A Curious Conversation: J.F. Lynch interviews Neil Dvorak
All aesthetes share a common trait: the constant search for creative work that transcends its medium. A few months ago at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art’s annual Art Festival, I saw a glint of that sought after transcendence. Amid the carelessly drawn and digitally colored indie books, beside portfolios teeming with unlicensed drawings of Marvel characters, and across from big-name publishers that seemed to simultaneously legitimize and trivialize the purpose of the event, was a table covered in books so thin, I initially mistook them for tear sheets.
There were half a dozen or so, all printed on the same timeless cream-colored paper. The images were rendered in a meticulous line work that ran the gamut of linear elaboration, from a single basic contour floating on an expanse of blank page to intricate city maps that left barely a millimeter inkless, expressing a familiarity with both minimalism and decadence. They were delicate and possessed a subtlety few comics ever seem to. I purchased one and walked away.
The book I bought was So Have You, part of a series titled, Easy Pieces. From the first page, which serves double-duty as the cover, I suspected that the artist, Neil Dvorak, was the real thing.
The theme of the six-page story is succinctly stated in its first sentence: “I have been enormous.” Put simply, it is a series of poetic observations on what it would be like to be gigantic. The ideas were so cleanly conveyed that they felt like my own. I ran back, bought the lot, and introduced myself to Neil Dvorak.
After reading everything he had and exploring the depths of his website, I contacted him and arranged an interview.
From outside his Brooklyn studio, hidden as it is above a functioning woodshop in an industrial neighborhood, one could never imagine the work Dvorak produces within. To gain entry, I had to find a buzzer by feeling around a darkened hole that had been cut out of a chain-link fence and a perennial shrubbery. (Yes, I’m serious.) The studio itself is a modern renovation of what I suspect was once a living space built exclusively for the most basic necessities, its new, sleek woodwork framing a still functional wood-burning stove.
We sat across from one another on high stools, the kind used at drafting tables. Dvorak perched beside a drool-inspiring Wacom tablet.
J.F. Lynch: I’m trying to think of a way to describe your comic, Easy Pieces. Would it be safe to say that each issue is a kind of sequential vignette that uses conceptual surrealism as a vehicle for metaphor?
Neil Dvorak: In short, I don’t know. You call them “sequential vignettes.” I have referred to them as vignettes often, but as far as sequential, I’m not sure. The vignettes are serving a much larger whole, but I’m not sure of the shape and size of that whole. It could very well be that it is not a linear shape, but that the vignettes I’m creating now will fall, chronologically, later in the story, or a vignette could be an island universe, uncoupled from the larger whole. That’s part of the excitement for me, how the vignettes might refer to one another.
I like “metaphor.” I like the idea that these comics are poems or metaphors. Phrases like “conceptual surrealism,” while sometimes incredibly useful and effective, almost always feel to me like they have collapsed the piece (or pieces) of art into something understood, categorized, seen.
JFL: Fair enough. Would you say that phrases like “conceptual” and “surreal” collapse the work because of their eponymous art movements? Like saying a contemporary work is “surreal” anachronistically places it in a camp with Breton’s poetry or deChirico’s mannequin paintings? I see the word “surreal” as a useful tool for referring to something that wants to create a sense of realism but the poetry of the thing has been given enough power that it unhinges that reality when necessary.
ND: You’re getting at the characteristics inherent in those movements, which is fascinating, rather than “shelving” a piece of art into its corresponding “section.” You have enlightened me, sir. I thank you.
JFL: Ha. I guess that was an indirect way to reveal that we agree on what the work is or what it does—to an extent—but the nomenclature might make for an interesting discussion. In Easy Pieces, you have a recurring character, or group of characters, called The Jupiter Organization. Could you tell me a bit about them?
ND: Well, the Jupiter Org describes itself as follows [clears throat]: “A group of like-minded individuals organized around a myriad multitude of instruments that are infinitely accurate. We are proud planetary parents, beaming bastions of the ‘heavens,’ collectors of all there is.”
All Jupiter Org claims are authenticated at the ELENCHUS headquarters, a division of the Jupiter Org.
I like to read that statement aloud really fast and in my best Dan Aykroyd voice.
JFL: [Long pause, followed by an awkward laugh.] It’s interesting to do an impression of someone who is so—in my estimation—outstandingly average. But I guess I’ve seen several Dana Carvey impressions as well, though, it now it occurs to me that I might have to justify that statement if I were ever to cross paths with either Dan Aykroyd or Dana Carvey.
ND: Aykroyd, outstandingly average? I disagree! But that’s for another time.
JFL: You outline one of the products of the Jupiter Organization’s “infinitely accurate instruments” in Treatment #304, wherein a client (patient?) submits a form that indicates their various mental ailments. Using this information, the Jupiter Org locks those ailments in space, allowing the client to walk away emancipated. While the fine print warns the client not to return to that same position, doesn’t that create a risk that others might walk into the exact same position in space and contract those ailments?
