Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Hot Potatoe's ambiguity delightful

Graphic novel, or art book? Could be either one

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Hot Potatoe

By Marc Bell

Drawn & Quarterly, 276 pages, $45

Just what is this? Is it a graphic novel, or an art book?

As the internationally recognized Montreal-based artist Marc Bell's work straddles the line between comics and "fine art," it could really fall under either category, while being adequately represented by neither.

That's OK, though; the ambiguity of Hot Potatoe is part of its delightfulness. There's one drawing that may summarize what Bell's up to.

It features an odd flying anthropomorphic character called Querbus, who says there "is also a street in Montreal named 'Querbus.' I'm not sure if I'm named after it or it after me. I'm pretty unconcerned about it anyway ... Not even sure why I mentioned it."

Well, exactly. Likewise, what's the point of the recurring motifs of gum underneath shoes, "worn tuff elbows," or wooden planks protruding from faces?

Probably the same as misspelling the titular potatoe: because Bell just likes it. Why does he draw bacon in his "abstracted, boxy" fashion? "I came up with a way to draw bacon that interested me," he writes, "so I started to repeat it."

There's an entire section of Hot Potatoe cataloguing recurring idiosyncratic Bell-isms. But is it art?

Bell's drawings, collages, constructions and mixed media works are fanciful, oddball, twisted, bizarre, delightful, unsettling, absurd, cartoonish and sometimes hilarious. They are sometimes actual comics, too, but even when they aren't the influence is pervasive.

About the only time he offers anything resembling social commentary is a cartoon in which specific allusion is made to the second Iraq War. Bell's absurdist approach perfectly encapsulates the conflict's incoherence: George W. Bush was only barely more articulate in explaining his reasoning.

But we've gotten away from the question. What is the point, one might ask. What is the significance? One answer could be: does art have to have some sort of earth-shaking significance, as some would have it? Can't it just be, you know, fun?

Bell's work is lots of fun. His method is to break down the elements of a given thing's representation -- i.e., how a thing is drawn -- and reassemble it as a visual riff on that thing.

A sense of play permeates Hot Potatoe. Even in the sections that provide some useful analysis of the art, the impulse of the jokester is at work. This is best exemplified in the "interview" of Bell by publisher Drawn & Quarterly's Tom Devlin.

Bell ostensibly makes some serious points about his work, while audience members ostensibly ask stupid questions and heckle. What's genuine and what's not?

Indeed, Hot Potatoe could also be considered a humour book: although it's formatted like a typical serious art book, it simultaneously comes off as a send-up of the serious art book format. Those with an affinity for Mad magazine and humour cartoons may very well get a kick out of it.

In addition to art and comics aficionados, Hot Potatoe is also recommended to those who remember colouring all over the page, lines be damned, and holding your finished masterpiece up with pride. Bell's art is like a grown-up version of that, and it might just bring a smile to your face.

Kenton Smith is a Winnipeg freelance writer, critic and comics enthusiast.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 12, 2009 H7

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