“Stream of consciousness is a device I like to employ often. It serves to reveal the sub-conscious stream which can be useful on the path to self-knowledge.”
“It has been sheer torture. Every line. But here it is.”
Life Out of Sequence by Bruce Zeines definitely asks more questions than it answers. Is it a delirious record of a grasping at awareness of the interconnected mess of reality? An embodiment and invitation to patience? Or just a stubborn refusal to give into indecision, or to let the lack of a story stop him from storytelling? Borrowing stylistic modes from all through art history and geography, this is powerful imagery of universalism and psychedelia. But with all its influences, this is also work that is very now. You could prescribe this book on the same premise that psychotropic drugs are prescribed. Open your mind, empty it, fill it with surreal delirium, in the hope that when the trip is over, it’s a little clearer than before.
A seasoned New York designer and art director lately turned community garden manager; Zeines has been making these densely packed, semi-abstract, semi-automatic drawings for a long time. They are beautiful, intriguing, disturbing, masterfully balanced and very male.
This is his third foray into publishing them, but I think the first to grapple specifically with the comic format. It’s a tour-de-force of exciting panel transitions, blending geometric boxes with his curvilinear crowd scene style in ever inventive and effective ways. Whether you could call Life Out of Sequence itself a comic is debatable, and reminds me of similar questions over work by artists like Gareth A Hopkins or Robin William Scott, although visually it is more reminiscent of Robert Crumb or Linda Barry, via Picasso, medieval hellscapes and Pre-Columbian Mesoamerican carvings.
While nominally an exploration of the sequential form, Zeines is clear from the beginning that the sequence itself is somewhat incidental, each page standing on its own while existing as part of the whole. Starting with eight single page text and image musings from 2020, then a wordless, page filling series of spreads of intertwined figures and other elements from 2020 and 2021, then another series of one-off pieces, these a little older from 2014-17, then back to more recent pages. The format is suited to the existential angst of the ever present moment, and the Covid brain fug of living with the echoes of pasts and futures we struggle to imagine. Each piece appears to emerge from a fever dream, perhaps not planned but still of a piece despite itself. It’s more like he has set out again and again to write the same poem from scratch, and each time let the inspiration of the moment carry him in different directions. I don’t think this book is a comic, but each individual page is a comic, as well as a work of art.
I’m a big fan of this approach to creativity, though it’s a territory that’s so often shared with quite a lot of over-thinking. Zeines’ words explore the same question “What is Sequential Art?” from many angles, endlessly riding the rollercoaster of arrogance and self-loathing which is the indulgence so often at the root of good art. While the ideas may be over-thought or wrought, the art never is. In the end the words aren’t really where the exploration is taking place, and are more window dressing to the broiling images, which dance perfectly across the pages in a perfect harmony of dark and light.
Stuck as we are in the never ending war between the high and low brow, some creatives pick a side, some ignore the battle and forge their own path. Those like Zeines toil in the trenches, nominally on the side chosen for them by birth, education and luck, but ever questioning the validity of the struggle. What I mean to say is, as we know, comics as a medium is capable of the most subtle and beautiful meaning-making. The territory of comics rightly encompasses the deep and meaningful as well as the fun and frivolous, but comes with arguably more baggage of association than other artforms, leading to the need to endlessly justify its use outside of the traditional narrative form. I think perhaps this is the point of angst that Bruce is stuck in, wanting to make comics, but not to tell stories, and wanting to make meaningful art, but not to sacrifice his allegiance to popular culture. It may be too much like picking the other side, but I’d love to see Zeines turn his considerable talent to making sequential art that actually has a sequence. I obviously can’t claim that this would be a more valid use of his time, and certainly it would be unlikely to be any more lucrative.
Just as dwelling on one’s own neurosis does not tend to solve it, endlessly asking one’s art whether it is art does not decide the matter, but Zeines says “like a bad habit, I just keep doing it. There is a hope that somehow it will all make sense.” It is a fairly meaningless question to explore this way, but the exploration itself has borne beautiful fruit, so I’m glad life has afforded this man the space to over-think. Or maybe I’m the one over-thinking, and this is just a book of cool explorations of time and page. It’s truly inspiring.
Bruce Zeines • Self-published, $15.00
Review by Jenny Robins