The Anxious “I”: Walter Scott’s Autofictional Universe

Walter Scott, "Hewn,When?" (2020) from "The Scrawled Heel of the Real," 2020. Ashley Berlin. Photo: Andrea Rossetti.

Walter Scott faces a dilemma that has confronted many multi-disciplinary artists, especially those who work in both contemporary art and more mass-cultural fields: being recognized and celebrated primarily for one thing. His Wendy comics – which chronicle the misadventures of their titular art-school party girl as she binges her way through punk shows, exhibitions, and artists’ residencies from Montreal to Vancouver, LA to Berlin, making friends, enemies, and a reputation along the way – constitute one of the most beloved and iconic projects to emerge from the Canadian art scene over the last decade, and for good reason. Scott has many talents as a comic artist: his efficiently minimal line, his elastic facial expressions, his expressively squirmy lettering, and his gift for distilling the signifying details of outfits and environments. More importantly, Scott is one of the very few comic artists to fluently speak the language and understand the politics and culture of contemporary art. He gets art right because, in addition to making comics, he is active in the artworld; and yet, despite his growing visibility in museums and galleries, the relationship between his comics and his artwork has received scant critical attention.

The entire drama of Wendy – from Scott’s first zines to his two graphic novels with Koyama Press, Wendy (2014) and Wendy’s Revenge (2016), and recent Wendy: Master of Art (2020), from Drawn & Quarterly – is the process of becoming an artist. It is an artist’s bildungsroman, with punchlines. Wendy is Scott’s alter-ego and avatar, a fictionalized (white, straight, female) version of his own (Indigenous, gay, male) experience. (The bio page of the most recent book features Wendy with Scott’s moustache, sitting in front of a laptop screen that reads “Is Wendy you?”). In the same period that he has been writing these comics, Scott has also been producing and showing drawing, sculpture, performances, public art, and videos, with increasing success. He began exhibiting in alternative art spaces several years before conceiving Wendy (the first entry on his CV is from 2008), and had his first museum solo show at Remai Modern (Saskatoon) in 2018. This year alone, he has had solo exhibitions at a university gallery (Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston), commercial gallery (Cooper Cole, Toronto), artist-run center (Centre Clark, Montreal), and alternative art space (Ashley Berlin). He is also due to be included in a forthcoming group show at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal (postponed due to the city’s current pandemic restrictions).

 

Walter Scott, “Awl in the Heel of the Real,” 2020. Photo: Andrea Rossetti. Courtesy Ashley Berlin. 

Wendy’s graduation from art school in Wendy: Master of Art reflects on Scott’s own MFA experience (he graduated in 2018) and parallels his maturation as an artist since then, but Wendy is still by far his most recognizable output. Last year’s CBC In the Making episode on his work never even acknowledges that Scott has an art practice outside of comics. Viewers of his gallery output may understandably wonder, then, whether Scott’s non-comics work is an extension of the Wendy-verse or a different, parallel universe. Is it a kind of supplement to Wendy, dependent on Scott’s pre-existing reputation and visual language, a paratext, or does it stand on its own? Does it need to?

As it happens, the same questions that saturate Walter Scott’s comics – how do you know when it’s really art, or when you’re really an artist? And is art really worth the fuss, anyway? – are just as present in his other work, all of which offers varying articulations of drawing-plus-writing, and writing as autobiography, using one’s own experience as material while self-reflexively examining that same process. Scott’s sculpture can also be seen as a kind of drawing or writing in three dimensions, making lines and language physical as materials become characters with their own bodies.

In part, what makes Wendy’s journey towards self-discovery and expression so familiar and cathartic for anyone involved in the artworld is its inclusion of the messy social life that surrounds the process: how Wendy manages to create something despite life (and her own self-sabotaging) getting in the way, but also how the discourse and professional requirements of art prevent so much of real life from getting in to what ends up being the art. These themes are even more present and trenchant when Scott is making drawings, sculptures, videos, and performances for an art context. Rather than a cartoonist who makes work on the side, we should see Scott as a multi-disciplinary artist whose whole body of work, in whatever medium, adds up to a coherent project of comic autofiction.

This autobiographical quality can also prompt the desire to seek the “real” Walter Scott in his gallery work: the individual artist lurking behind the various characters through which he seems to have splintered and distributed himself (this includes Wendy herself, but also Screamo, her hard-partying gay friend, and down-to-earth ‘rez girl’ Winona). One might expect Scott’s drawing or sculpture to be more personal, more revealing, a liberation from the constraints of narrative comics. But he not only frustrates these expectations; he makes them the subject of the work.

