Since he emerged in the mid-aughts as an important new voice in the Houston art scene, the writer Robert Boyd has been a fixture here. Founder of the respected blog The Great God Pan Is Dead, Boyd’s projects have included writing, publishing other people’s writing, a hotel room art fair, and a newly-announced print publication. Titled Exu, after the Brazilian god of crossroads and decision-making, Boyd’s new project, (pronounced “EY-shoo”) will be a tabloid-sized newsprint piece featuring original works by artists with a Houston connection, and writings old and new.*
I spoke with Boyd this week about the many plates he keeps spinning (he has a day job in operations finance in the energy business).
RK: When did you get interested in art?
RB: I was born that way. I liked drawing as soon as I could pick up a crayon. I think in 3rd grade I have a very vivid memory of going to the library for art appreciation and seeing that really famous Marc Chagall painting, and going, “Oh, that’s great.” Or whatever 3rd grade language I used.
Did you ever consider studying art?
I did study art, I did art and art history at Rice. And even before then I took painting lessons from Stella Sullivan, one of Houston’s oldest living artists. After school I worked for many years as an editor of comic books, and then decided in the early 2000s that I just didn’t want to be poor anymore, so I went back and got an MBA.
You love comics, but they don’t get much love and respect in the art world.
They very much don’t.
Comics are like the ceramics of drawing.
It’s like photography or film used to be. I took Thomas McEvilley’s history of film class at Rice, and he said something that stuck with me: that he was going to be teaching us “the art history of film history,” meaning he was only going to show films which had what he considered high art content. So we saw almost no American studio films. Part of that was snobbishness, but part was separating the wheat from the chaff.
With comics, people don’t really separate the wheat from the chaff; in fact they look almost exclusively at the chaff, and never at the wheat. So the comics that everybody knows about are really the crappiest, lowest common denominator. Saying how much you like Walking Dead comics is like saying how much you like LeRoy Neiman paintings. They’re terrible. They’re not art. And there’s a whole other world of comics that is. People who do things that are poetic or abstract, those things don’t get seen outside of a small group of aficionados. And those artists don’t make money and they don’t stay in comics very long, just like many artists who get MFAs don’t stay in art very long. Only a few of them stick around. It’s kind of tragic.
So yeah, I have a very snobbish, elevated, elite taste in comics, just the same as I have in art.
Do you think narrative is more important to comics than art?
I think it’s almost equally important. Abstract paintings don’t have any narrative, even though I don’t totally buy that. But almost any figurative painting implies a narrative of some kind. There’s something behind this image. Certainly any time-based art implies a narrative. It’s like film. You can have a Stan Brakhage film, or you can have a narrative-heavy Hollywood film. But they’re both still the same medium.
Narrative is almost a bad word in the art world.
Yeah, I think that’s a very problematic thing.
But it’s not a bad word in the comic world…
Comics is a literary genre, and I don’t think narrative is a bad word in literature. When I go to the MFAH and see a painting of a man and his wife in their stately home, I read narrative into that like crazy. I think narrative is important.
How did the Pan project come about?
I had started blogging just for my own pleasure, just to write stuff down. I wrote a lot about energy, exploring neighborhoods in Houston that I was unfamiliar with, just whatever caught my attention. That was around 2006. And occasionally I’d write about art things, and I’d write more and more about art things, and I’d go out and see stuff that I liked and kind of write little bullet point descriptions of what I was seeing, and that got bigger and bigger until it was threatening to take over the blog, which was called Wha’happen.
I had thought about naming my old blog The Great God Pan is Dead because I had this old William Burroughs record called Dead City Radio, and one of the spoken word pieces he does, I think it’s called Apocalypse, the first line in it uses that phrase, which is a quote from Plutarch. And I always thought it sounded great, especially in his nasal voice, and it sort of stuck with me.
So I decided to spin off the art part of my blog into its own blog. And I only found out later that Burroughs had actually written this spoken word piece as an accompaniment to a bunch of drawings by Keith Haring, so it had a visual arts element that I wasn’t even aware of when I came up with the title — or stole the title, I should say.
Were you concerned that the art stuff was going to have too niche of an audience?
I had no idea who the audience would be. The audience was me. I was just doing this as a hobby. If my hobby was golf, I’d just be playing for myself, I wouldn’t be trying to be a professional golfer. When I started I was 100% writing for myself. I was always amazed that anyone paid attention. And then I found out about Google Analytics, and I could see how many people were reading this.
A lot of people read it.
It built up slow. I think people saw reviews of things they had never heard of… I always think it’s kind of weird: you’re an artist, and you work really hard, and you put on a show at Box 13, and the only people who see it are your friends and your family and the people who are there for the other shows at Box 13.
