In Woodring's illustrations, everything seems suspended in that single, wavering moment of awe, forever inching toward an explanation that explains only itself. Pervading his work is an aura of possibility that is more threat than blessing. Shapeshifters wander with menace through Byzantine villages and Salvador Dali moonscapes, driven by indecipherable motives. Bizarre creatures spring up at random to devour, digest, and assimilate each other. Colors explode, incandescing with psychotropic intensity.
Such constancy of change pitches a disconcerting challenge to perception. Comprehension is baffled. And yet, for all this shifting strangeness, there's a weird mechanical force governing the alternate realms Woodring depicts, a principle of cosmic puppetry. It's perhaps this vision of fate that makes Woodring's drawings so fascinating, and, at times, so disturbing. So disturbing, in fact, that a recent letter to The Stranger (where Woodring's illustrations are regularly featured) demanded that this "grotesque," "awful" comic be replaced by something, well, nicer.
When I ask Woodring, over coffee at his University District residence, why he thinks someone might object so powerfully to his art, he seems genuinely baffled. "Most people either like my work or they leave it alone," he says. "It's certainly not as overtly gross as a lot of stuff that you get to see. I've always thought my stuff was kind of subtle and hidden away, and unless you were awake to it, it just sort of sits there and looks like nothing.
"I mean," says Woodring, "I look at my stuff. Some of it's kind of scary. Some of it's kind of gross. Some of it's kind of creepy. But it's in the goddamn Stranger, which is a repository of creepy, scary stuff, and that's what people like about it, I thought. So I was surprised that they would single that out as the one unacceptable thing about The Stranger. I always thought it was neutral compared to a lot of the stuff. Even compared to a lot of the comics. I mean, Chris Ware's work is fantastic. It's fantastic! But it's unremittingly grim and depressing. And believe me, I'm not trying to compare myself favorably to Chris Ware. I'm just saying I felt weird being singled out by these people."
Woodring--who, at 48, has been working as a full-time illustrator since 1989--says that what he's ultimately trying to capture in his work is "that sense you have as a kid, [that] everything is alien to you." He himself rarely ascertains the meaning of a particular piece until it's completed. "I can tell whether or not it works before I can tell why it works," he says.
"I like things that can't be understood right away," he adds, "can't be deciphered right away, can't be wrapped up and categorized right away." Certainly, whether grotesque, awful, or just plain odd, Woodring's drawings do seem to thrive inside the hermetic certainty of their execution. Looking at his prints, one submits to a context in which macabre means appear to justify their own macabre ends. Illogic, relentlessly applied, threatens to become logical.
But Woodring also says there is no particular metaphysical doctrine or belief informing his work. "I'm attracted to certain religious figures and I like to read and think about that stuff," he says. "But I'm not what you would call a serious devotee or a serious philosophical or religious thinker. I do feel that there's something more real underlying this." Such underlying mystery-as-reality is what he's often trying to show in his art.
In the hope of arriving at some fleeting comprehension of a small sliver of Woodring's mysterious universe, I ask him to tell me what's going on in a single one of his drawings: Ain't My Lookout (reproduced here), which was used as cover art for a 1996 album by the Grifters. This would be a daunting or just plain annoying task for any artist, and I say as much. Woodring, however, is all for it. He explains the history of the print--how it was made, how it can't be exposed to light for very long. Then he launches in.
"If you look at that little scene without that thing in the middle, it's just sort of a tin toy that shows a farmer with a jug of whiskey and a bloody axe. He's running in circles around his farm, drunk and lookin' for a cow to kill. And then there's that 'death cow,' as I like to think of it, and it's coming the same way, and the toy's designed so that when they approach each other, they pass each other. You see in the front that the track divides into two, so the farmer goes in and the cow takes the outside route. So you wind it up and turn it on, and they just keep going in circles, passing each other. It's like this exercise in barnyard futility. Things never--they never meet.
"And then in the middle, it's almost like there's a rip in the fabric of their reality. That background thing is flat, like a scrim, and then the thing in the center is a pressed-tin, three-dimensional shape that rotates. The idea there is that the spots in the purple part of the tear are like the underlying consciousness of everything kind of leaking through this rip in the fabric of reality. And that thing in the middle is the particular cosmic, karmic dynamo--whatever you want to call it--that is really animating this whole thing. I wanted to show sort of the metaphysical guts of a really mundane barnyard scene and to pass the whole stupid metaphysical exercise off as a children's toy.
"And also," Woodring adds, "I thought that those cannons could kind of fire warnings off, so there'd be little sparks and maybe clouds of smoke coming out of those. Just sort of like kettle drums warning you that there's some heavy thing going on."
Jim Woodring's art can be seen as part of the Fantagraphics show at Roq La Rue gallery, 2224 Second Ave, through Feb 2.