Review: Gut Feelings By Leah Wishnia

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On the surface, Leah Wishnia’s anthology GUT FEELINGS visually reads as a tornado of frenetic and (at times) grotesque imagery, brimming with a stream of both rambunctious and tortured characters who are pitched in a mosaic of revolving hallucinogenic experience. It could easily be shelved amongst the vast anthologies from fellow young underground cartoonists, as her rebelliously aggressive style falls in line with a lot of the anarchistic, counterculture-influenced artwork coming from many of her peers. However, to offer such a conclusive generalization would be a naïve and haphazard judgement, ignoring Wishnia as the true erudite artist that she is shaping out to be. A vocal promotor for the use of comics as means to critique society in all its forms, Wishnia is vibrantly aware and entirely unapologetic of the subjects she tackles in GUT FEELINGS, her artistic voice echoing a resounding deference to the idea that “the political is personal.” A combination of memoir, dreamlike make-believe, and penetratingly raw humor, her collection introduces Wishnia as a promising cartoonist and storyteller, paving a future for budding artists to create material that is richly thought-provoking and resisting of the status quo.

I first became acquainted with Wishnia’s work via Happiness, her well-curated biannual comic and art magazine, which subsequently led me to her personal blog, a ripe forum for not only her many forays in comics, sculpture, collage, and many other disciplines, but most striking to me is her “words” page, which she charges full of her own conversant, opinionated writing. What is entirely evident through her musings is the fact that Wishnia is an artist whose insight stems from a deeply rooted desire to understand the agency and politics of art culture of past and present, and thusly her work is influenced by the subversive, especially the efforts of progressive cartoonists from the heyday of 70s underground comix. In a way, GUT FEELINGS functions as an extension of the spirit that the DIY and self-publishing scene effectively birthed—Wishnia’s shorts are as much abstract and conceptual as they are visually ‘punk’ and savage. Her stories are crude by choice, a reaction to the slick commercialization of the mainstream comic market, and it’s clear that she intends to use her comics to actively engage her audience by revealing her own personal self-reflection.

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GUT FEELINGS chronologically lays out the evolution of Wishnia’s style, beginning with 2008’s “1001 Wives” to her most recent work “Don’t Stop Don’t Stop Don’t Stop,” originally exhibited at San Francisco’s Double Punch Gallery earlier this year. The scope of the visual experiments she delves into is much better appreciated with a curated collection like this, as we can track her formative scribbly yet meticulous penwork and densely crowded inking to the stylized protopunk design that she is more rooted in today. What remains consistent is the amount of detail she embraces in her backgrounds. Every panel is chock full of textures and patterns, with densely layered cross-hatching and engraving-like fibers running rampant over the page. A noticeable development is Wishnia’s altered rendering of her characters’ faces: the almost tortured scratchiness of Lori in “1001 Wives” becomes more defined, there is less of an erratic temper to her line, and in a piece like “Love and Romance,” the lines are smoothed out and pronounced, still as fierce yet now more capable of synthesizing the distorted, shapeshifting nature of her characters.

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‘Pretty’ or ‘passive’ are not words I would align with her work; rather Wishnia attributes an unrestrained excess of ‘ugly.’ She is not shy to merely illustrate beauty or vulgarity in her characters, instead choosing to express a plurality of feminist expression. Her leading ladies fluctuate between being strong, bold, and sexy to weak, sad, and desperate. Wishnia has proven quite adept at sketching women in the most extreme of circumstances; we see girls having intense panic attacks, oozing out tears and blood, and even brutally dying. By the end of GUT FEELINGS, the ideal female body as immaculate and unblemished is utterly demystified, as in “The Tortured Soul,” Cecilia’s misery literally manifests itself on her body, as she morphs and melts into an abominable creature.

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Perhaps the most arresting quality in GUT FEELINGS that surfaces is Wishnia’s depictions of identity politics, specifically in the way she undertakes the female image. In “Sis & Tit have Babies,” Wishnia complexly renders motherhood and birth as an almost sinister biological process. Tit’s grotesque, crazed glare as she slashes the unborn figure from Sis’s womb is almost assaulting to the eye, a forced vertical caesarean section only to birth an adult-sized man. This uninhibited representation of abortion is as frightening as it is humorous, one of many in Wishnia’s depictions of unruly embodiment. The initial shock of such an abject act is addressed in the last panel as Tit walks away with the aborted man-baby in her arms, asserting, “Don’t be so melodramatic, sis. You have the little leech now to play with. It’ll lick up your tears! Hahaha.” Wishnia is able to illustrate such a viscerally disturbing behavior as her subject matter, in a way that is reminiscent of Julie Doucet’s boundary-obscuring representations of the female body, as she attributes a subconscious, pulsating neurosis in the competitiveness of not only motherhood but sisterhood as well. And amongst all this, Wishnia generally employs an air of parodic humor, reminding the reader to not be so “melodramatic,” confronting and challenging the limits of how we perceive the female body as both a site of anxiety and a source of play.

