January 26, 2023


Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections. By Shaun Tan. Levine Querido. $35.                                            

     Here is a coffee-table book for which it is worth buying a coffee table if you do not already own one. Shaun Tan, an Australian artist and illustrator who nominally works mostly on books for preteens but in reality creates for anyone, of any age, whose imagination is stretchable, here offers an extensive sampling of his creature-focused art and some introspective and highly enlightening comments on it and on his own creative process.

     Creatures need not be monsters, although the terms are often conflated and, looked at objectively, most of Tan’s creatures are monsters, or at least monstrous. But there is something far more subtle going on in Tan’s work, as readers and viewers will quickly discover here. Tan’s prose is on point when he discusses what he has wrought: “semi-mechanical creatures” producing a feeling “of equal delight and disquiet.” Or to put it more poetically – still in Tan’s words – he produces “mutant children of some antique future.”

     There is as much subtlety to Tan’s art as to his writing and the thinking underlying it. He produces a delicate poise of prose hovering just on the edge of full intelligibility – and that is also what he visualizes in the monstrous non-monsters made of organic and mechanical parts in an impossible admixture of perception and activity. Consider, for example, “Never Give Your Keys to a Stranger,” a black-and-white pencil drawing from the book Rules of Summer, showing a boy standing outdoors, looking in through a window at a room in which another boy sits on a sofa watching television; beside this boy sits a huge cat or cat-like being, dressed in adult-human clothing. SO: who is the stranger here? The two boys look alike – are they the same? But, given the title, is the one watching TV the stranger? True, the cat-like creature is the obvious choice as “stranger,” but the room reflects that being as if he (it?) belongs there: there is a cat knickknack on the TV set, a cat-family picture on the wall, and a pair of slippers whose multiple toes seem perfectly suited for the unshod feet visible on the cat creature. Who gave keys to what stranger? And what is the picture labeled “T.S. Eliot” doing on the wall?

     Tan’s art almost always invites quizzical speculation and interpretation along these lines. His pastel-on-paper “Future Eater,” for example, is a colorful work at whose center an organic-looking four-limbed creature with smokestacks for ears and a shield-shaped metal object for its one visible eye (it is seen in a side view) is biting into a green plant stalk and apparently moving toward other organic food, while mechanical debris that appears to be the creature’s waste products can be seen behind the creature. Is this creature going to become an eater of some sort in times to come and is therefore called “future eater?” Or is it somehow consuming the actual future and being a “future eater” in that sense? In his discussion of this work at the back of the book, Tan says the title comes from a book that is an ecological history of Australia – but although that is the truth, it is not all the truth of what Tan has created. There are truths within truths throughout these art pieces. And half-truths within half-truths, as befits a creative process in which Tan explains that he is “trying to be honest while making things up.” And he communicates that honesty in these strange ways because, he writes, “little clockwork animals are so full of the heart they are clearly missing.”

     Well, that explains a lot and at the same time explains nothing – paradoxes of that sort abound in Tan’s worlds, both the visual one and the one created through words. Tan says he has always been interested in “an empathetic reading of otherness,” and perhaps it is just that – empathy – that prevents the monstrous creatures in this book from being the sort of monsters that would visit depredations upon other denizens of Earth. If there are lessons to be had from Creature: Paintings, Drawings, and Reflections, from its marvelous picturing of impossibilities interacting with humans and its sensitively rendered prose descriptions of those interactions, perhaps the foundational bit of learning here is, as Tan notes at one point, that “we are all mutually strange.” That all encompasses humans, near-humans, nothing-like-human creatures that nevertheless are capable of interacting with and even empathizing with humans, and all the other marvelous members of Tan’s uniquely indecipherable mythos, which in this book explains itself so well while remaining, at its core, inexplicable.

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