Authors on Art: The Humanoid Narratives of John Casey

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Please welcome Brian Allen Carr for this month’s Authors on Art, a series of creative responses by poets, novelists, and experimental writers curated by Blake Butler.
The last art class I remember taking was in high school, so I probably don’t know what I’m talking about. I mean, I know my opinions, but I don’t know why I have them.
I’ve been reading a ton of children’s stories. I have a three year old. I’ve become an addict of tales. Aesop, Grimm, Andersen. Drip them on me like syrup. Precision and morality are effective as fuck. Concision in narrative provides a kind of welcomed negative space. Minimalism, you might call it, but only aesthetically.
John Casey is an Oakland based artist whose subject is humanoids. I don’t know what else you’d call them, they are most often a sort of grotesque human with exaggerated features. Think Rapunzel or Gogol’s The Nose. In seemingly simple compositions, Casey creates these tortured beings—humans destroyed by their own forms.
Take for instance Swinger, a (mostly) black and white pen and graphite composition of a man, whose nose is evolving into two petal-heavy, red flowers. He clings to a rope, knotted at the bottom. His hair, thin. His face, dark. His teeth, spare. A sort of medicated or stupid look about him. Who is he? Why is he there?

John Casey "swinger"
John Casey, Swinger, 2010, Pen and Graphite on Paper, 17×14 inches

Or, Forget-me-knotsA man with comically large hands stares at his fingers—which are reddening from loss of circulation—which have over a dozen strings wrapped tightly around them. Presumably, each string is a representation of a task to be done, yet the man’s expression yields only puzzlement. He is married; we can tell by his ring. He has a large watch. Perhaps he is henpecked.
The beauty in Casey’s compositions is they afford us enough detail to assume a narrative. There are hints for us to be mystified by. There are hints to show us the way.
With his sculptures, however, Casey’s work is often more over the top. Take for example First Born an 11-inch-tall head with legs smiles almost drunkenly. The belt of his trousers is cinched tight. His nose resembles a red dog boner.  Or another sculpture, Criss Cross, is a sort of hip-hop inspired man-finger hybrid striking a thug-life pose. The spot where his head should be, a finger-victory sign.
John Casey "criss cross"
John Casey, Criss Cross, 2012, epoxy clay and paint, 12 1/2x6x4 inches

I put myself through graduate school as a special education teacher. I have helped humans with strange forms. I’ve changed adult diapers. I’ve fed the blind. I’ve spent more hours then you could fathom trying to teach twenty year olds not to masturbate in public. I am always delighted by the oddity of humans.
Casey seems to crave similar oddities. With skill he creates beautiful beasts, and, with restraint that not enough artists (in any field) understand, he allows them to simply exist.
Casey’s compositions are not plagued by superfluous detail. They do not to attempt a narrative beyond what is necessary. He shows us the condition within the humanoid must exist, and he allows us nothing more than white space to develop the story on our own. If there are other details in each composition they are spare. A rope swing. A watch. Or, as in Baby Brother, a little wagon to be pulled.
Casey’s most detailed works are his pencil drawings. In Black Light, for instance, a drawing that uncharacteristically (for Casey) lacks any negative space, a boat carrying a lighthouse sails toward a coast of lighthouses, beacons blazing in myriad directions. And in Eruption Disruptiona man with a skin-less face shoots geysers from his eyes.
John Casey "black light"
John Casey, Black Light, 2011, pencil on panel, 24×36 inches

Where Casey dictates narrative most often is through his work with GIFS. In Nod (Self-Portrait), the ink-rendered artist nods dramatically, looks back and forth, grows hair as his face is decorated, ultimately culminating in his appearance resembling that of a luchador. It’s a quirky little work that disrupts the audience’s ability to create a narrative. But, as if through compulsion, you find yourself nodding along with Casey. And he deserves to be nodded along with.


Brian Allen Carr lives with his wife and daughter in McAllen, Texas. His stories appear in AnnalemmaBoulevardFiction InternationalHobart,KeyholeKitty SnacksTexas Review and other publications. He was chosen as the inaugural winner of the Texas Observer Story Prize by Larry McMurtry. He teaches at South Texas College.