Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days: Artifacts and Bone Fragments

Posted by on March 18th, 2010 at 12:01 AM

The story that seems to recur throughout these pages like a bad dream or an angry apparition is of childhood betrayed, innocence ripped away, and, even deeper than that, of guilt, complicity in some dreadful crime or dereliction. Horrible things happen to Pim and Francie—the grownups around them are all either predatory monsters out of the Brothers Grimm or doddering, guileless grandparents who fail to protect them from the likes of the traveling knife salesman who is obviously The Bloody Bloody Killer—but they also do horrible things, both to themselves and to each other. We see Pim guillotining goldfish, Francie swinging playfully on the rope from which Pim’s corpse is hanging, the siblings pounding nails into their own eyes and exclaiming “Holy fuck” as innocently as kids spinning in circles or somersaulting to make themselves dizzy. There’s a series of panels of Pim and Francie slashing their wrists atop their grandparents’ caskets, promising to join them in heaven, and a full-page image of Francie bawling a desperate apology as she clasps her grandpa’s decomposed corpse, his mandible dangling. It’s all unpleasantly reminiscent of those nightmares in which an old corpse you buried years ago and had all but forgotten is exhumed, exposing you both.[2]

In one of the book’s more continuous and intelligible sequences we see Pim accidentally killing his sister while they’re dancing to a jauntily bouncing old-time radio—flinging her into the air and failing to catch her. She lands horribly askew, and a telltale puddle begins to spread from her. He anxiously hides her body in a trunk and heaves it into a black lake, where it settles to the bottom amid old tires and skulls, and then cries himself to sleep over old photos of her. The End. The specter of the lost sister, the vanished twin, haunts this book. Its penultimate images show the siblings standing in a field, Pim saying, “Where are you going to go, Francie?” A star shines out in the dark sky over her. On the next page, the landscape is shadowed, and Pim is alone. A dry leaf blows across the ground where his sister stood, as though stirred by her passing. The star has gone out. We’re left to wonder whether Francie was ever “real,” a stand-in for all of real life’s losses, or only the better part of Pim—his imaginary playmate, his innocence or his anima—now extinguished.

Some of the most disturbing images in the book are the ones in which the children’s faces have coarsened to look less childlike and more adolescent—their features bloated, eyes heavy-lidded, lips slick and twisted into insolent sneers, like spoiled, nasty prep-school brats, capable now of adult corruption and cruelty.  We see Pim snorting Seamonkeys, tugging at a rope around the throat of a maimed Bambi and brandishing a razor, the accouterments of childhood put to depraved use. Here, as in Neverland, the greatest horror is growing up.

Throughout the collection, like cæsuras between its truncated narratives, we see empty interiors, as lushly rendered as the oil-painted backgrounds in early Disney films: the weathered wooden walls of old houses, ornate Victorian furniture, heavy velvet curtains, crumbling brick walls, studded metal doors creaked ajar to reveal dark vaulted halls beyond, a bare corridor with a single Mouseketeer hat discarded on the floor. Toward the end of the book there are a series of drawings of a happy cartoon landscape—rolling hills dotted with flowers, a hopping bunny, a smiling sun—painted on a sagging, tattered backdrop. One two-page spread shows many tiny figures of Pim and Francie rushing this way and that through a dilapidated, multilevel maze of corridors strewn with dismembered toys, like one of Pirasesi’s prisons—the whole world of their adventures revealed as a shabby stage set (like the moment when, as a kid, you realize that the background in a cheap Hanna-Barbera cartoon is a repeating loop). Even their word balloons (“We’re going in circles”) are depicted as cardboard cutouts hanging from cords. The metaphor seems to be of the whole landscape of childhood as a chintzy, half-assed sham thrown up by grownups to fool and distract a credulous audience. It feels alarmingly like the artist abandoning the whole empty charade of Art (I’m thinking again of those pages torn to pieces)—like Prospero breaking his staff in bitterness and despair instead of gracious farewell.

All images © Al Columbia

[1] I should hasten to clarify that what I know of Columbia’s biography can be summarized in two words, one of which is jack. For all I know his biggest problems as a child were homework and braces. But he is clearly one of those artists with the Monkey’s-paw gift of a direct and unblocked conduit from his unconscious, as though something had pried it open and it got stuck that way. We often say, of artists whose work we admire and envy, “I’d give anything to be able to do that,” but art like Columbia’s gives you cause to consider the cost.

[2] What, you never had one of these? Well, it’s not like I ever did either. I never said I did. It was a simile. Merely a rhetorical device. Of course I have killed no one. I am innocent. Innocent!

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2 Responses to “Pim & Francie: The Golden Bear Days: Artifacts and Bone Fragments”

  1. Mike Hunter says:

    Whew! I feel like this guy here*:


    That is one outstanding piece of critical writing! Perceptively describing the complex visual and emotional aspects of Columbia’s work; exquisitely written, with deft erudition; real-life incident and references further adding an almost physical weight to the whole. A lavish feast of critical delight.

    (Sound of one man clapping)

    *”…Steve Steigman’s iconic ‘Blown Away’……A pop culture staple, the image [was] used by Maxell in the 1980s to advertise audio cassettes…* ( http://www.arts-wallpapers.com/photography/blown_away/ )

  2. Social comments and analytics for this post…

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