And then it just sort of disappears, like you dropped a stone in a lake and it didn’t even make any ripples. So I think people who were reading it were people who wanted to see some ripples of what was happening locally.
RK: I’ve been paying attention long enough now to know that the collective memory is very, very short.
RB: Yeah, no kidding. My theory is that people of a certain age hang out with people who are more or less their age, not because of any dislike of older or younger people, although that may be part of it. But because if you’re young and single, you’re more likely to stay out late at night at bars with your peers. If you’re more settled and approaching middle age and maybe have kids and a house or whatever, you stay in. If you’re older, you don’t stay up late, but you get together for breakfast. And so consequently, these people don’t socialize with each other. And unless you’ve gone through a school situation where you’ve gotten to know someone from an older generation as a teacher, and if you’re curious, they might tell you a little about what happened here 20 years ago or even longer. But you might not be into hearing that when you’re 19 or whatever. And if you don’t go take a class from any of these people, you just might not know anything about what happened in Houston, the place you’re in, where you’re making art, in the art world, just a few years ago, much less in 1975 or something. And I find that interesting. So I often write about old art.
I wonder if there would be a way to cultivate a cross-generational interaction…
Well, I like to read. To me the obvious way were if someone were writing a book that was an art history of Houston, and it turns out someone is writing a book, Pete Gershon. I’ve read most of it and it will hopefully be kind of eye-opening. He’s been sort of plugging away at it for years.
When he did his thing about visionary architectural environments in Houston, his publisher made him cut a section out of that because of length, and I ran a bit of that chapter in the blog in Pan. And it was great, and very popular too.
When I started out Pan was definitely a one-man band, but then I saw Dean Liscum, somehow I stumbled across a blog that he had started, and it was really obscure, in the sense that I don’t think anybody knew about it. So I just sent him a note saying hey man, your blog is great, but if you want to reach ten times or a hundred times as many people, why don’t you put it on my blog.
I didn’t pay him. And after a while I started to feel guilty about not paying people and started offering to pay them, and Dean turned me down, but everyone else said “hey, why not?” It was all happenstance, that all these different writers showed up. I wasn’t actually out searching for writers.
Right now, I don’t want to say it’s moribund, because every now and then we publish something, but it’s not an active blog like it was in the past.
Do you suspect you’ll revive it?
I don’t know. I’m kind of burned out right now, I guess that’s the right word for it. I didn’t want to feel like I was obliged to work on it. And that’s how I started feeling, like was a thing I had to do instead of a thing I wanted to do.
And a thing you wanted to do was Exu.
Well, I wanted to keep doing something, and I knew it was going to be related to art somehow, and I come from a publishing background, and I like objects, paper, printing, so I thought of doing pamphlets, maybe collecting some of my favorite Pan pieces into a booklet or something, and I might still do that someday.
I’m not sure why I thought of the tabloid idea, but it just seemed like it would be the opposite of a blog, because it would be almost all pictures, and they would be really big pictures. One thing I always hated about looking at a real art magazine, a fancy art magazine like Artforum, is that you’d have this article about some art that sounds pretty interesting, but the pictures are so small, they don’t give you much.
So I just figured out how much this would cost, and I called some printers and got some quotes, and kind of whimsically decided to do this, without really thinking it through. It’s mostly just images, which I like. That’s why I’m in this thing. I’m not in love with my own voice. I’m in love with seeing things.
By far the biggest expense is paying the artists. And that was another reason I did it, because with Pan, all the energy I got off the artists, well, all they got out of it was a review. Which was probably enough, but I thought it would be nice to do something where the artists got paid.
Are you going to pay them a portion of the proceeds or just a flat rate?
Paying them a portion of the proceeds would be an insult. I mean, how many am I going to sell? There’s no way this thing’s going to earn it out.
Well, you’ve priced it so affordably. Which is nice because anyone can buy it.
The price on the Indiegogo is higher than the actual cover price, because that includes postage and the credit card processing, and Indiegogo’s slice of everything. The actual cover price will be $6. To me, that seems like a lot—it’s about the size of the Houston Press, and the Houston Press is free. But they pay for themselves by ads. Maybe I should have done what they do and called up Treasures. I thought about it, but selling ads is no fun, and I wanted this to be fun.
My preference would have been to give it away for free, but I want people to want it enough to buy it, I guess. I’m torn on that. And I kind of thought, “maybe you should make some of this $10,000 back.”
That’s how much you’re spending on this?
Yeah. Again, if I were a golfer and I had a membership at a country club, I’d be paying more than that.
So the selection of the artists for Exu seems pretty random…
They almost all have one thing in common – they’re all figurative. Actually they two things in common: they’re figurative, and they’re all working in two dimensions. There’s no sculptors, there’s no installation or video or film or performance – it’s all work that fits the format, and it’s all narrative art. And none of it’s, you know, quiet and contemplative. I don’t want to say it’s brash and in-your-face, but it’s more leaning towards that end of the spectrum than towards the subtle, quiet end of the spectrum.
