s YouTube channel, but it’s full of stories and creative exercises. Thanks to those who chimed in with recommendations, including Timothy Yu, Lauren Lauter, Leah Misemer, Lisa Marine, Mark Riechers, Sigrid Peterson, and Kim Charles Kay.


New this week:

Artist Helen Hawley creates a multi-faceted exploration of rain in a show at the Watrous Gallery.

The Buck Naked On Parade Instagram account returned, then got suspended again.

We took a quick look at arts funding in Satya Rhodes-Conway’s first budget proposal as Mayor,

Elsewhere on the Madison internet: This week’s horrendous jet take. Instead, read Sabrina Madison, who breaks down how the F-35s will make racial disparities worse. Chocolate Shoppe Ice Cream is getting booted from its Atwood Avenue location, and folks are pissed. New highlights on Bandcamp include metal from Tragic Death and solo baritone sax from Anders Svanoe.

This week’s Madison calendar: Seadrift at UW Cinematheque. Assorted highlights around town during Fall Gallery NightAnd more.

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