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.
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.
It’s a shoreline scene. Rudimentary gray outlines of storied buildings grow up slantwise beyond the rolling, yellow bank. The “water gazers” described in Loomings are painted as grey limbless cylinders, bald and rounded at the top, with beaky noses and lidless dilated eyes, their faces pointing in every direction but toward the geometric structures in the background. Some behind the rolling yellow shoreline peek over the vales, others stand erect near the black line forming the shore between ochre yellow and opaline blue – facing every which way, waterward all they stare, toward the vantage of the viewer of the canvas. One of them – the foremost, with only the top of its head shot above the bottom of the frame – faces me directly, blankly, like a photobomb. Variously patterned and colored, some of the figures appear partially submerged but still shooting up out of blue as if through a wormhole, never quite in touch with that native element they’re so drawn to.
The city folk Ishmael espies trapped in “ocean reveries” as an escape from their daily lives confined in lath and plaster, chained to desks, while drawn to the water for reasons akin to those of the renegades, castaways, and meanest mariners aboard the Pequod are not in MK’s illustrations imbued with the element as other characters are – or traversed by it, opened to it – but rather insulated from it, dried out from want of it. No lids for their eyes because no moisture to quicken there, much less a tear to spare. They’re like buoys: still made for the water but only what they are so long as they keep it out.
MK’s choice of line here shows his partiality to MD’s humor. While the illustration isn’t unfunny, it repels me like an unwanted glimpse in a mirror. My sister, a sailor, would probably laugh more freely at it. I guess it comes down to how honestly you can occupy the vantage the canvas casts you in.
In “Loomings” the narrator we’re told to call Ishmael makes himself known to the reader obliquely. Between the lines as it were, we learn that Ishmael is a former schoolmaster, steeped in the Classics, who perennially gets so “hazy about the mouth” to go asea to alleviate his “spleen”: to avoid doing a-harm to others or to himself, his “substitute for pistol and ball.”
In MK’s first rendering of the narrative apparatus or conceit of Moby-Dick the name Ishmael appears atop the page of “found paper” drawn in blocked capital letters, outlined with thick black strokes. The original printing of some circuitry manual is still legible beneath the painting, revealing that the name “ISHMAEL” isn’t painted on but rather merely formed as a preserved space of the canvas, projected as if on a screen – or perhaps as the screen itself – by a beam of prismed light parting a cloud formation, jaundiced as if backlit by the sun. A figure of Ishmael that will recur throughout MK’s MD as a major motif appears painted large in the lower-right quadrant of the page: the shape is vaguely head-like with two blue, glaring eyes spaced widely apart. The upper portion of the head-like shape is bedaubed grey and the lower portion of the figure is blue, the line between these two hues drawn as two peaking waves that give the head-like shape a sort of grimacing expression to my eyes.
Since “Loomings” is composed mostly as a poetic meditation on the magnetic virtues of water – the most abundant substance on Earth: at once the most vital of its life-giving elements and its most destructive force – it’s fitting that MK first renders Ishmael as a sort of baghead, tied off neatly at the top, half filled with the stuff. Ishmael’s head looks to me like the sack of water a child would be seen carrying away from a fair as a prize, only this bag has eyes and no fish inside.