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Throughout GUT FEELINGS, Wishnia emphasizes the reality and complexity of sexuality, as her characters explore sexuality in binaries of pleasure and pain, disgust and titillation, enjoyment and shame, all in a productive means to engage how we appropriate gender roles and subjectivity even in a present where the current wave of feminism we are in now is still up in debate. There is a constant morphing and shifting in the roles of her characters, from the perspective of the lusting spectator to the spurned beau, all of which map the psyche of the modern woman. The comic, “Tongue-Tied: The Story of a Girl and her Tongue,” tracks a lived sexuality of discovery and experience through the protagonist, Katy, and her literal organ, the tongue. Like many of her stories, this transformative tale is accomplished through a dreamlike, hallucinogenic envisioning where Katy and her tongue uncover the endless, pleasurable rush of everything from taste, kissing, oral sex, pill-popping, and imminently death. The tongue is presented as its own living entity, a libidinous sex organ separate from the penis or vagina, yet all the while charged with its own individual erotic nature. It’s not so much Katy that exudes eroticism but her tongue, slithering and sweating, becomes its own vehicle of desire. In fact, it’s the panel that singularly features two tongues that could be deemed the most pornographic: two slopping, dripping black masses grind upon each other surrounded by the text, “It felt both cold and warm…and wet.” In this panel, Wishnia is demystifying the gender-controlled association of intimacy and sex by explicitly highlighting the urchin-esque and sensual tongue in carnal revelation rather than the copulation between two subjective bodies. The tongue, indecipherably not gender-specific and non-reproductive, is the fundamentally significant star of the comic, living on even as its owner dies and thus invading preconceived notions of sexuality. The self-reflexive playfulness of “Tongue -Tied” is a creative means of expressing the materiality of gender beyond sexual distinction.

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Religion has a strong, reverberating presence amidst the pieces in GUT FEELINGS, most notably with the three parter “Sister We Must Persist In This.” Wishnia herself was raised with both conservative Catholic and culturally Jewish communist influence, and it’s made clear early on that she enjoys presenting a comically dark caricature of the religious system. When Suzie Blister walks in on her boyfriend, Daniel, in bed with Kyla Klaptrap (Wishnia also has a witty knack for naming), she is overcome with anguish and accidentally collides with a vehicle that places her into a comatose state. In the hospital, she is approached by the Virgin Mary who awakens her with the milk of her breast, the nipple discharging a baptismal deluge of liquid, christening Suzie. Wishnia manifests her opposing religious sentiments by conceptualizing an empowered sanction of women who worship the Holy Mother and God as woman, as Suzie, who becomes an apostle, explains, “And it was then that I finally saw THE TRUTH! That God made Mary in her likeness, who then passed that power down onto Jesus, Mary’s son.” Evoking the bizarre, nightmarish hallucinations of Justin Green’s seminal “Binky Brown Meets the Holy Virgin Mary,” Wishnia reprocesses her own experience by visualizing religion as an iconoclastic, feminist-oriented, and liberated assembly while maintaining the same iconic imagery. While the nuns are in true classic habit, they are resolute in their opposition to the institutions of Christian patriarchy, explicitly omitting the existence of male authority with a fervid refusal of the dogmatic generational inheritance of the family tree. The original Hail Mary prayer is irreverently transformed to “Hail Mary, full of grace. Our lady is with you. Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy spirit, Mary.” The apostles are unlike the meek and genial stereotype of nuns, alternatively they are expressive and unflinching, a stunningly rapturous congregation paralleling Paradise Island’s Amazons. They encompass the merry beach babes dressed in tiny bikinis as well as the nebulous cloaked-clad inexorable disciples of the church. The vixen-like stare is captured on the cover page of part 2, an alluringly magnetic image that could shine all on its own, and much like Wishnia’s other renderings of women, pressures how we perceive women that shatter the mold of “correct” female roles.

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“Sister We Must Persist In This” moreover displays Wishnia’s experimentation with layout strategies, as part two features a delineative variation of panel shapes and sizes, from the full page spread of the cover to the more cinematic wide composition, all the while littered with compressed, granular panels, one segment being the mirage of a blacked-out silhouette of Daniel in search of Suzie, captioned by a repeated “and walked,” as he passes to the unrevealed gateway to the temple of Mary’s apostles. The fluctuating landscape positioned behind a stagnant Daniel could be simply read as a sequential means to denote the passing of time, but it’s interesting how Wishnia attributes very little detail to Daniel’s movement yet paints such a vibrancy for the females. The only moments when Daniel is given an insurmountable amount of detail is when he is caught in hysteria—only then is he portrayed with an abundance of expressive furrowed facial lines, emitting sweat and tears for his lost Suzie.

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As mentioned previously, some of the best aesthetics in GUT FEELINGS are the rigorously etched-out physiognomy, often times being so grotesquely carnivalesque that it becomes a graphic device, one utilized to investigate with and against visual ideals. Wishnia packs her characters’ faces with such startling immediacy that it’s usually the first thing my eyes are drawn to. The sensation of the reader’s eye meeting the gaze of her bewitching characters is a moment of reflection—are we looking into the perplexing stare of Wishnia’s own reflections of herself, or is that gaze directed at the reader, provoking us to question the playful and uncontrolled vision of femininity. There is no definite claim for autobiography by Wishnia, although she has done work based on her own personal trauma, so the thematic concerns and the ways her images produce meaning are up to her readers to potentiate signification. This relational tension is what sets GUT FEELINGS apart from a lot of the work coming out of indie comics now, her stylistic means of dismantling authority is by creating characters that are plural and unfixed, and she thusly uses her comics as a subversive performance, continually probing for new ways of seeing, particularly in blurring the boundaries of the feminine imaginary.

Compiled with the intent of closure, GUT FEELINGS demonstrates the starting point for Wishnia as a cartoonist rife with possibilities and one who will hopefully continue to recognize the necessity in using comics and art as a source of critical discourse. While I don’t think her work is as fully realized as it could be, I prefer to engage with GUT FEELINGS as an echo of the many artistic and cultural influences that have engaged and informed her work thus far. Ultimately, Wishnia’s work is a refreshing and revealing read, and I appreciate a new creator who is able to tackle the political and experimental risks of representations.

 

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