Does that come out of your interest in comics?
It comes out of my interest in tabloids. Somehow the word “tabloid” got stuck in my head. I’d gone down to the library and looked at old issues, lots of old issues of the Houston Press—not the one that’s published now, but the one that was published in the 1920s through the 1950s. It was a tabloid format, not a broadsheet like the Chronicle, but it was also a tabloid in the style—lots of lurid crime stories, always screaming headlines, lots of gossip stuff right on the front page, like the National Enquirer, New York Post… There was just something about tabloids rolling around in my head, and I wanted art that was like that in a way. The connection is tenuous, but that’s why I wanted art that was brash, or else had content that was weird or scandalous or something.
So that’s how everything sort of fits in my mind. I don’t know that will come out when people actually see it. On the other hand, I also very much wanted the content to be diverse, which may be why it seems like a mish-mash of a whole bunch of different artists put together.
Both Pan and Exu have origins in satanic imagery. What’s your deal with the devil?
It’s not the devil. Exu is not demonic, it’s just what the slaves in Brazil decided to associate Exu with, just like they associated all their other deities with saints. I lived in Brazil for a while, and when I was there, I was fascinated by Candomblé, the religion. And certainly the most fascinating figure in Candomblé was Exu, although Chango is pretty cool, but he’s like the cosmic good guy, he’s like Thor. He’s kind of boring. Exu is like Loki. He’s more interesting. But he’s kind of an ambiguous guy. You ask him for favors, and he gives you something that backfires on you. He’s famous for liking human vices. When you sacrifice to him, you sacrifice a really powerful double distilled rum and cigars.
You see a link between Exu and Pan, maybe a very direct link…
It’s a very tenuous link, an archaeological link. They’re depicted the same way. Guys with pointy beards and horns.
I hadn’t really thought about Brazil and Brazilian things in a long time, and I saw the word Exu, and that just popped into my head. And I thought, oh, that’s perfect, because I can see a relationship to Pan – they’re both 3-letter words, they both have this weird connection to the Christian idea of the devil, even though neither one is the Christian idea of the devil, in their own pantheons they don’t represent evil. And so consequently I thought they had an underground connection to each other.
I thought about calling it just Pan. But X is a good letter in a title.
Even though nobody will ever pronounce it correctly.
I know. I assume everyone knows some Portuguese, but I guess that’s pretty naïve.
Tell me about the perks on Indiegogo, where you’re pre-selling it.
For the most part, I’m not getting paid for those, I’m paying the artist. So if you buy a perk, you’re putting money in an artist’s hand. I don’t really need the money that bad, I just want to sell some copies in advance, so the perks are really there for the artists. They get most of it, and I get $6 plus postage and handling.
When is it coming out?
It should be out in September.
Once the Indiegogo campaign is over, where will people be able to buy it?
I’m going to set up an online store, and then I’m going to see who’s willing to carry them on a retail basis, and at various zine and comics festivals that are within driving distance, I’ll be trying to sell them there.
What will the content be?
There’s four text pieces in Exu. I wanted to break up all the images with some text. One of them is by Sig Byrd, an old Houston columnist. He was like the roving rural reporter for the Chronicle, and there’s this one article where he goes down to Forrest Bess’s cabin in 1956, and spends an evening with Bess and a plumber and his wife from Pasadena who were buying a painting, drinking a bottle of tequila and drinking coffee… Byrd’s kind of a hard-bitten reporter and he’s totally skeptical. It’s interesting because it’s two figures of semi-forgotten Houston culture meeting.
It was literally two years ago I contacted them, and told them, hey you guys published this really great article and I’m wondering if I could reprint it on my blog for free. And they said we don’t really handle that, you need to go through copyright.com. And I thought, I don’t need you to handle this, I just need you to say yes. It’s not worth anything to you, I’m not taking it, I’m just going to print it once and that’s it. And they couldn’t do that. So I blew it off.
So when Exu was coming along and I thought I’m already going to spend thousands of dollars on this thing, why don’t I see what it’s going to cost to reprint this article from 1956. And it turned out to be $238, which is 1. weird, and 2. really expensive, because no one cares about this article except for me. I’m the one person except for Robert Gober who cares about this thing. Gober quoted it in his essay on Bess in the catalog. So I bit down and paid, and so the Hearst Corporation got paid way more than any of the other writers did, for that article.
For more on Exu and the artists and writers involved with it, click HERE.
*[Boyd’s Indiegogo campaign of pre-selling Exu, which includes some nice perks from artists, expires on August 3rd.]