Making Things Mean Things – Part 1

Read the first installment in this gripping series here.

Part 1 – The Small

Start with the obvious: there are many ways to think about alphabets. Then get more specific: a good way to narrow it down is to consider how an artist engages with an alphabet. The Roman alphabet is what it is, although it is also infinitely malleable, being pulled and pinched by all manners of fonts, printing technologies, and design programs. Does a font designer invent an alphabet when he/she creates a font? Is the font just a decorative cipher for the Roman alphabet, or is it a new alphabet that is easily relatable to the Roman alphabet? What about a font designer who creates an alphabet that is not recognizable as the Roman alphabet but that bears a direct one-to-one correlation to it? How far is this new alphabet’s equivalent to the letter “E” from a poorly handwritten cursive letter “E”? This could go on all night.

There are three ways to create letters: you can create a letter that clearly correlates to a letter in the alphabet with which your audience is familiar. You can create a letter that does not clearly correlate to a letter in the alphabet with which your audience is familiar, but that would correlate with the aid of a key or code. Finally, you can create a letter that does not correlate to any existing alphabet – an empty symbol not recognizable as a letter but for its proximity to other empty symbols, thus comprising letters of an alphabet in the aggregate. The degree of correlation between an invented letter and the alphabet with which an audience is familiar I call the representational dissonance quotient. If you assume that this alphabet you’re currently looking at is the alphabet with which you’re familiar, then this letter “e” (<– that exact one right there) has a representational dissonance quotient of zero (meaning, it is identical to that with which you are familiar). Here are some examples of other representational dissonance quotients:

Assume that an artist has created an alphabet with a representational dissonance quotient of higher than zero. What, then, does the alphabet “do”? Does the artist merely create the letters of the alphabet or does he/she employ them in some usage that demands further examination? Does the artist create a world that couldn’t stand apart from its alphabet? Substitute the font in most books with a very different one, and the content would still exist. Readability might suffer, and typographers might furrow their brows, but the characters and the plot would remain unchanged. When is this not the case? The artists that create worlds that start with the alphabet – these are the ones who have been getting in my head lately, motivating me to sort through my response to their art and settle my own ideas on alphabets.

Mascots by Ray Fenwick is a great place to start. The book announces itself boldly – it is small, but its hot pink cloth cover is difficult to ignore. The title breaks across a few lines, so it is less a word than a jumble of letters – a mascot for the word “Mascot,” so to speak. The book is appropriately titled: from the very beginning, everything announces itself as something else – forms are always changing, names are invented “mercifully” (to use one of the narrators’ parlance) for things that are unnamable, faces that smile when the book is held in one direction are revealed as faces that frown when the book is flipped. The book conveys a sense of being stuck just outside of where everything makes sense and fits together.

This is all normal: it seems pretty common that when artists create a world based on an alphabet, the result is a world that is recognizable as my own yet different… and that tension produces this sense of being “just outside” – not far enough away to observe it detachedly, but not close enough to go native, either. I can touch it, but I can’t pick anything up or move anything around.

First, I should probably defend my claim that Mascots is a world based on an alphabet – it doesn’t use any foreign characters, for instance, and could just as easily be read as a series of narrative paintings and cartoons. It is significant, though, that it is painted on the covers of old, discarded books. These books contain old, discarded stories, but Fenwick has pushed their meaning into the background, superimposing his own on top of them. Maybe painting on books was simply an aesthetic choice (the buckram cloth cover on most of them gives all of the artwork in his book a toothy texture that is pretty distinctive), but it’s hard for me to ignore the thematic implications as well. As one of the only self-deploying methods of cultural transmission humankind has ever invented, books occupy the pole-position among physical objects that contain language. They are briefcases full of alphabets. Using them as the base for new artwork does not erase what was inside, even though it is invisible (discarded, in this case) – that buckram shows through, and with it, the memory of the book’s alphabet. It’s similar to the permanence of a crease in a sheet of paper – an artist may use a creased sheet of paper for artwork, but the fibers of the paper store a memory of the creases, and they will always be visible underneath the artwork.

So before even engaging with the content of Fenwick’s artwork, his book begins by subsuming an alphabet. No matter what it does, it will carry the memory of that alphabet, and thus the discarded, unseen alphabet forges a subliminal undercurrent to the entire book. Everything is tied together with more coherence than a run-of-the-mill art monograph, but it isn’t exactly sequential. Here are some good jumping off points:

1. Fat Air: Letters here create concepts. “Fat Air” is a kind of air that is invisible until it is grabbed, pulled, and massaged – it is thick and squishy, and probably fun to play with. It is a completely alien concept to anyone who hasn’t traveled to Venus (or thereabouts), yet the idea is clear from the very letters that compose the word – the letters themselves are more evocative of fat air than the name (which, like the name of the sometimes-narrator Cthulu, is most likely a moniker mercifully bestowed on something unnamable).

