Review by Woodrow Phoenix
Hand-Drying in America is a collection of strips produced monthly by Ben Katchor for Metropolis, an American architectural magazine. With its focus on the details of buildings and the designed environment, Metropolis is the ideal home for Katchor’s kind of commentary that seizes on tiny details and interrogates them in logical but absurd ways. The almost tabloid newspaper size of its colour pages allows him to abandon the dream-blurred grey ink world of Julius Knipl’s lost New York. Now acid yellows and blues contrast with warm reds and oranges as the subjects of these strips inhabit minimal lofts, expensive apartment buildings and mid-town high-rises, eat in cool restaurants and visit galleries.
Colour removes the nostalgic element, and amps up the hallucinatory qualities of Katchor’s wry observations and provocations, but it’s still the same mix of curious abstract notions made concrete with varying results; architects treating clients like lab rats, designers attempting to anticipate every human need and instead creating new categories of neurosis. Yet although we have moved away from the dilapidated past and into the newly built environment of the modern American city, these contemporary urban spaces are still a very white, very privileged male world. Women are background observers and non-white people barely exist at all. It’s a strange blind spot.
Hand-Drying in America is a big square book, almost the size of an old vinyl LP and the space is well-used in these drawings with their scratchy, suggestive lines flooded with hot and cold colours. The pages are mostly composed as grids, but the square shape means that often the artist breaks up the grid with one or two big panels, and you have no idea which order to read them in. The ways that people respond to their objects, decorations, or living choices in these strips are funny and thought provoking, and if the jokes seem a little forced sometimes, they are always logically arrived at. The dry literary voice of the captions counterpoints the scratchy pictures perfectly. There is a lot of inventive, surprising and brilliantly explored observation here that will stay with you and have you looking more closely at your surroundings. Anyone interested in design, architecture or the nature of cities and how they work will find these strips very satisfying and if you weren’t interested in those things before you might slowly find that you are now. This is another excellent collection of strips from a unique stylist in the comics medium.