Lochlann Jain is an interesting person. A UK-born, non-binary and queer anthropologist, artist and writer, they are well-placed to take a sideways look at how we categorise and identify ‘things’. From the punning title, colourful cover art and enticing tagline, I was immediately curious to delve into Jain’s new book, Things That Art.
Things That Art is, however, more than just an art book – in fact the blurb describes it as a ‘non-fiction graphic novel’. Interspersed between sections of Jain’s drawings, which I’ll come to in a minute, are several essays, or commentaries if you will, on Jain and their work, by three leading academics. The whole is bookended by an introduction and epilogue by Jain. I’ll admit, I found some of the academic discussion in the essays beyond my own understanding of anthropology, psychology and art criticism, but it did invite me to think more deeply about this book. I’ve not read Borges or Foucault who are frequently cited either (should I?). Jain’s own pieces were easier to comprehend and I did like their linking to Linnaeus in the intro, and the discussion at the end of Magritte’s The Treachery of Images (‘Ceci n’est pas un pipe’), an image which was surely an influence on the drawings here.
Now to the pictures themselves – and safer ground. Most are the size of a postcard, set upon a contrasting background. The colours are warm and friendly, inviting us in to scrutinise the groupings of small drawings under their titles, “things that…”
Here are a couple of Jain’s pictures that particularly caught my eye.
things that are shadows has a mixture of the obvious and oblique, concrete things and concepts, from the wordplay of a shadow of a former self, to the gnomon on a sundial casting a shadow to tell the time and so on, as we reach the bottom right and see she shadow of a tumour on an X-ray.
It’s the juxtaposition of all of these elements that make the drawings playful and serious simultaneously, making us laugh at the wordplay and clever punning, then tripping us up with something that makes you pause to think. There is also the urge for the reader to try to add to Jain’s selection too.
things that are doubles also resonated for me – many of them are doubles that put themselves in the firing line for our protection – from Clark Kent/Superman to the cell lines that are so important for medical research, the poor onco mouse and crash test dummies. Then there’s the nuclear test…
Some of the drawings have a single item casually included that will make you squirm, such as the coathanger in things to do with babies. Others have the opposite, one thing that will make you laugh out loud – such as red laundry in things that bleed, alongside a nose, heart and road kill. And yes, Jain includes a homage to Magritte called things that are not a pipe, which is full of tobacco-related items. That one really made me laugh, (as well as being glad I gave up smoking decades ago!).
The little drawings themselves have simplicity, needed for the small spaces they occupy, yet they have interesting little details, and Jain’s choices of illustration often tells its own story alongside the words underneath – the use of onions to explain concepts such as age in one frame is discussed at length in one of the essays. They’re earthy too, plenty of body parts and body functions pop up – there was a set all about lips, which was quite disturbing to look at!
I did enjoy the way that Jain’s categories push constantly against their own boundaries, defying easy categorisation – something the author already does in their own life. Things That Art is a really interesting book (that incidentally would make a good Christmas present for the intellectually curious).
Source: Review copy via Midas PR – thank you. Lochlann Jain, Things That Art (University of Toronto Press, 2019), hardback, 128 pages.