2. Dewy Wisdom of Droughty Youth: Could mean anything. What’s important is that the letters read in both directions and bleed into each other. Concepts are like fat air – they don’t simply float around – they can be squeezed and stretched around, like silly putty impressions of newspaper cartoons. “Dewy” and “Droughty” are probably opposites who together have their own opposite facing them on the other side of the page, which obscures what is really the opposite of what.

3. “Sky Ghost, please advise on down to me. Should I create the language beforehand, and practice it, or should I trust the moment and just freestyle? Sky Ghost, please advise. The last time I tried I just spoke. No tongues!” Mascots presents all sides of this dilemma – how to skirt the bounds of flat, simple speech while using coded, incomprehensible language to evoke something deeper than mere understanding. In a way, it is written in tongues – letters that are readable on one plane but more complex in that they have their own intrinsic meaning and don’t simply serve to transmit the meaning of the words, sentences, and paragraphs that they comprise.

4. Look on my Face is What: This could be a question, or it could be the beginning of a declaratory proclamation, or it could simply be the entire proclamation. The look on the face in question is made through an assemblage of shapes – the same shapes that form the letters in the original statement. Here, the letters are the building blocks of all facial expressions – a face cannot even emote without an alphabet with which to do it.

5. What’d I Miss?!: The question is urgent – an aerodynamic traveler of sorts emerges from an ethereal space composed of squiggly shapes (I’ll go ahead and call them letterforms), and he must know immediately. Unclear is whether he even knows where he is, or how long he has been gone (or if he has been there before) – the traveler is distinguished only by his sudden appearance and pressing need to know what he has missed. It is more an instinctual response to arriving in a new place than an ongoing inquisitiveness; as the vortex through which he jumped fades, his query fades as well, becoming less urgent, receding into the new environment, becoming something that has just happened that was missed by anyone who wasn’t there in that exact moment. The letters are not permanent the way we think about the printed pages of a book – they exist just as much in the realm of instinct and reflex.

Most of the reviews of Mascots that I have read laud it as a representational object. In other words, critics are awed by its ability to create the alternate world I have been trying to describe and then to depict that world through individual color paintings. And of course, Fenwick deserves any and all praise heaped upon him for his remarkable achievement – where I take issue is with the idea that the artwork in the book depicts anything. So enveloped was I in the world of Mascots that I felt like I was witnessing something while reading it. The book didn’t merely depict a world, it functioned as a document from it that somehow made its way back into my hands. It took me out of the world I was in, literally: I read it while riding on a BART train into San Francisco, and I realized afterward that the fact that the train had gone through the tunnel underneath the bay – something that usually inspires fear and dread in claustrophobic ol’ me, despite the routine nature of the trip – didn’t even register.

This notion of a book being so tied to the world it creates that it seems somehow foreign is something that I have never experienced except with a book whose alphabet is the foundation of that world. Two other books I plan to write about, Luigi Serafini’s Codex Seraphinianus and Charles Burns’s Johnny 23, achieve the same thing. However, what makes Mascots even more astonishing is that it accomplishes this without using an invented “foreign” alphabet – on the scale, its alphabet has a pretty low representational dissonance quotient. Yet, Fenwick’s creation of his own alphabet removes the world of Mascots from the familiarity expected from a book composed in the Roman alphabet.

The copy of Mascots that I bought came with a small inkjet print with the words “AND YOU ARE A PART OF EVERYTHING AND EVERYTHING IS LIKE MELTING” painted in a crisp serif font over a yellow background with very small yellow circles and dots on it. Again, there is play between the haughty nature of the letters and the content of the words – the letters themselves are authoritative, not melting. But, maybe they are “like melting” in that they announce that the previously agreed-upon cognitive path from letter to word to meaning does not exist in this world. If the letters were painted to evoke the idea of melting, everything would be a lot easier… but “like melting” is much more difficult to grasp, and as such, it is a fitting introduction to Mascots. And not just the letters, of course: everything is like melting.

Image Credits:

Mascots book photo from
Interior images courtesy of Fantagraphics, used with permission
Inkjet print image from 

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