North Adams Transcript
Norman Pettingill: Backwoods Humorist (Fantagraphics Books)
Culled from the output of postcard self-publisher and Wisconsin native Norman Pettingill, this triumphant collection of outsider art offers an insider view of a world that most viewers of the work probably won’t enter.
Pettingill’s concern was with the insular existence of backwoods hunters, from their lodges to their excursions, pulling humor from the grotesque and bawdy elements in a style that mixes the works of cartoonists like Basil Wolverton and Harvey Kurtzman, and the sweeping tapestries of Hieronymous Bosch. Satire abounds, but no matter how ugly it gets, it’s never vicious -- this weirdness is all part of the landscape of Pettingill’s life.
An artist by hobby as well as a trapper and hunter, Pettingill turned the latter into a business when, in 1946, he began printing and selling his own postcards. It’s a business that lasted him through the 1980s, when old age and health issues started to get the best of him. As a self-taught artist and businessman, Pettingill followed the primary rule of success -- to capitalize on what you know -- and this brought him not only financial success and souvenir store renown, but also a couple of art shows and a place in the permanent collection of the John Michael Koler Arts Center in Sheboygan.
Pettingill is at his most skillful with his sober, often beautiful, depictions of animal life -- he created a largely untitled series of wonderful depictions of deer wandering, drinking and fighting -- but it’s when humans enter the frame that Pettingill’s personality and attitude toward life really come out. Sometimes he chooses the mishaps of hunting and trapping as his focus -- these are the venues for more obvious, slapstick drawings such as "Phooey," which shows a fisherman trapped by his own tangled line while fish and frogs dance merrily on the water, and Pettingill seems bemused by the incompetence mixed with enthusiasm for the sport.
It’s his inside views of human abodes that offer the major attraction here. There’s something very dark about the way hunting lodges and tap rooms make their way onto his postcards -- the patrons are darkly grotesque and chaos ensues in most places. In 1950s "Mustt’s Ronda’Vooo," Pettingill depicts a barroom populated by the scariest backwoods hillbillies you’d ever fear encountering -- there’s even a portrait of one of them with four eyes, but he’s nowhere near as creepy as the craggy old hags and droopy, dirty sasquatches that line up for drinks.
In scenes like "Moron Gultch" and "Daylite in the Swamp," the hunters in various s states of undress, intoxication and debauchery go unleashed on their lodges. It makes you wonder what sort of society free of hang-ups existed back in the forests of Wisconsin in the 1940s -- there’s nothing graphic in the images, but the insinuation of casual depravity would probably make a hippie blush two decades later. His postcards from the 1950s don’t get any tamer -- and the 1956 masterpiece "Backwoods Homelife" brings new meaning to the Pettingill scenes when you consider that the army of half-naked figures are implied to be related.
The number of birthday-suited hunters Pettingill depicts throughout the book -- including at least one nude man riding a fish and a few images implying that bears have an amorous interest in humans (including one with a bikini babe fishergirl) -- don’t help with the undertone of less than wholesome observation.
Pettingill’s great masterwork, though, has to be 1957’s "Deer Hunting Meat," which depicts an army of hunters falling over themselves, and even tripping, hitting and shooting one another, in order to lay claim to one lone dead deer. Replace that deer with an SUV, and you can see that Pettingill’s work gets to the heart of the matter -- and you don’t have to be a mangled back woodsman to be part of the American truth he presented.
Yvon’s Paris by Robert Stevens (W.W. Norton)
Every time you walk into Hot Topic at the mall and marvel how far Goth has come in popular culture, take a moment to think about Jean Pierre Yves Petit -- or Yvon, as he was known in Paris.
His Paris is no Impressionist burst of color. Instead, Yvon skulked around the city, capturing the blacks, whites and gorgeous grays through his preference for the less vibrant street moments of sunrise and sunset, when the shadows ruled, or on foggy days and during rain storms, and any other moment you can imagine Paris becoming the capital of romantic darkness.
Yvon, you see, created the Paris the modern world loves more than any other -- the Paris where the gargoyles overlook life -- and he did it not through galleries but through postcard sales.
This new collection of his work, "Yvon’s Paris," captures the scope of his vision and the beauty of the world he was selling to others for the purpose of spreading it around. In some ways this was an insider’s view of Paris that was to overtake the world by way of souvenirs and tourism.
Perhaps Yvon’s photos of Paris reflected his general life experience, one of unpleasantness and distance. Polio deformed his right foot at age 4, and shortly after he took to the food markets of Paris, wreaking havoc despite his severe limp. He bought his first camera using money he had stolen from his father.
Many dysfunctional years followed, which saw Yvon become a sailor at 14, traveling to and living in Africa a couple times, before returning to Paris just around World War 1 and becoming a magazine photographer. It was in 1924 that he translated his photos into the postcard format and had his work spread around the world.
Whether capturing a barge or a bookseller on the boulevard, the Eiffel Tower or the area in front of Notre Dame, Yvon’s photos are populated by one constant -- the small, often lonely figure. He might be watering flowers; he might be gazing into a canal or pulling a cart, but he is small against the architecture of Paris and most often a black figure against the gray.
Was this how Yvon felt in the city? That’s obviously hard to say, but it puts forth an image that speaks against the popular impression of Paris. It’s not City of Love in Yvon’s work -- instead it’s a place of loneliness, of figures stalking and looming. It’s the Paris that actually attracts the most romantic of us, and it’s Yvon’s as well as our own.
John Mitchell is the Transcript’s arts and entertainment editor.