In a drawing series from 2017, Scott adopted a forlorn dog character (based on Snoopy’s brother Spike, from Peanuts) as another alter-ego, cast as a subcultural Romantic and stereotypical artist, sporting ripped jeans and brandishing musical instruments, crooning and brooding over drooping roses and lounging in a Surrealist-Expressionist landscape of melting clocks and threatening furniture. His sculptures, while more elusive, have also tended towards anthropomorphism, focusing on disembodied details that also stand out in his comics (clothing, hair, wiggly limbs). Both media allow Scott to explore figuration, color, and space in ways that delimit him in the Wendy format. However, these earlier works sometimes read like a response to the injunction that art be more abstract and abstruse than popular cultural forms. In other words, Scott seemed to be doing what was expected of him, but subversively, parodying and debasing the idea of “artiness” itself.

It is difficult to read Scott’s work without acknowledging the unsettled status of comics vis-à-vis contemporary art. Art and comics are still expected to manifest different qualities and address different audiences, despite the cultural respectability now afforded graphic novels, including recent, unprecedented nods from the juries of the Booker and Giller prizes – both for books from Drawn & Quarterly, who published Scott’s latest, Wendy: Master of Art (and who also, full disclosure, own and operate the bookstore where I am employed). The wonderfully vivid, nervous anxiety that permeates Wendy – emblematized by the signature “scream” face that overtakes Scott’s characters when they’re gripped by mortification, existential emptiness, or just really bad hangovers – isn’t just millennial angst, it’s an expression of the anxiety (anguish, even) of claiming the status of “art” or “artist” for oneself.

Walter Scott, “Lying in Fiction,” 2020. Courtesy Centre Clark. Photo: Paul Litherland.

Most notable examples of cartoonists narrating contemporary art – Daniel Clowes’s Art School Confidential (1991) and Matthew Thurber’s Art Comic (2018) come immediately to mind – take the skeptical position of an outsider who resents art’s exclusivity and pretension. They tend to stake their claim on comics as a more authentic and populist alternative. The satire, however effective, usually comes colored with a certain bitterness and misrecognition. The authors may have gone to art school but – perhaps because that very experience soured them on the art milieu – they became cartoonists instead.

The question that vexes Wendy throughout the first two books is whether she’s really an artist at all or just a scene girl, hanging out. A running joke – brought to a hilarious climax at Wendy’s MFA graduating exhibition in the latest book – is that we rarely ever see what her art actually looks like. Nevertheless, on the first page of the prologue to the original Wendy, she posts a residency application with the affirmation: “My artwork deserves LEGITIMACY. It has to be given AGENCY.” When the book was first published, it was easy to read this as a send-up of artists’ inflated sense of importance (and how they internalize institutional language) but time has shown that both Wendy and Walter were dead serious. The lesson might be that you have to embrace the inherent absurdity of ambition in order to realize it.

Walter Scott, “Lying in Fiction,” 2020 (detail). Courtesy Centre Clark. Photo: Paul Litherland.

In his most recent works, Scott has started drawing a figure that is quite recognizably based on himself (albeit with lurid blue skin and bulging eyes, like a fleshier version of Wendy’s own “scream face”) while incorporating a greater density of text and reference into both his sculpture and drawing. It feels like a culmination and crystallizing of elements he has worked with up until now, such that his earlier output actually makes more sense in retrospect: the critique of expectations is clearer, and the works are more fully-realized, formally.

In his recent exhibition at Centre Clark, Happy Medium, as well as in The Scrawled Heel of the Real at Ashley Berlin (both shows fall 2020), Scott showed a series of drawings of his newest alter-ego, tortured and blue-faced, along with sculptures (composed of combinations of found and crafted objects) that evoke evacuated shells of an absent artists’ body. The empty clothing and cartoonish, exaggerated hands and feet recall gloved Disney hands and clompy Robert Crumb boots in an abject, fetishistic register.

Altogether, the works in these two recent exhibitions convey the idea of “the artist” as being an overdetermined fantasy that the actual artist is nevertheless condemned to live up to, laboring painfully to deliver some piece of the “real” that they are supposedly in possession of. One sculpture at Clark, Keep Out (Diaristic Art) (all works 2020) features two back-to-back, grey-painted chairs with a split-open black jacket hung over them. White papier-mâché hands protrude from the sleeves gripping fistfuls of paintbrushes and pencils, while the inner lining of the jacket reveals childhood bedsheets (Scott confirmed that they’re the same sheets he once owned, a recent eBay find) printed with dinosaurs and the words “DANGER,” “KEEP OUT.” It’s a pathos-laden kind of comedy, literalizing the caricature of an artist with childhood dreams – or trauma! – inside.

