Postcards from Seth

I once received a postcard… in a dream.

The image seemed familiar, an artwork by a famous artist. Turning it over, the script was indecipherable, scrawled in a language I didn’t recognize. End of dream.

The next morning however, lo and behold, a real postcard in my mailbox. It came from an old friend in Berlin who happened to be visiting a museum shop, knew I’d like the image and wanted to signal she was thinking of me. Her formal German handwriting was reminiscent of the dream card. It may have been the quintessential postcard…its sentiment enhanced and delivered by some ethereal force.

Noted Canadian cartoonist and graphic novelist Seth may have recently tapped into that ether. His show Postcard (Renann Isaacs Contemporary Art, Guelph, Ontario, through Christmas) features over 30 actual-size cards you’d never find at a Niagara Falls kiosk.

“This show is built entirely around the commonplace, mundane imagery of mid 20th century Ontario postcards,” the artist explains.

If you are familiar with Seth’s books, that postcards are a thing for him will strike you with no surprise. These small ink and gouache paintings echo a favorite motif in Seth’s art, exploring what has been lost to the past and how the mind’s eye view may have been obscured or distorted over time.

“They are not accurate depictions of the postcards – not at all – instead the old postcards are simply starting points that lead to familiar, well-worn scenes, perhaps more out of memory than out of the postcards themselves.”

Perhaps more out of memory….

SETH, Lookout Point, 2023, Gouache and ink on board, 9″H x 12″W

Lookout Point, for example, captures a popular landscape view, suggesting the Niagara River gorge or St. Lawrence Thousand Islands, albeit darkened with brooding, sulfuric clouds. Its viewpoint is elevated, a bird’s-eye view, seeming to hover over the cars and their occupants in the lookout’s parking lot. A recollection of a family road trip gone awry?

There are more dark images, including an ancient red brick factory in Elevator spewing something toxic from its chimneys – hardly stock postcard content. But Seth gently contrasts dour scenes with ones filled with light and serenity, perhaps even optimism. Tavern Square is a sight for sore sightseeing eyes; the warmth of the setting sun, and the tavern offering respite for weary travelers.

SETH, Elevator, 2023, Gouache and ink on board, 9″H x 12″W

Summer Camp might be the most cheery of these imagined postcards, and one channels the glee and excitement of youngsters within this view of coral-coloured roofed cottages by a meandering river. There are no campers to be seen in this view from above, but as someone has noted, the best part of a journey or holiday is the anticipation. Seth catches that thrill perfectly.

SETH, Summer Camp, 2023, Gouache and ink on board, 9″H x 12″W

Variety & Bait sits somewhere in between, offering a dusky summer night on the way to the cottage-country store. It’s a Seth reverie familiar to readers of his graphic novels, or “picture novellas” as he likes to call them. It captures the simple nostalgia of the days when station wagons had wood-paneled sides and the local variety store was not a 7-11. Southern Ontario in its glory days, one hears Seth’s brushwork proclaiming.

SETH, Variety & Bait, 2023, Gouache and ink on board, 9″H x 12″W

“Nothing lasts” is Seth’s mantra. Including postcards, which may have originated around the 14th century as little woodcut prints inserted into letters. Often such images came from pilgrimage sites, like Canterbury, reporting “I’m doing something with my life! Look!” as much as “I am here…wish you were here.” Today’s obligatory selfie at the Eiffel Tower posted to social media withers by comparison.

It could be a mistake to make too much analysis of these imagined landscapes in Postcard, though old postcards are the source material or jumping off point for the artist, taken from what Seth calls his “morgue” of stored reference material every cartoonist keeps to draw upon.

“A couple of years ago” Seth notes, “I was working in my Dominion notebooks” – Dominion ,the imaginary Southern Ontario city of Seth’s books and a standalone ever-growing sculptural installation – “and I painted about 60 little paintings based on postcards but altered to appear to be city of Dominion settings. They were sketchy and spontaneous paintings and I liked how they turned out and so when the time came to put together some work for a show I just decided to do this sort of thing again. The difference here is that these images are not supposed to actually evoke postcards so much as to simply use the old postcard landscapes as jumping off points for tiny landscapes. Just inspiration. The content of them was almost entirely ignored – except the composition of the images and sometimes some of the details.”

Still, these tiny works do make one think.

SETH, Tavern Square, 2023, Gouache and ink on board, 9″H x 12″W.