ND: Great question. I like the idea that the abandoned woe is unique to the person who abandoned it. It’s a floating key (read: poison) that can penetrate only your specific lock (read: head). Walking through another’s woe may very well make you feel uneasy. Likely it will be a somewhat undefined unease or anxiety. It may feel like when someone you love says, “I have bad news.” You’ll wait for an anxiety. It will never come because it’s someone else’s. Perhaps this has happened to you. But, as a consultant, I can only speculate. The Jupiter Org is the entity to query.
JFL: Wow, that’s pretty intense. But it sounds oddly likely, doesn’t it? Although I can’t say that I have had that experience exactly as you have described it—being a hypothetical and all—it does seem to indirectly suggest signs of depression, no? Like a person walking down the street and suddenly being overwhelmed with an unprecedented sense that all was not right in the world. If I didn’t fear legal action, it might be interesting to conduct a study that compares Jupiter’s client records with incidents of manic depression by locality. It’s always possible that there are people that, instead of being depressed, actually just have an innate dowsing rod for unfinished mental business?
ND: Who can say for sure what the origin of unexpected woe is? I know this: I often feel good; my general mental state is happy, interested and wondrous. If I feel a spike of joy, I never question the origin. I know where it comes from. But woe, for some reason, can creep up on you and the origin is often not known. A lot of my comic is about trying to make sense of the world, and that my ideas and your ideas and our ideas are all equally valuable takes on just what is going on.
JFL: Is it safe to assume we’ll be seeing more helpful treatments from the Jupiter Organization in the near future? I presume as a representative, the information you are privy to must already be at a certain level of development. Any hints that can be revealed?
ND: I hope so. I will say that we will see much more of the Jupiter Org in general as the vignettes unfold. I see it as a thread running through the work, in some ways binding it. There are many branches of the Jupiter Org, aside from the treatment center. The thoughts running around in my head now involve a form of nighttime abduction in order to collect data, and a meeting between myself and a Jupiter Org member. I love the idea that the Org may or may not have all the answers.
JFL: That’s somewhat cryptic.
I apologize if you get this a lot, but I have to ask: Is the title of your comic consciously derivative of the title of the film Five Easy Pieces? I think its a perfect title for the book, I just wondered if you were aware of the movie when beginning the book and whether or not you considered or reconsidered using it because of that?
ND: No apologies. It’s actually derivative of Richard Feynman’s book Six Easy Pieces. Feynman was a physicist, a very creative and unique one. Actually a comic was just written about his life—I have to check it out soon. Feynman’s book is subtitled Essentials Of Physics. It’s a pseudo-transcription of his lectures that outlined the most basic principles of physics, something I am deeply interested in. The most basic. I always found it fascinating that if you inquire long enough about how something works, it almost always ends in, “Well, that’s just what atoms do.” How things work all comes down to natural phenomena: what the universe is up to. There’s a simultaneous feeling to me of “Wow! And we can harness and control that?” and “We have NO idea what we are dealing with here.” I love that.
For me, Easy Pieces began with an experiment in graduate school. Up to that point in my life, I’d spent my time making drawings that were huge, year-long productions. I decided one day that if I got an idea for a drawing that could be completed in a day, that I would do it that day.
That little experiment brought forth these pieces called “Six Easy Pieces,” after Feynman’s book. I felt like all the things I’d been trying to say with these huge, epic, year-long productions were being said in these simple, tiny drawings. So to me, these new pieces felt like my Six Easy Pieces, my most basic parts, artistically. I like them as quiet, abstract, stand-alone drawings, and they eventually morphed into what is now the Easy Intro.
JFL: That is a much more satisfying reference to draw upon. I have to say that I often feel somewhat excited to live in a time where the uncertainty principle has become the golden rule. I feel it has taken the centuries-old arguments between theology and science, glared at them through the rearview like an irritated parent, and threatened to “turn this car around.”
ND: That excites me as well. I feel like we have accepted that we live in a completely and utterly subjective universe. I love the dual, contradicting truths—the universe cannot be truly pinned down in any way. Scientifically, there will always be great unknowns, and we know that now. But socially we must make decisions, take sides and take steps in a direction we want to move in. And in life, we must try to uncover and explore, even though we know there is no end to the search. That is the best and most beautiful, strange impulse.
JFL: I have to say that—having never seen them before now—your original Six Easy Pieces make for a pretty impressive display. Had they been my introduction, I think I would have been as drawn to your work as I was initially in comic form.
Clearly, several of these images existed finished, as a complete work, before they became integrated (repurposed?) in the Easy Pieces Intro. Can you talk about the process of turning those visuals into a comic and how those pieces were altered by the inclusion of text?
ND: Sure! I’m glad you say you were drawn to them in comic form. The great trial for me with the comics is the text. The original, textless Easy Pieces got, like anything, really mixed responses. So, when it came time to add text, though it felt natural, I was nervous. How do I include text without killing the piece, i.e., without over-explaining it? So regarding the process: all I can say is that I’ve re-written nearly every single one of those spreads twenty to thirty times, and I just tried to be patient. Easy Intro will likely never feel done to me.