Walter Scott, “Keep Out (Diaristic Art),” 2020. Courtesy Centre Clark. Photo: Paul Litherland.

Another sculpture in the same show, Lying in Fiction, is a pair of black pants lying on a plinth, cheekily painted grey on the top and the “spine,” so that it appears as both a book and a bed. White feet clad in black slides melt down the edge of the platform like cartoon tongues. Several holes are cut out of the pants, exposing pages from Scott’s notebooks, scrawled with texts and drawings that feel like notes from an MFA seminar, clotted with opaque theoretical language (“explosive plasticity,” “extrapolation renders desire inert”), but also dotted with illuminating bits of process. The sculpture offers a figure for the invasiveness of art-making, in which audiences and artists probe the body for material, answers, and explanations, which remain mostly moot.

The drawings go even further in posing textual fragments as a rejoinder to public expectations. In some of these, Scott’s blue-faced man performs absurd contortions around cut-out and collaged photos of sculptures he previously exhibited at Remai Modern while text bubbles shout demands and offer justifications.

The way Scott presents identity or essence as something both withheld and phantasmic feels like a response to the constant pressure placed on artists to reify and perform their identities, something he undoubtedly feels keenly as a gay man from Kahnawake Mohawk Territory. This goes a long way to explaining why he also chose the more culturally normative trope of a straight white girl as a vehicle for his comics: it’s a good disguise. His most thorough exploration of this problem is in Xinona, an animated online narrative he produced in 2018 for the National Film Board’s Legacies 150 series. In it, the Government, aka Weird Heads, commission Xinona (a sci-fi version of Wendy’s Indigenous pal) to “produce a work in proximity to [her] ethnocultural identity” as an inhabitant of Kombucha Planet. In an absolutely deadly send-up of what was probably Scott’s brief for the project itself, Xinona is asked for “a work with heart, perhaps a work from the breathless ‘I’, and most importantly, a work palatable to a mainstream audience.” Xinona, after a revealing consultation with the Kombucha Mother, pilots a suicide mission against the Weird Heads and is reborn in another dimension. It’s really good. The point is: Scott’s not going to give you the breathless, ethnocultural ‘I’ both because it doesn’t exist and because it serves the wrong myths. He creates his own mythology instead, and he has the talent and versatility to realize that mythology in many different formats and contexts.

Walter Scott, “Tangled,” 2020. Courtesy Centre Clark. Photo: Paul Litherland.

What is the future of Scott’s creation, though? After art school, does Wendy recede or move on? It would be easy to imagine that her emergence as an artist marks Scott’s simultaneous transition into a full-time artist, leaving Wendy behind. His recent video, The Pathos of Mandy (2019) – created during his 2019 residency at the International Studio & Curatorial Program in New York and slated to appear soon at the MAC in Montreal – sees Scott trying out a new character: an “unlikeable” version of himself, Mandy, that’s been stripped of the rights to use his most famous character and has to come up with something else. Mixing live action with animation, it imagines the artist as a totally toxic burnout who, after an epiphany, devotes himself to making abstract quilts for the rest of his life.

In actuality, Scott has no plans to abandon Wendy (as he confirmed at his Montreal artist talk), and the problem that Mandy poses is the same one that threads through so much of what Walter does: how can anyone make themselves known and understood to anyone else when so many expectations and preconceptions intervene? What does it mean to express yourself, and what is a self, anyway? Our success can become just another obstacle that prevents us from being really seen. Our attempts at self-fashioning and creativity prove ultimately comic, because life is absurd.

Scott’s art of failure, anxiety, shame, and embarrassment is endlessly relatable, and relatability is unfortunately associated with narcissism and superficiality – especially in memoir, personal essays, and autofiction, which are genres about making life into art. And yet these are exactly the qualities that Scott mercilessly skewers in his characters (and, by extension, himself). In part, what makes his satire so satisfying is how fully he implicates himself in it. The transit between art and life is always messy, but all the facets of Scott’s work draw vitality (and comedy) from the circuit of their interconnection: life into art, art into comics, comics into art, art into life.

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