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Renee French Makes My Day, Every Day, Once a Day

Recently I’ve been culling the blogs I look at regularly, and adding some new ones. Refining my daily internet reading to create intellectual and creative clarity. The thing I find myself anticipating most each day is a new drawing from Renee French. If you’ve never seen her work, French is THE living master of graphite use. It’s all pencil, and her lonely, gray images are singular in their effect. Even when I read French’s comics, I find myself looking at each page (or panel) independently, more the way I would read an art book or browse a gallery. This is no slight to French’s sense of cartooning (she knows cartooning – few can express such mystery and complication with so few lines – her figures blank expression are particularly powerful), but each of her images read to me as a whole. As such, seeing one a day just makes sense.

Go to her blog, then lock it into your RSS reader, or bookmarks, or whatever, and get a daily dose. It works.

14 thoughts on “Renee French Makes My Day, Every Day, Once a Day

      1. I agree that it’s exciting…on one hand…but I also find it somewhat dubious. It seems to me that his work has been fetishized to the point of…to the point of…to the point of I don’t know what.

        [And Gorey wasn’t Twee—was he?—maybe he was?—during his lifetime. It’s more that he’s been claimed as Twee as an anticipatory plagiarist (as the Oulipians put it).]

        Maybe it’s also the feeling that Gorey is being more imitated than anything else. That rather than influences, he’s had imitators. Perhaps. I do know that a lot of Twee illustration that I see looks pretty much the same to me. Although I’m not a trained illustrator myself, so it would be easy for me to not see subtle innovations.

        And why does it have to be about innovation, anyway?

        …I can’t articulate what it is that bothers me so much about Twee as a dominant aesthetic. Perhaps it’s simply that fact that it’s so dominant. I think Twee works better when it’s underground, and subversive. As an oppositional aesthetic.

        On the one hand I like Twee very much, or feel that I should, because in many ways it’s a very Romantic aesthetic. And I like Romanticism very much.

        And maybe that’s what I dislike about Twee: that its hipper (and hipster) advocates approach that Romanticism /ironically/. Whereas I approach is more earnestly. (?)

        But I have a hard time clarifying my thoughts on it. (This was some of the motivation behind my Notes on Twee posts, which is a series I’ll be returning to. I’ll be writing about Gorey and his imitators there.)

        1. I like your thoughts on this, Adam.

          It could be that the daintiness associated with Twee is only superficially evident in Gorey’s work. Because, while his figures tend to be drawn as tall and thin and frail, they are possessed of a gravitas that Twee lacks.

          Renee French is working in a similar way. There is a solemnity in her work that is at once part of her technique and beyond her technique (it is in there, but it isn’t clear exactly how). And while she might be inspired by Gorey, she isn’t derivative of Gorey, because to be derivative is to assume the likeness of an established artist without having any original substance.

          We can definitely say that French has substance. Her pictures might look sweet, but only at first. What she is actually concerned with is the helplessness that characterizes the human condition. Gorey might also have been concerned with this, but less directly. His concerns were more Freudian, more fearful.

          I hadn’t heard much about Twee until your recent post. But, from the sound of it, Twee is like other trends that take their cue from artists; it has little or no substance. It is more like posture. In this way, these trends can undermine, by association, the work of the artists they imitate, but only if we fail to differentiate between the artists and the imitators.

            1. Like all things, Twee can be rebellious, or it can be complacent. It can be innovative and experimental, or an affected, knee-jerk, dominant style.

              In the 1980s, it was more rebellious, I think. You could get beat up for being it. It was cool only in certain underground circles.

              Today, Twee is something more dominant, and thereby more complacent. More what everyone is doing. You can sell your work at crafts fairs and boutiques.

              This isn’t necessarily a bad state of affairs. I’m happy that DIY has become more widespread, for instance.

              That Abebe essay sheds a lot of light on the phenomenon, I think.

              Inasmuch as Twee exists as a coherent function.

          1. Hi Edward,

            I didn’t mean to pick on French or anything. Or even Twee, which can have great substance, I think. It did in the 1980s, when it was more an underground culture that stood in opposition to other things. See Nitsuh Abebe’s superb essay on the subject, “Twee as Fuck”:


            (Easily one of the three best things Pitchfork has ever published. And one of the only worthwhile things, sadly.)

            Gorey is Twee in that today’s Tweesters have claimed him as one of theirs. But of course he wasn’t Twee at all, not when he was working. He was an odd blend of Romanticism and Modernism, and ultimately very much his own thing.

            Twee is just one way of approaching his work. And I’d argue it’s a superficial way. Meaning, by and large, the Twee of today have selected only superficial things from Gorey’s work. Which is why post-Gorey illustration (the work done in that line) has been superficial.

            By and large. I realize I’m speaking broadly.

            Since writing that fairly incoherent comment (is this one any better?), I’ve been bouncing some ideas back and forth with a friend who knows a great deal about Gorey. He and I are going to co-write something more lucid (we hope) about Gorey and his descendants. To be posted anon…


            1. Thanks for linking to that essay, Adam.

              I think the following claim Abebe makes about fans of Twee bears repeating, in that it gets at the apparent complexity of Twee: “They’re some of the only people in the world who remember that Kurt Cobain used to kind of be one of them.”

              Something about this statement recalls for me the opening scenes of Van Sant’s ‘Last Days,’ where Cobain is shown wandering in the woods near a river near the house in Seattle. There is something un-punk about Cobain in this movie, something almost nymph-like that (despite his depression) is nearer the lighthearted, playful sensibility that belongs to Twee than to the anger of punk or grunge.

