Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 22

22

2:23pm

If Queequeg were made into an action figure (the true Queequeg, I mean, not that Star Wars knock-off, which nonetheless made for a legendary toy), besides featuring certain distinguishing bodily traits, he’d be reasonably expected to come packaged with several accessories – an embalmed head or a poncho maybe, his harpoon and tomahawk-pipe almost certainly – but none of the items with which Queequeg is characterized by proxy in MD would be as justifiably sealed up with him forever in a collector’s cellophane sarcophagus as Yojo, the ebony idol he worships.

10:27pm

MK paints “Yojo” before painting the figure of the idol itself; the name occupies nearly the whole of the canvas: Y O appearing in the upper half, J O just below. The letters are outlined in a brushed band of rich, gum pink, with a band of blood red tracing the outer edge of these formations, and another layer of pink beyond that, then another layer of red… the pattern repeating until the bands of color are just peaks and arcs barely showing the contour of the letters they’re shaped by as they ripple out to the margins of the canvas. In the hollow left by all these concentric bands of pink and red, the Y O / J O reveals another labeled circuitry schematic beneath the paint, save for in the middle of each O where are rounds of the gum pink. This is only the second time MK’s canvas identifies a character by a name (excluding Queequeg’s signature), and the first is the first illustration of the whole project, identifying Ishmael. There are many different ways, however, that MK registers the influence of individual words and fragments of speech in the illustrations occasioned by them. In this case, Queequeg’s idol is not named at this point in the text of MD (“Yojo” is not said until 13 chapters later), so the moniker swimming in the background of this canvas is another anachronism designed by MK, whose interest seems drawn in part by the pictorial symmetry of the name, given its arrangement on the canvas.

The figure of Yojo is formed by a rudimentary black outline in the foreground of the canvas. Its back is rounded and its apparent front quite flat, the body terminating in a short stump for a base. The head is shaped like a slightly squashed letter b, featuring two ribbed conical formations with black ovals at the tapered ends, seemingly serving for eyes. A rectangular patch with rounded edges is painted on his chest with sparsely brushed s-shaped vertical lines running along its length, like a rough-hewn wood grain raised from the boundless waters pushing out against the little body invested with the power of their god.

Maybe it’s just me, but if you cock your head to the right when viewing this canvas the two large Os in the name Yojo lose their appearance as letters and look instead like a pair of glaring red eyes, the Y and the J similar but not exactly matching underlying markings.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 022

Title: …he fumbled in the pockets, and produced at length a curious little deformed image with a hunch on its back, and exactly the color of a three days’ old Congo baby.
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint on found paper; August 27, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 21

9/15/21, 5:28am

21

Ishmael’s introduction to Queequeg, and the introduction of the latter into MD, consists in some 1,200 words worth of observations concerning the appearance and actions of a person who’s just walked into his own rented room at the Spouter Inn, where, unbeknownst to him, courtesy of landlord Coffin, another man is in his bed, observing him undress and prepare for sleep. 

The light by which Queequeg is observed is held in one of his hands, the rumored embalmed head in the other; he sets his candle down in the corner and begins untying the cords closing his bag of personal possessions. This is the extent of action described before Ishmael spends 200 words reporting on the appearance of the skin on the Queequeg’s face, which the former “was all eagerness” to see while the latter was turned from him, working at the bag. Apart from the initial confusion pertaining to the “large blackish looking squares” – Queequeg’s tattoos, which Ishmael initially mistakes for surgical “sticking-plasters” – the tone of the skin around these “stains” particularly disturbs him: it’s an “unearthly complexion,” he reports, “of a dark purplish, yellow color.” Ishmael’s overfull head at least contains some vague precedent for regarding tattoos as something under the sun, but for Queequeg’s skin tone he has no preconception: “I never heard of a hot sun’s tanning a white man into a purplish yellow one.” Of course, the presumption he’s made – Ishmael’s prejudice – is that Queequeg is “a white man,” that Coffin wouldn’t have paired him with a non-white man for a bedfellow (despite the landlord having specified that he’s a “dark complexioned chap”). 

The only figurative language registered in the whole of this lengthy literal report on Queequeg’s appearance and behavior upon entering his room is one simile meant to convey the speed with which all these considerations and wonderments passed through Ishmael’s mind: “like lightning.” The next time a simile is registered occurs after Queequeg has extracted his “sort of tomahawk” out of his bag, stowed his unsold head in it, removed his hat, and turned again so Ishmael can see the “scalp-knot” upon his forehead, all he has for hair: “His bald purplish head looked now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull.”

