Ang’s Artists: Adrian Tomine
Art Director Rachel Ang does a series on some of her favourite artists.
Ren Hang’s recent death by suicide shook me deeply. I wasn’t sure why, but I had an inkling. We were around the same age, and both struggled with cyclical depression. I have attempted suicide, and sometimes I still find myself considering it. But I also admired his creative output, wishing I had his eyes, his talent, his career. We attempt to express similar themes in our work – those of sex, love, friendship, and how strange, surreal and tenuous these connections can be. Below the beautiful, seductive surface of his photographs, I see an underlying vein of deep, unbearable sadness and melancholy.
It got me thinking about the Asian creatives that I admire, and those who have inspired me. These artists have all influenced my creative practice, as well as the way I live my life. Most of this is unconscious influence, and it’s only recently that I’ve had the self-awareness to pick apart my work and see where I’ve drawn inspiration from. And so I’ve decided to write a series of short texts about my favourite creators, who happen to be Asian. I’m going to start with Adrian Tomine.
Adrian Tomine is a Japanese-American comic artist and illustrator from Sacramento, California. I had been a fan of his work for many years before I realised that he was of Asian descent – there’s not much to suggest it in his work. It was a story in his most recent book, Killing and Dying (2016), about a return from Japan to the States, that prompted me to google Tomine and finally read his Wikipedia bio. In hindsight – particularly looking at Shortcomings, which explicitly considers the anxieties of young Asian-Americans – it seemed so obvious I couldn’t believe I had missed it.
One of my favourite books is Sleepwalk and Other Stories. It is, a collection of Tomine’s early short stories, harkening from the times when he self-published his work through zines called Optic Nerve. I’ve read Sleepwalk so many times it must have imprinted itself on my writing.
I immediately fell in love with the combination of his very clean, precise style of drawing, combined with stories of heartbreak, lost love and missed connections. Tomine trains his gaze on his subjects with little sentimentality or love. It’s fucking brutal. Emotions are unspoken. I’m so drawn to this perfect, clean surface, and the churning, turbulent pain beneath.
I like to buy copies of Sleepwalk for friends who are new to reading comics. Everybody has a different favourite story that they fixate on. In witnessing their first reading I discover my love and excitement about this medium all over again. I’m re-energised by the challenge of the medium – to marry insightful, human writing with movingly beautiful drawing.
Many of his stories are a meditation on some small human drama – talking to an ex-girlfriend, eating lunch in the car, teenagers fighting with their elders – but told with a sensitivity and nuance that makes them almost unforgettable. The tiniest interaction can serve as a hand-drawn map of the universe of human interactions. The story Six Day Cold is a masterclass in showing, not telling. Paul is holed up with some kind of monster flu, and his ex-girlfriend Ellen comes by to bring him aspirin and soup, and ends up sleeping on the couch. They say very little but much is expressed in dreams of snowstorms and images of soup boiling on the stove.
Sleepwalk, the titular story, is one of my favourite stories of any medium or genre. On his twenty-fourth birthday, Mark gets a call from his ex-girlfriend Carrie, who wants to catch up. The story is so riddled with anxiety and unrequited love, I imagine it told in a voice which shakes and quavers. After the date, which is not really a date at all, Mark drives off and finally allows himself to cry. Closing his eyes for a second, his car smashes headfirst into another. The story ends with Mark utterly bereft, at 5am on a quiet, very dark night, leaning against his completely ruined car.
If there is a theme that links these stories together, it might be to do with looking at love and acceptance – from the outside, or in hindsight. No happy endings.
This is an idea that’s been spinning around in my head after Ren Hang’s passing. Is there something about growing up as outsiders that turns some of us into expert observers of the human condition? Like Tomine, I write “thinly-veiled autobiography ”, and I often wonder what love looks like from the inside.
Up next: Kazuo Ishiguro, Yoko Ogawa and Wong Kar Wai.