              1. Those opening scenes are indeed even Christ-like (though with a twist):


                “As a contrast, parallelism if you like, to this estrangement, Blake wanders off, into the nature surrounding the house, spending time alone, in search of something to allow the world to make sense to him. Not to suck the marrow out of life, but in search of something of value. Here van Sant suggests religious motives, like being baptised at a waterfall, but perverts them, by later having Blake urinating in the same water that moments ago baptised him. In “Last Days”, faith doesn’t exist. Not only have the Mormon’s replaced wine with water as the blood of Christ, but their proclamation of faith is memorized. Rather than absolution, Blake experiences Weltschmertz, ending in Solipsism ultimately suicide. The mise-en-scene is here especially interesting in context to the possible religious motiv, as the framing of the door suggests a cross, from which Blake has fallen.

                “A definitive masterpiece of cinema, “Last Days” is a film that demands attention and further study, not only its mise-en-scene, to the possible significance of van Sant’s calling his protagonist Blake (as in William Blake?), but also to it being the last of van Sant’s Death-Trilogy, especially its religions allusions (wandering of into the desert in “Gerry”, the slaughter of the innocents in “Elephant”, and self sacrifice in “Last Days”), and its existential context and relations to Camus, who said, “Our life must have meaning for us to value it. If we accept that life has no meaning and therefore no value, should we kill ourselves?”” [Henrik Sylow; the whole review is rather insightful]

                1. Sylow’s quoting of William Blake – “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” – describes the situation of the individual who, unable to find meaning in a moderate existence, engages in pursuits (physical, sensual, artistic, intellectual) until he arrives at a ‘place’ where he must find meaning in moderation or cease to exist. This is as true of the junkie or the miser or the workaholic, I think, as it is of the artist, and it’s important for how it puts things in perspective.

                  The creation of art is a pursuit like any other. It is no different than jumping rope or twiddling our thumbs except that its quality of ‘transport’ has greater potential to help us find meaning. My intent is not to diminish it, but rather to emphasize the fact that, regardless of what we are doing, we are always and primarily existing. It’s for this reason that Aldous Huxley didn’t endorse the use of mescaline as an end in itself. He believed that, like the experience of viewing or creating art, the experience of a psychedelic drug could affect how we understand what it means to be human, to exist. But he also understood the significance of the fact that the experience was temporary, that it was not our natural condition. And he knew that until one finds a way of applying the meaning found in such an experience to the monotony of existence, one is unhappy.

        2. I have this great book of Gorey interviews that I’ve been meaning to read the whole of. Guess I have to now, Adam!

          And, Adam, how much do you think living in Chicago (home of Ware, Darger, Ira Glass, etc.) affects your feelings of Twee dominance? (I mean the question only half jokingly.)

          1. I think that it’s had a definite effect. Walking into Quimby’s, for instance, I feel practically overwhelmed with Tweeness. (Wicker Park in general is Twee Central.) There’s a real uniform aesthetic to a lot of underground art these days. (I should add that despite this and other criticisms, I really love Quimby’s—and its sister store Chicago Comics. I’m just a critical guy, even when I love something. Support Quimby’s!)

            And there’s probably always been a uniformity to underground work, always and forever, even as that aesthetic has shifted. I don’t excuse myself from this; hell, I’ve written Nintendo fiction. I’m as guilty of hipster cuteness as anyone else.

            (Why doesn’t it bother me that punk zines from the 80s all look the same? At the time, it might have; I don’t know. I’m always complaining.)

            Another event that made me more sensitive to the dominance of the Twee aesthetic was living overseas for a couple of years. When I returned to the US in 2005, it seemed to me as though Twee was suddenly everywhere. For instance, look at the profusion of “school play” music videos that happened c. 2005:


            Perhaps because of the Iraq War (which was one of my prime concerns at the time), suddenly Twee didn’t seem all that effective an aesthetic. I suddenly felt very conflicted about the “cute” literary fanfiction I’d previously been writing. (My first story collection, “Amazing Adult Fantasy,” was largely motivated by this internal conflict.)

            And here’s a special call-out for The Decemberists (easy targets, I know, but): Way to go, guys, indulging in your Civil War uniform fetish back in the early 2000s, while our country was miring down in Afghanistan, and preparing to do the same in Iraq. Way to be in lockstep with the Military-Industrial Complex! …but your own cute little indy way. (Because older military wear can be objectified.)

            Speaking of The Decemberists, they’re the poster child for everything that drives me insane about the frivolity of Twee. They’ve stripped the aesthetic of anything that’s revolutionary, and turned it into total cosplay. And they really give you the whole range: old-timey marching band, model UN, bad Gorey rip-offs, school sports uniforms…


            Well, more about all of this anon.

            Meanwhile, I’m still trying to articulate what bugs me so much these days about Twee, but I think it’s how much it embraces the dominant ideologies of the day: preciousness, slickness, infantile cuteness, uniformity (both literal uniforms and metaphorical ones). And so on. I prefer the aesthetic when it’s out of step with the times. So give me Beat Happening or the Television Personalities, or Lily Tomlin’s performance art, or Pee-Wee Herman.

            Hell, even the Crash Test Dummies kicked harder against the pricks, in the early 90s, than a lot of Twee artists do these days. Even at the height of their (brief) fame, they were still pretty weird looking. Today, they’d fit right in, singing about Superman and making school play music videos. (Hard to believe then and now that the video for “MMM MMM MMM MMM” was in fact avant-garde, and a sign of where the culture would spend the next 15 years going.)

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