The event of language that MK chooses to illustrate from this page of MD is a disturbing one whereby Ishmael figuratively flays the offending skin off the face he’s just spent an intricate paragraph trying to account for. The death’s head collaged onto the body of the black yarn of the nightmarish harpooneer in 18 is here hand drawn in indigo ink with osteological exactness. The skull is sketched large, occupying the majority of the found page (now, again, a schematic from a radio manual: this one for an RCA Victor amp chassis); if face it had, it would be facing the left margin of the page. Daubs of greyish black ink are concentrated along the back of the skull and spread outward from its outline into the upper and lower left corners of the canvas. Only two features of the canvas render the skull identifiable as Queequeg. MK includes a thick, neatly bound “scalp-knot” of hair atop the skull – an uncanny sign of vitality and health on this otherwise lifeless thing – and, in the lower left corner, the Queequeg signature: a boldly inked capital Q above an infinity band, in red.

Previously, after my attempt to account for the nightmarish vision of the black yarn of a harpooneer in 19, which Ishmael carries with him to bed courtesy of landlord Coffin, when publishing that writing on my blog, I decided not to tag the post with the name “Queequeg.” I didn’t want the archival function of the tag to index that monstrous vision beneath that name. With this illustration, I have a similar reluctance, but the presence of the Queequeg signature upon this canvas seems to decide for me that this illustration and my writing about it will be so tagged. I don’t want it to be. This, too, I believe, is a conspiratorial vision of Queequeg: not an illustration of him so much as how he is seen to be literally skinned alive by the naive, prejudiced, dangerous gaze of the seemingly harmless person hiding terrified in the bed where the pair will spend the next few days cozying up and becoming best friends.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 021

Title: His bald purplish head now looked for all the world like a mildewed skull.
(7.75 inches by 11 inches; acrylic paint and ballpoint pen on found paper; August 26, 2009)

Every Page of Every Page of Moby-Dick, 18

18

Even after Coffin clarifies matters for Ishmael about the late nighttime activities of his promised bedmate, Ishmael is determined to imagine the worst: “‘Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.’” This time he justifies his prejudice on religious grounds, in such a way that (really, as such a proudly learned person) he should’ve figured out by now what sort of person the harpooneer is: what sort of person, he wonders to himself (as if in real time), spends the earliest hours of a Sabbath day involved in such a heathanish business as selling embalmed heads?

9/10/21, 9:05pm

MK’s illustration of Ishmael’s nightmarish vision of the harpooneer features prominently another death head – not drawn but collaged into the middle of the upper third of the canvas. Surrounding the black-and-white cutout of a  mandibled skull, is a broad, vague nimbus of white paint (barely discernible over the found page) with intervaled starburst blocks of grey. The feature is subtle but draws the eye to the death’s head almost as readily as the macabre array of red ink dropped, splattered, spilled and daubed about the canvas, most conspicuously on the margins. Owing to these most striking features of the illustration the eye can easily pass over as mimetic the tangle of black brush strokes twisted and spiralized into the approximate silhouette of the torso and limbs of a person, broad coiled ropes of black paint for feet. Clasped in a small, hooked loop at the end of a tendril-like braid for a right arm, a long black harpoon is painted, standing taller than the figure itself, red ink dripped and running from behind its spade-shaped head. Uplifted in the other twisted vine of an arm is a small black oblong shape (the offending “‘balmed head”) with white Xs for eyes and a horizontal white spine for a mouth. The figure is the horrible embodiment of the yarn Coffin has been spinning Ishmael about the harpooner. 

The question is: why does Ishmael persist in this nightmarish fantasy of the harpooneer even after Coffin more plainly explains the reason he’s out so late; what danger does he still pose? MK’s illustration, like the one of the barman Jonah’s poison tumbler, suggests death is at the bottom of it; only here, as with “the black Angel of Doom,” a shaded nimbus serves for the crown. The color chosen to paint the tangled yarn body – besides complimenting the black-and-white scheme that makes the drops, drips, splatters, and spills of red ink on the canvas scream bloody murder – serves as a fair reminder of the only information Ishmael has actually been given about the harpooneer besides the head peddling business: he’s “‘dark complexioned.’” This illustration is one of a monstrous black Other, truly more of a danger to any person the fantasy would be projected on than to the one doing the bad dreaming. As far as Coffin is concerned, as he rejoins before setting off to tuck Ishmael in, the man is civilized enough by the standards of the Spouter Inn: “‘He pays reg’lar.’” More than Ishmael could promise.

Matt Kish
MOBY-DICK, Page 018

Title: “Depend upon it, landlord, that harpooneer is a dangerous man.”
(8.5 inches by 10.5 inches; acrylic paint, collage and ink on found paper; August 23, 2009)