JFL: When you say that the Easy Intro will never feel done, does that mean you may publish future altered editions?
ND: I’m sure I will. I already read it and get angry at what is written and drawn. I want to let it go. But I gotta tweak. The Artist: I tweak, therefore I am.
JFL: When you are creating new pieces now, do you start by developing the images first? Or, now that the comic is established, do you find they more frequently develop in tandem?
ND: Most of the Pieces still start with a sentence or an idea, i.e. the next Jupiter Org story in my head exists like this: “The Bracer Of Kings: a Jupiter Org device to aid in [alleviating] the embarrassing physical bracing that occurs prior to an impending physical or mental mishap. The device covers both a physical or mental bracing.” In my head, I have a pretty good idea of what the device will look like. So that’s the whole idea as it exists now in my head. Soon I will storyboard and then shoot the photos for reference. Now that the comics are established, the sense that arises is not so much that story and visuals develop in tandem, but a sense of which stories are actually going to become finished pieces. Five percent of my ideas end up as finished pieces—it’s nice to start to be able to see which ones have a better chance of making it. But it’s extremely important to surprise yourself, sometimes that means saying the hell with it and developing a risky piece, that’s how you grow (thank you, Bill Watterson). Regarding the text and the visuals, I still struggle with devising text that will compliment the visuals rather than collapse.
JFL: On that note, your website has an “other work” section that collects a decent array of highlights from your past work. It includes sculptures, design, maps from your childhood, et cetera. Are your Easy Pieces the product of this, or another branch of it?
ND: I feel like the Easy Pieces are actually sort of separate. I’ve been keeping a sketchbook of ideas for my whole life. I wanted to give any idea at least that much, to write it down in a book that I keep up with. I noticed that as I kept this book, some of the ideas would stir me, but sometimes an entire 100 page double-sided sketchbook would go by without a single idea developing. Easy Pieces allows me to develop almost anything, and that really excites me. I can take a sketchbook entry that interests me, and simply aim it at a reader/viewer, rather than just at myself. I would in the past often get bogged down by over-producing an idea in my head to the point that its execution had to be painfully specific.
So the Easy Pieces come from the sketchbooks, whereas a lot of my drawings and maps you mentioned start with a shape idea, and then unfold via me playing with compasses, stencils, rulers, ruling pens, etc. I love tools. The Jupiter Org literature seen throughout Easy Pieces employs this old-school drafting style of drawing that I’ve been doing my whole life. (see: the new story, “Enough.”)
JFL: I love The Jupiter Org’s branding. There is a fun dialogue between the visual style of the Easy Pieces world: clean, linear and rendered while Jupiter’s literature is addled from reproduction, diagrammatically designed and verbally redundant. Phrases like “the processing process will occur at the time from sec B.” lay in wait to amuse the thorough reader.
Would you say that quirks like these are suggestions of Jupiter’s aforementioned fallibility?
ND: I’m not in any way at liberty to discuss the (alleged) failings/miscommunications/fallibility of The Jupiter Organization. I find them to be a most agreeable and knowledgeable organization and I am honored to receive their great wisdom.
JFL: When numerals occur in your work, such as on Jupiter’s forms and on your website, they are presented in a really interesting font. There is a single design that seems to be an overlay of the digits 0-9, so each number shares at least one curve or angle with another.
Did you create these? Are they a manifestation of your tool fascination?
ND: Yep. I’ve seen clocks like that, in some kind of Art Deco style, perhaps. They have what looks to be a tiny neon (usually orange-colored) array of overlapped numerals and certain sections glow to create the image of a single numeral. So that’s my take on it. I can’t take credit for the original idea. And yes, it allows me to obsessively (and safely) create oodles of shapes with rulers and stencils. There are probably close to a hundred of those numerals on the—
Unfortunately, this is where the interview suddenly ended. Over the course of the conversation, Dvorak had been turning in space on a sort of invisible axle, moving almost imperceptibly forward—toward me—and down. Everything below his nose had become embedded in the wide, pine floor.
This is a strange thing to suddenly reveal, but honestly it took me a while to notice myself. At first I’d believed he was leaning forward out of intensity, but once I could see the top of his head without leaving my seat, I knew something was off. He continued speaking, unfazed, so I tried to assume a professional distance and pretend that there was nothing awry, though the logistics of the situation eventually got the better of me.
For the entire time that his ears were still visible, I reverted to asking basic questions to see if I could get any physical response, but none came. I just walked around in a circle for about twenty-five minutes while his back disappeared with an invisible slowness, like a sunset.
I had a few more questions that I had hoped to ask, so I waited in his studio while the desk stool made its way around. It was an hour and a half before I saw the front of the stool begin to surface, but it was clear that it was now empty.
I found a sheet of paper, scrawled my remaining questions thereon, and taped it to the studio door. The only response I received came two weeks later in the form of a memorandum from the Jupiter Organization:
J.F. Lynch is a visual artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from Pratt Institute in 2011 and is the Visual Arts Editor for apt. More information can be found at www.jflynch.com.