In the beholder's eye | Home | Current issues | Back issues |

November 23 - 27, 1998

Tuesday, November 24, 1998

In the beholder's eye

Full of lascivious curiosity, we went down to the sexy part of town to see who would look at us and in what way.

--- Phoebe Gloeckner, "Vocational Training"

Seeing. Being seen. Seeing oneself being seen. The gaze, the postmodernists call it. French psychiatrist Jacques Lacan says our selves are formed when we see ourselves in the gaze of our mother. Bay Area graphic artist Phoebe Gloeckner makes it the central focus of a new book, A Child's Life and Other Stories. Odd, then, that long before I laid eyes on Gloecknerís work, it was presented to me through sounds and written words.

The words first caught my eye --- a sentence in a Chronicle piece by Kimberly Chun: "Growing up in the 1970s, Gloeckner found comfort hanging out with other runaways in one of the seediest neighborhoods in San Francisco: the Tenderloin." Apparently inappropriate for the eyes of San Francisco readers, the article appeared only in the East Bay section of the paper, reducing the city's headlined "mean streets" to a scene seen through a telescope implanted in the quiet hills of Oakland.

The article sent me to San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum, where a collection of Gloeckner's drawings is on display until mid-December --- excerpts from autobiographical cartoon stories and finely crafted individual drawings. Gloeckner's training as a medical illustrator allows her to reveal the tissue and organs that lie beneath human physical surfaces, requiring viewers to acknowledge the flesh-and-blood component of usually distanced subjects. The torso of a nude woman, for example, contains not only sex organs but also comminuted fractures of the tibia and fibula, hinting at possibilities of dreadful violence. In contrast, the titillation of oral sex dissipates as the act becomes an interaction of myriad muscles. These drawings are not for everyone's eyes, and the museum has wisely set aside an "Adults Only" room where interested visitors can explore the most graphic images without worrying about their effect on --- or the reactions of --- the unwilling or unprepared. It has also, probably unintentionally, injected an aural element into the visual process: the ancient floorboards of the marked-off area shriek with every footstep, suggestive of the "nightingale floors" that guarded medieval Japanese palaces by squeaking loudly when intruders entered. Unfriendly eyes, keep out!

(I discovered later that questions of seeing and being seen are an integral part of looking at Gloeckner's drawings, when I pulled out a copy of A Child's Life on an airplane, intending to begin work on the present piece. I had openly read and re-read the book at home, but I found myself surreptitiously turning its pages away from the stranger next to me. To avoid causing his discomfort? Or to avoid discomfort of my own, if I had to witness the sight of myself and my book converging in his gaze.)

But I was still without a glimpse of the book, the museum having sold out. It took a while to track it down. Then, eureka. Book in hand, I advanced slowly through an inevitable line of anonymous shoppers, proffering purchases and paying money, until the clerk realized what I was buying. He took his hand off the register, looked directly into my eyes, and said, "A very disturbing book." Better than any celebrity blurb.

Disturbing, it is. Not so much for its Full Frontal Nudity, of which there is very little. But for its Full Frontal Gaze. Gloeckner recalls --- in pictures --- joy at rough-housing with her mother, and despair at observing their play through her stepfather's eyes. She knows --- and details in her drawings --- pride in becoming a young woman, excitement at seeing the excitement her changing body arouses,  and disgust at watching older men watching her. She even understands --- and manages to present simultaneously --- the disillusionment of the teenaged boy who mistakes a girl's silence for innocence, and the desperation of the teenaged girl, who mistakenly thinks the boy has seen her clearly.

Then there's "Minnie's 3rd Love, Or: Nightmare on Polk Street," which R. Crumb calls "one of the comic-book masterpieces of all time." Set in 1976, it chronicles the bildungsroman of Gloeckner's alter ego, Minnie (Mary the Minor, in another story), as she --- a runaway teenager --- imbibes "pot and pills" on Polk Street. With "innocence not entirely feigned," her body explores and is explored by love-of-her-life Tabatha and countless barely noticed others. She progresses from stoned to wired to wasted. And then to self-knowledge. In real life, Phoebe Gloeckner relates in her Chronicle interview, "Something snapped." Resolved to avoid the certain fate of death or prison that she saw ahead, she returned to school, graduated from San Francisco State with a degree in pre-med and art, and completed a masters in medical illustration at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas. In the story, this period is contained in a single blank panel, labeled "And so on...." Minnie blacks out, finally oblivious to proprietary stares. She disappears from view, to reappear 18 years later for a chance encounter on Market Street. Tabatha limps toward her, Karposi's sarcoma mottling her face and arm. "You're lookin' good, babe," she says, but it's Minnie the artist who is now doing the looking.

For Gloeckner, the Tenderloin is a special neighborhood, where she would return in an instant if she could. If we read her book closely, we can see why, for it was a place where people shed the hypocrisy that clothed their gaze elsewhere. More important, it was a place where she could smash the lens of other people's eyes and look directly at herself.

Seeing. Being seen. Seeing oneself being seen. It's what defines womanhood for many women. In one of Gloeckner's few portraits, a black-and-white print, her mother --- who had surrounded her young daughter with the gaze of her own boyfriends --- looks directly at us, coquettish and charming, as we look at her. Her two clear blue eyes provide the only spots of color. Here's lookin' at you, kid.

--- Copyright Betsey Culp 1998

Wednesday -- Friday, November 25 -- 27, 1998


Happy Thankgiving!

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