Wednesday, March 20, 2013

K Syrah, Shiraz

I learned something yesterday, after posting a drawing of a wine bottle wearing Groucho glasses onto my fan page on Facebook. I added a link to a little video we did a while ago featuring the same drawing, as a way to entice some of my art fans to visit our DS Art YouTube channel.

We’ve done this before with other drawings, enough that we’ve come to expect a brief flurry of attention on Facebook, a handful of clever comments on the artwork, and a noticeable spike in the number of our viewers on YouTube. If people are entertained, our internet numbers go up, and later on when fans’ birthdays, anniversaries, and especially the Christmas holidays roll around, we sell a few more prints than we otherwise might.

But the wine bottle failed to capture anyone’s attention, and that got my attention. I took a look at the numbers, gleaned from several statistical data points kindly supplied to fan page admins by the good people at Facebook. Of the many hundreds of friends and fans who saw that particular posting (not yet thousands - we’re a small site, but growing), only eight chose to ‘Like’ the picture, and only one person was moved to watch the video. Again, a notably different response than what we have experienced in the past.

That got me to thinking about the picture itself, and the interesting comments it has generated since we added this odd little fellow to the collection two years ago. When I first displayed the drawing, short-titled Prominent Nose, several viewers noted how different it was from my usual style. “I didn’t know you were doing plain illustration,” some said. “How come it’s not a composite, like your other work?” others asked.

These observations took me by surprise, and at the time left me unable to find an adequate response.

Yes, this picture looks more like a simple illustration, and the ‘composite’ aspect is simpler than many of my other pieces. On the other hand, I felt that this piece in particular is a perfect example of the process – my process – of juxtaposing unrelated images to visual and verbal comic effect.

Pablo Picasso once welded a bare set of handlebars to the back of a bicycle seat, and called it a bull’s head. Art history textbooks have since cited this work as an example of Picasso’s genius. I don't know if genius is the right word, but it was certainly clever as hell, and that sort of distilled cleverness is what I strive for in my own art. 

Occasionally I succeed in using a handful of selected items, carefully placed and rendered to accomplish a desired visual objective. Drawings like the Shoe Horns or Craw-de Lis, for example. One is a collection of nine brass instruments arranged in the shape of a shoe. It’s feminine, it’s funny, and it works as a balanced visual design. The other poses two shrimp and a crawfish together as a fleur-de-lis. Three crustaceans. That’s all. And that’s enough to embody the culture and cuisine of New Orleans.
I still smile whenever I look at either one of them.

Prominent Nose takes this process of distilled simplicity and gives it a couple of wry twists. First, there are only two items in this picture: a bottle of wine, and Groucho glasses. Together they make a silly reference to the ‘nose’ of a wine, another word for its rich aroma, or bouquet. I suppose the wine label could be counted as a third item, designed as it is to represent an open mouth, without which the illusion of personality would be difficult to convey.

But that’s the point. Using just these two items (or three, if anyone is keeping score), the illusion is complete. There is a personality here, a cartoon character is brought to life. He even has something to say – which makes for its own play on words: “K Syrah, Shiraz.” This of course parrots the line from the famous Doris Day song, Que, sera, sera – Whatever will be, will be. The two wine names (Syrah and Shiraz) represent the same variety of grape, grown in different locations. So, according to this joker, ‘whatever will be’ is just same-ol’, same-ol’.

So we have a visual pun, and a verbal pun. A rare twofer, for such a simple drawing.

The complete title of the picture is Prominent Nose, No Legs, the ‘legs’ referring to the lines of wine that drip down the inside of a glass after giving it a good swirl. The size and persistence of the legs indicate higher alcohol concentration. If there are no legs, then this is not wine – it’s grape juice. Funny, huh? Jokes three and four, no extra charge.

Further complicating the issue, a few observers have suggested that calling attention to the quadriplegic nature of this character may somehow be in poor taste. How silly, I thought. Wine bottles don't walk. Neither do silly drawings.

Making fun of the physically handicapped isn’t funny. It’s not nice, either, and I don't do it. Not consciously, anyway. Not intentionally. Nonetheless, I must wonder if some measure of perceived insensitivity may account for some portion of the image’s diminished popularity.

So, what do I learn from this recent Facebook experience? That a lot of the humor I hide in a picture may be hidden better than I thought. Or maybe the Groucho bit carries so much weight in our culture of humor, that we see it and nothing else. Or I may just be re-learning an age-old lesson: sometimes when you step up and swing, you miss. Que, sera, sera.

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