In Jean-Luc Godard’s film Les Carabiniers (1963) the protagonists set off to find fame and fortune, along with misfortune, documented in the postcards they send back to their wives. In the end, their spoils are (merely?)…a suitcase full of more postcards. A few decades after that film my friend Jef filled his suitcase with the quintessential Canadian postcard scene– Mounties at Lake Louise – when he made off for foreign destinations to conquer the world as a concert violinist. As he landed in various countries on his concert tour, he mailed them back home, crossing out the Canadian part of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police and inserting Belgium, Holland, Liechtenstein Mounted Police, etc. A sort of conceptual art, meta-postcard.

At the opening of the exhibit, I survey the 30 plus paintings and, while I do have a few favourites, the range of landscapes beckons the eye to consider some of the quieter takes in Seth’s postcards, particularly views to aging buildings in his Southern Ontario streetscapes that we’ve seen peppering his books over the years. I ask around the packed gallery room, and learn that each viewer seems to have different favourite scenes than mine, including a friend who notes that Dusk is his chosen ‘postcard’ as it brings to mind his childhood in the city of Winnipeg. This speaks to the power of this exhibit which Seth humbly calls “small works.” No matter artist’s intentions, Postcard is bigger than the sum of its parts.

In Susan Sontag’s On Photography she notes that ‘”today everything exists to end in a photograph.” And by extension, those used in postcards. She says that “the past itself, as historical change continues to accelerate, has become the most surreal of subjects – making it possible, as Walter Benjamin said, to see a new beauty in what is vanishing.”

I can’t recall the last time I sent a postcard, but I still receive them from thoughtful friends who could just as easily sent a smartphone pic – times one hundred. I never throw them out as they document time and space for both the sender and receiver, unlike the 20,000 images I’ve managed to snap in one and half years on my newest smartphone. The postcard is not some code in the cloud, it’s a physical record, artifact of our places going through time and space. I have several I’ve framed: Austrian artist Friedensreich Hundertwasser designed postcards from Vienna which I intended to send to friends, but were too luscious to part with. They now hang on my walls. Including one actually sent from Vienna from a friend who knew I’d add it to my collection.

“With a lot of what I draw or paint now,” says Seth, “I think I am mostly just dealing with aesthetic concerns — trying to make something beautiful and decorative. Of course, it all has an old fashioned quality as a given. Everything I do has some taint of the mid 20th century about it. That’s always the starting point. And that, I suppose, is always the most personal element of any of this stuff.”

Seth is reticent to say that in Postcard, he’s downplaying the notion that these are actually postcards.

“But here’s what I’m doing,” I say to the artist at the reception. “This work here, Lookout Point “– Jude the bartender chirps in that patrons were calling it Make-out Point – “Let’s say I purchase this one and when it comes off the wall at the end of the exhibit, I’m going to find a Canada Post, put a stamp on the back and scroll ‘wish you were here at Seth’s Postcard show.’” Then send it my loved one in Seattle.

“That’s a terrible idea,” Seth smirks, “because it will never survive. It’s like, in ten minutes, the gouache will have smeared. If you put it in an envelope, maybe, but then it’s not a true postcard.”

Sure, joking aside, but certainly that would be the best postcard a recipient could receive. And what’s his fav postcard he’s ever received?

“I don’t know if I could answer that, in truth, I’d just be making up an answer. I don’t think I care that much. Sometimes people send me vintage postcards and once in a while it’ll be something I like. Most of the time, to be honest, people send me some image that doesn’t mean anything to me, because they think ‘Mr. Old-fashioned, he’ll like any old fashioned thing.’ However, if I were to dig into my old correspondence from when I was young, twenty years old, I guarantee you there was a postcard from a girl I was in love with. And that would mean something to me. But what that postcard would be? I’m 61 years old. I couldn’t tell you. All I remember is the excitement getting a letter or postcard from somebody I really wanted to get a postcard from. I had a long-distance relationship at that time and every letter I got from her, well, yeah, that was like nectar from heaven.”

I’m thinking, that settles it: the artist has spoken. The options are clear. We could persist in sending digital shout-outs to our friends and family far and away, or post something personal, possibly beautiful, to express our sincere sentiments.

Your recipients may even foresee your intentions in their dreams.

Just – if you use one of Seth’s postcards, be sure to spray it with a protective varnish before you stick it in the mail.

Vincent Cherniak writes in London, ON

Seth Postcard at Renann Isaacs Contemporary Art until December 23, 2023

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2 Comments

  1. says: Ted Collins

    Seth’s images and Vincent’s writing have inspired me to pay more attention to local art and attend more events.
    It’s about slowing down in a too-busy world to really appreciate artistry and the emotions generated.
    Great work, can’t wait to see what’s next!

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