My other great cultural love, alongside visual art, is comics. I think it’s because the form combines writing and pictures, the two media to which I’ve devoted my career. Whether it’s a comic or just a meme, I find it immensely satisfying and kinetic when images and words are brought together in such a way to add up to something greater than the sum of those parts.
That something is the theme of my picks this month. Each of these accounts brings text into the Instagram frame, albeit in very different ways. After years of scrolling in search of only pictures, it seems I’ve finally accepted that this social media platform has more creative possibility than I thought.
I remember picking up Mira Jacob’s book “Good Talk: A Memoir in Conversations” (2018) with uncertainty; I wasn’t sure what I thought about the format, which features drawn characters facing forward, usually side by side, talking to each other but never visibly emoting. I worried it might get repetitive, but in fact “Good Talk” blew me away — the book is a complex, funny and penetrating portrait of being a person of color in this country. Those same qualities (and the same format) are present in much of the work that Jacob puts on Instagram, whether it’s about the difficulties of the pandemic or last fall’s presidential election. In one powerful post from Jan. 7, she placed images of her and her son amid photographs of the Capitol riot while intoning, again and again, “This is America.”
It’s not uncommon for Chanel Miller’s posts to make me tear up. Her comics tend to be devastatingly honest, capturing in just a few panels an incredible depth of feeling. In a way, that’s not surprising; as the woman formerly known as Emily Doe in the Brock Turner sexual assault case, Miller used the power of words to tell her own story in the memoir “Know My Name.” But I’m also taken by the aesthetic of her work: Her handwritten text and purposefully scratchy drawings create a sense of rawness, as if we readers were watching her process things — mostly recently, the pain of anti-Asian hate crimes — in real time. Miller’s comics are borderless, and the surrounding white space gives them a floating, dreamy quality, like thoughts and images that are subject to change, just barely held in place.
About a year ago, at the beginning of the pandemic in the United States, Paul Druecke started picking up litter. It was “a way to maintain connection to a fast changing world,” he writes in his description of the project, which is titled “America Pastime.” His earliest photographs, posted on Instagram, were close-up shots of jumbles of trash that he encountered; I found them arresting and artful, in spite of their subject matter. Since then, the images have become more abstract, and Druecke also posts short texts that at times read like correspondence, other times like poetry. The combination of different elements gives “America Pastime” greater heft, making it a compelling meditation on how people relate both to each other and to our physical world.
One of my favorite uses of Instagram is as a thematic archive. Accounts like this abound, and when they’re done well — that is, thoughtfully and carefully — they feel like treasure troves of knowledge and insight. That’s the case with the Womanist Reader, the creation of Bilphena Yahwon, who, after the murder of 19-year-old Black Lives Matter activist Oluwatoyin Salau last June, looked to books to make sense of what she was feeling. On Instagram, the Womanist Reader shares poems and excerpts from texts by Black women, alongside historical images and videos that give their words a fuller and more intimate context. The account is accompanied by an online library. Taken as a whole, the project honors the voices of Black women not just by broadcasting their images but, more important, by engaging with their ideas.
I’ve long complained that the art world takes itself too seriously, but maybe I should revise that now that there are several hugely popular Instagram art meme accounts. Of the most prominent three — Art Review Power 100, Freeze Magazine and Jerry Gogosian (which is now private, despite having nearly 89,000 followers) — it was hard to choose one for this column. But I landed on Freeze, which was founded by a Turkish-born artist named Cem A., because it makes me laugh most consistently. As we pass the year mark of the pandemic, I take refuge in the blunt, bracing humor of a crude joke about NFTs. But it’s more than that, because when an art meme lands just right — like a trio of hard truths delivered via stills from “Spider-Man” — it goes from funny to something deeper, something not too far-off from criticism, or even art, itself.