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Vice Versa

Remembering "the Nam;" picturing the art world.

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[Visual] art cannot be totally separated from literary art, nor vice versa. They encroach on each other," wrote Arnold Bennett.

More than encroach, the visual and the literary can coexist, which is the case with Memphian Robert McGowan, who, in addition to his own artistic output, helped found the arts journal Number:, established the artist-run Memphis Center for Contemporary Art (1988-1991) on South Main, and once acted as art critic for the Flyer.

Over the past few years, McGowan's also been placing his short fiction, nonfiction, and artwork in American, British, and Australian literary and arts journals. But now he's on his own as author of Nam: Things That Weren't True and Other Stories (published this past summer by Meridian Star Press) and another collection of fictional pieces called Stories from the Art World (Thumbnail Press, available this month). No less than Stewart O'Nan recognized Nam for its "remarkable range and depth." Janet Koplas, contributing editor at Art in America magazine, praised Stories from the Art World for its "wryly amusing stories" that give "voice to indelible characters and their unstoppable drive to create."

"Range and depth," yes, with regard to Nam, more than three dozen stories based directly or loosely on or inspired by McGowan's own time serving in Vietnam — stories that look back on those years as seen through the eyes and as told in the voices of the soldiers themselves, or a father, or a daughter, or a sister, or a nurse. The strongest story is the one included in the book's subtitle, and it's the story that closes the collection, "Things That Weren't True," which captures full-force — in scene-setting and dialogue — a Vietnam vet named Owen, well after the war, alongside his buddy Don on the hunt — for bullfrogs.

"An unstoppable drive to create," yes again, with regard to the characters in Stories from the Art World, which not only offers us eight of those characters' lives (including that of a photographer documenting his South Main neighborhood) but also the artwork they create in reproductions scattered throughout the text. The artwork is McGowan's own, but it predates the stories' composition. Which is to say, as McGowan does in his Introduction to the book, that the images inspired the stories, not vice versa. (It is also on the page facing that Introduction where you'll find the above quote from Arnold Bennett.)

These art-world stories are worlds away in terms of subject from Nam. They also exhibit a broadening of prose style: run-on, intricately constructed (but smoothly reading) sentences as opposed to the biting tone in many of McGowan's Vietnam stories. But one thing the two books share. As the author himself noted in an email: "Some of my Art World 'stories,' as is true of many of the Nam stories, aren't narratives at all in the standard sense but are more idea- or character-focused."

And so we have in Stories from the Art World: the transcript from a therapy session in which an artist (resolute in his decision to stop making art) confronts his psychologist with the abiding unhappiness he feels over the fact that he's stopped making art.

And we have: an artist close to dying and ruminating on the questionable value of his "weighty" (and critically successful) paintings and the possible greater value of his late-career small-scale metal sculptures inspired by a bird.

If these sound like esoteric concerns for a general readership, perhaps they are. But that doesn't make the method behind Stories from the Art World any less interesting as an experiment in combining the visual with the literary — and vice versa.

"At some point in the late '90s, I suddenly began writing fiction," McGowan said in another email. "It felt much less like something I chose to do than something that happened to me, one of those events that are common among artists — when something rises up out of the unconscious to become a demanding presence in one's life. A fascinating psychological matter.

"What is certainly interesting to me is the phenomenon itself: that my own visual work, usually long after its completion ... finds place in my stories as the work of my fictional artist characters. Which does seem rather eerie — my artwork done by the real me in the real world becoming at last the product of wholly imagined characters in imagined places."

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