“Why did I have a dream last night I was married to Uncle Larry?”
Matthew Thurber’s comics tickle his subconscious.
Some cartoons are for kids. Other cartoons are for weird grown-ups. For fans of the latter, Matthew Thurber is an absurdist hero.
Thurber has always had a love-hate relationship with the mainstream art world. (Okay, it’s mostly hate.) His last collection, Art Comics, was a bareknuckle satire of this insular, oft-irritating scene. Now he’s back with a very different volume, this one starring a horse. It’s titled…um…Mr. Colostomy, and it’s begging to be read on the subway during your morning commute.
Mr. Colostomy’s four-panel pages were drawn as a semi-daily exercise between 2017 and 2019. “Each daily strip was its own meditation,” Thurber says. FF0083 chatted with the artist about terrible neighbors, errors, and art as a spiritual necessity.
You write that Mr. Colostomy “honors the mistake as the desired or hidden expression of the unconscious.” What did you dredge up from the old hidden unconscious that was a surprise to you along the way?
Every time I sat down and began the process of drawing Mr. Colostomy and the other characters into some kind of situation, there was a meeting between the external realities that I could perceive, my own life situations, and the mysterious internal world of feelings, signs and symbols, and memories. It was kind of like lucid dreaming — with coffee both waking me up and putting me into a trance.
I definitely take seriously the surrealist process of automatic writing, and also honor the importance of constraints, as articulated by the OULIPO writers. For me the constraints were mostly in the form of the four panels and in the fact that I had to sit there until I was finished in one session, no matter how long it took.
Everything was a surprise. Sometimes I think when you have startling images in a dream, it’s as though your mind is pranking you, trying to disturb you. Why did I have a dream last night I was married to Uncle Larry? I was trying to make each comic strip contain that kind of surprise.
Although I was working with funny animal characters in a supposedly “fun” parallel universe, I was kind of shocked that it ended up containing so much personal stuff, in a coded way. The relationships and people important in my life became immediately reflected and refracted through fantasy characters.
What did you accomplish, process-wise, by maintaining a daily(ish) practice of producing these pages? It reminds me a bit of the practice of ‘Morning Pages’ from the Artist’s Way, which is pretty cringe, but… maybe useful? Maybe even revolutionary?
I think art can transform everyday life in a revolutionary way. Creating is more enjoyable than consuming. It models political activity, and it is a political activity, in that it is the practice of making decisions.
A daily practice creates instability, because to make artwork is essentially a useless activity. It introduces a kind of questioning into your life.
But it can also be therapeutic. Art is a spiritual necessity. It’s also, quite simply, really fun. It is fun and necessary to play. More fun to play than to consume.
The more I make stuff without really caring about its use or function or perceived value, the happier the doing of it makes me feel. I think that what is important in art is the fact that it is given away to others, like in potlatch ceremonies. Mr. Colostomy was essentially a gift economy strip, it wasn’t produced for money, and although I am happy it has become a book which can make money, what really feels good is to GIVE IT AWAY like the Red Hot Chili Peppers said!
What’s one big mistake you’ve made in your life as a multi-hyphenate artist that you wish you could go back and undo?
I’ve made nothing but mistakes my whole life and also everything is as it should be. As Jaques the Fatalist says, it is written in the Great Scroll up above.
Unfortunately, I love errors because I love the stories that unfold, and without errors there are no stories and no learning. So I’m kind of ambivalent and sometimes let things fall apart, or I get lost on purpose, or do things the wrong way knowing I should know better.
Some of my most fabulous errors:
•Buying a car for $500 that ended up bankrupting me. (Mildred–she’s a character in Mr. Colostomy).
•Working as an art handler, which put me in mortal danger when I was asked to move paintings up and down on top of the elevator. (“Why do I give my valuable time to people who don’t care if I live or dieeeee” –The Smiths.)
•Buying hundreds of dollars of useless, expired 16mm film on Craigslist and not testing it but immediately filming a lot of people dancing in the park and [later finding that] the footage didn’t come out. Actually, I have many sob stories about film. Another time I filmed like 10 actors during a picnic, all with the lens turret closed. At least memories exist. I heard Barbara Rubin would shoot whole movies with no film in the camera, because the act of filmmaking was important, but she couldn’t afford film.
There’s no love lost between you & the so-called ‘fine’ art world. What’s the dumbest or most objectionable thing you’ve witnessed in the art world over the past few years?
Maybe the awesome people who Mr. Colostomy investigates starting on page 39 of the book, who make abstract paintings of the sort that enliven Holiday Inn motel rooms, and are multiple property owners and flippers…
They bought the house next door to where I used to live, didn’t introduce themselves, built an illegal 20-foot-tall studio in the backyard that they called a shed (which blocked the sun on the garden), and threatened legal action when I called the DOB on them.
Pretty much all ‘art’ looks like an appendage to the real estate market to me. And people like the aforementioned, I wouldn’t call what they do art, they are like little barnacles on the side of the ship. I can imagine if you’re meagerly talented, you want to lead a comfortable life — I just don’t want to call it art.
Art should be where you can be the most free. I’m working class and I have integrity. Someone’s wealth is not going to determine my consciousness of what art is or cast a shadow that kills off my girlfriend’s tomato plants.
I want people to talk about the economics of art the way they do form and content. Economics is Form.
Can sheer absurdity and linear narrative co-exist? How important is it to you that your stories ‘make sense’?
To construct something that is powerful as a joke, you have to be a kind of engineer. If the reader can recognize the signifiers, you can manipulate them to create effect. If the drawing is too expressive, you may get hung up on the beauty of that expression and lose the ability of comics to work as a medium.
I use words and drawings together, and both are signifiers. Jokes and absurdity happen when there is some kind of surprise or slippage or twist or mutation or whatnot with signifiers. This kind of goes back to Surrealism when there were two camps: the automatist painters like Masson and Tanguy who were expressive, versus the pictographic painters like Dali and Magritte, who were trying to make photographs of the unconscious.
Since those latter contain imagery that is more specific, it is more effective, to me, at getting to the real construction of dreams, which to me, are very specific, like movies.
I usually prefer writing that claims to be objective as much as possible — for instance, Robert Louis Stevenson. With that kind of deadpan lucidity and steadiness you can build a ladder into absurdity.
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