Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Chapter Eight: The Zism and the Dancing Doodles

Note from Rebus: The image of the zism (depicted right) came to Rea in a time when he was at loose ends. After nearly 12 years of devotion to keeping the Biograph open, upon leaving his job as its manager he was on the lookout for something new. Or maybe it was something he had lost along the way. 

Yet, after years of being immersed in a pretend world of movie scenes, rather than seeking enlightenment, or focusing on learning a useful trade, Rea went deeper into living in an imaginary realm. Which led to him making up his own ism. 


In the spring of 1983 the Biograph Theatre's owners, based in Georgetown, could see the bad trends from a hundred miles away. The deterioration of the commercial neighborhood surrounding the theater was obvious. Baby boomers in their 30s were moving out of the Fan District. The growing impact cable television was having on repertory cinemas, in general, was depressing. There were other problems,too, including what the owners saw as a bloated payroll.

In May they almost sold their struggling independent twin cinema to a chain. When the potential buyer refused to accept responsibility for all of the Richmond Biograph's debts, the deal fell apart.

Those few days of anxiety-ridden uncertainty, when it appeared everything I'd worked for was about to disappear like a puff of smoke, scared the hell out of me.   

Which made me see that my persona was resting entirely on the platform my peach of a job had provided for me. It was who and what I was perceived as being. I lived it 24-hours-a-day. There was no other job like it in Richmond. Which also meant, one way or another, most of the favors that had tumbled my way since 1972 had traveled across that same platform.   

It was a high-profile position in a rather small world. And, in my tortured frame of mind it was also a trap that had me in its grip. The painful truth that I hadn't been a particularly good manager for most of the previous year also weighed on me. After stewing in my juices for a few weeks, dwelling on such darkly-tinted thinking, I lurched to  a decision -- continuing to be terrified of losing my job was simply intolerable.

Consequently, for the first time, just closing the door and walking away from the Biograph began to seem to be my best option. My divorce had just become final and my then-girlfriend, Tana, thought I had gotten stale keeping the same job too long. In spite of how crazy it seems now, having no plan for how to make a living scared me less than staying on.

Thus, for reasons good and bad and fantasizing I would solve whatever money problems popped up with my willpower, I took the plunge and resigned.

Caught up in a mania, I promptly sat down in my downtown apartment on Franklin Street and created a three-page, hand-lettered resume ... with 'toons for illustrations. Then I mailed off a batch of them to apply for jobs that looked attractive to me. In some cases they just went to organizations I admired, without applying for a particular opening.

Awaiting all the new opportunities, I seriously set about making some new art -- stuff that would have nothing to do with selling classic double features or midnight shows. I worked on depicting what a couple of my childhood recurring dreams looked like. I also tried to do some writing but became frustrated with the process.  

Naturally, it was disappointing when the interviews and offers I was sure would flow my way from sending out those goofy resumes never happened.

At this time I was acting as the art director for Throttle (magazine) and I hosted a weekly show on Color Radio. Neither of those time-eating responsibilities paid a nickel. However, I also sold and produced advertisements for both entities, which did bring in a little money. Very little. So, I began the process of shrinking my lifestyle -- selling off old collectible stuff, cool objects I had acquired in fatter times.

As the summer passed I drew some comic strips, made a series of small paintings featuring Rebus (like the one to the left), and I put together a couple of collages (that I later destroyed). A large abstract painting was also produced (which I still have). In the doing of all that I designed a logo-looking graphic to represent movement through time and dimensions.

With an eye always on sarcasm and mockery I called my new gimmick a “zism,” to label it as the symbol of the last ism, the inevitable final system of beliefs and conclusions that would assimilate all the previous isms in history -- a perfect postmodern ism, as chock-full of mysterious hokum as any of them.

The zism's look was inspired by the 1920s constructivist movement in the USSR and 1930s cartoons, especially those created  by Max Fleischer -- Popeye, Betty Boop, etc. In my view it suggested both structure and spontaneity.

In truth, the zism was a mindless doodle drawing that I played with and refined over time. As I then considered doodles to be my most natural way of drawing that meant the zism was also about truth. The first published zism, along with some gesture drawings of little dancing pairs, appeared on the cover of Throttle's December 1984 issue.  

Eventually, I had to draw zisms on handbills and put them up on utility poles to see what would happen. In the spring of 1985 I posted a series of “Zism” handbills. They featured cartoons, photos, off-the-wall questions and sayings … and zisms. I liked drawing them. The handbill pictured below was No. 2.
In a droll way I thought the twirling symbol, representing anything you wanted it to, was funny.


Maybe that was just more proof of how unhinged I was in this period. And, speaking of unhinged, a dislocated ankle put me on crutches and ended the handbill series. It also made me concentrate on writing, again, in the weeks that followed the injury. I designed the first issue of SLANT, a 16-pager. I also made four large collages on plywood panels. The largest of them was installed in the 3rd Street Diner. 

Then, in the spring of 1986, I started stapling issues of SLANT -- this time front-and-back, two-page handbills -- to selected utility poles twice a week.

In part, that was done to protest the City of Richmond’s renewed crackdown on fliers. I also wanted to establish that a periodical’s legitimacy could be in the eyes of the beholder. In the course of that oblique mission I fell in love with publishing. Then SLANT came down off the poles to go through several changes in format over the next eight years, or so.

The doodle-like drawings of couples dancing made a comeback in 1986. By then I had named them Dancing Doodles. They were used to fill the variable small space that remained open at the end of the pasting up of an issue of SLANT. The space to be filled was usually about an inch or an inch-and-a-half tall.

In printer's parlance the Dancing Doodles were used as dingbats. Drawing them was the fun part of the paste-up chore I always saved for last. They were drawn quickly without a plan; each mark was simply a reaction to the last. Those little Dancing Doodle drawings were further attempts at depicting structure and spontaneity moving in harmony -- sort of like what a good jam session is made of.

After a year or so, I stopped putting the Dancing Doodles in SLANT, as the 'zine matured and got tighter in its layout. I was surprised but pleased when I got some complaints.

In the mid-1990s I made a few paintings of dancing couples, maybe a half-dozen. Again, I was thinking about the righteousness of doodles. These pieces were larger and more involved than what had come before. A few prints of them sold, cheaply, then I put them on the back burner again. Dancing Doodle No. 3 (approximately 8" by 10"), seen below, was part of that series.

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