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BOOKS FOR A HAPPY NEW YEAR: PETER POPLASKI

Denis Kitchen, somewhat like Alice of the rabbit hole fame, went down the drain at Kitchen Sink, his own company, a few years ago, and, like the itsy bitsy spider, exited by the water spout into another world, whereupon he promptly set up as a publisher again, under the pretentious monicker Denis Kitchen Publishing Company, which, to-date, has published several admirable and rare books, one of which is The Sketchbook Adventures of Peter Poplaski (206 6x9-inch pages, b/w; hardcover, $25). 

Poplaski, who I’ve met only once to my knowledge, looks, as Robert Crumb says in the Introduction to this book, “like the man who reads meters for the utility company” — tall, short-haired, and clean-shaven except for a distinguished moustache. But appearances are forever deceptive, as we all know. Poplaski is scarcely a meter reader. He is, in fact, one of the last of a probably vanishing breed — a free-spirited freelancer, who, in my imagination after perusing this slender volume and perhaps even in fact, wanders the world, living on a pittance earned through occasional commercial illustration assignments, otherwise pursuing his passion — drawing and looking at every great masterpiece of art in the original, a task, Pete says, “I am near to completing” after thirty-four years on the road, much of it in Europe, where he goes frequently and for longer and longer periods, staying in Sauve, France, the little village where Crumb and his wife Aline live on nearly nothing if they so desire.

Poplaski cover To an old Beatnik like me, that is an idyllic life. And Pete is living it, and he has recorded the scenes he’s seen, and the people, in a series of sketchbooks, five of them, covering the years from 1994 to 2002. Many of these drawings are published in this little book, a rare treasure.

The book is an artist’s anecdotal archive. At first glance, the pictures look like Crumb’s, copiously cross-hatched. But that first impression evaporates as you linger over the pages. Cross-hatching, yes, but also cross-hookiing, stipling and diagonaling, chipping, clotting, and heavy bristly multi-linear outlines, recording anonymous faces Poplaski has seen in the local bistro, or in the street, old buildings staggering up ancient cobblestone inclines. Sometimes in France; sometimes everywhere else. Some, as an exercise, drawn in just three minutes each. Pictures of friends and dignitaries. Here’s cartoonist Jay Lynch, leaning forward, arms folded on the table in front of him, a cigarette in one hand, expounding, as Jay is wont to do, on the intellectual underpinnings of cartooning: “True humor is an exposure of truth or a revelation of hypocrisy, so,” he begins, “— these two pollacks are walking into a whorehouse, see ....”

Some faces take a whole page; some appear in a grid of twelve or so panels, like a kind of comic strip of strangers’ faces. There are subtle differences in faces, even in profile (the easiest way to draw a face), and Pete’s caught them.

If you’ve never sketched, you may not like or appreciate Pete’s great skill. But even if that evades you, you might, as I did, think, as I thumb through the book, of Van Gogh and Gauguin in Arles. I’ve always been fascinated by Van Gogh, the artist as hero, as the actor of his own life, albeit a failure in all others — the driven personality, living a “heroic act of will."

Throughout the book, Poplaski has sprinkled quotations that turn a book of sketches into an artist’s credo, a manifesto of the artist and how he views his art and the world. “Art,” writes Henry Miller, “like religion, it now seems to me, is only a preparation, an initiation into the way of life.” For Miller, the idea is “to live creatively ... to live more and more unselfishly, to live more and more into the world, identifying oneself with it and thus influencing it at the core, so to speak.” Robert Hughes: “The basic project of art is always to make the world whole and comprehensible, to restore it to us in all its glory.” Not exactly Miller’s formula for living fully,  but still, memorable. N.C. Wyeth may be closer to Miller: “The vitality of artistic expression is essentially autobiographical.”

But “art” is not the only lesson Poplaski finds in quoting others. Here’s G.K. Chesterton: “There are two ways to get enough. One is to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.” Thomas Carlyle in his best suit of clothes. And then this, near the end of the book, from Anatole, France: “A work of art is never finished, only abandoned.”

And so, for the moment, we come to the end of Poplaski’s world. And a gratefully appreciated sojourn it has been: however brief, it nourishes the soul by making you think of what might be as well as what is, the world of the artist, never finished, but not, thanks to this tidy tome, abandoned either.

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Comments

Gayle Kitchen

I am trying to sell this large portrait of myself done by Pete in his early years while living in Princeton, Wisc, while I was nanny to my nieces there. It is approx 2x3 feet big and signed POP 2/28/1976. I can guarantee in writing this is me and Pete drew it. I was 20 years old at the time and Pete drew a stoic, but busty portrait of me. I recall not smiling as my brother's furnace was not working that day and my nieces kept bumping the easel. Pete worked on it 2 days, weeks apart and was alarmed when I cut my hair about 12 inches when he returned to finish it! I last saw Pete at our art museum about 3 years ago. I love his style and my favorite part of this picture are my hands. I am not sure of the value since Pete is now famous for oils and comics, but a collector might appreciate I come from a family of artists=James/sculpture, Alexis/cartoonist, and Denis/publisher. I have a portfolio of sketches also, but never tried to promote my own work. Anyone interested should email me for pic of this portrait and an offer. It is framed in simple metal frame and blue matt. I am moving and have no room for this nice example of Pete's starving artist era.

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