COYLE, Matt, Worry doll series
Hobart-based graphic novelist Matt Coyle is definitely not afraid of confronting life's darker side. In fact, he taps into some sort of demented collective unconscious to create the twisted narratives for which he is becoming increasingly well known. With his 2007 print series 'Worry doll', which derives from the graphic novel of the same name, Coyle delves into the warped mind of a serial killer to construct a fragmented narrative, told from the point of view of a trio of dolls who are forced to bear witness to a number of terrible crimes.
The art world may have been slow to recognise the legitimacy of the graphic novel as a field of artistic endeavour, but there is no refuting the sheer excellence of Matt Coyle's draftsmanship in each of the 33 hyper-detailed pen drawings that comprise 'Worry doll'. Parodying the format of an old-fashioned children's book, the series is visually sophisticated and seamlessly blends elements of schlock horror and the psychological thriller with conventions from the graphic novel and gothic noir.
Coyle began work on 'Worry doll' in 1997, and eventually settled on 33 images which were later paired with short complementary texts reminiscent of an interview with a psychiatric patient or prisoner. 'Worry doll' is loosely based on the Guatemalan legend of the worry doll, where a doll is placed beneath the pillow to siphon the sleeper's troubles; though the narrative in this work never manages to escape the troubled dreamscape of the subconscious. A bizarre tale unfolds across the 33 sequential works, loosely centred on the surreal journey of three dolls. The series, which Coyle describes as a 'road movie type nightmare', cultivates an atmospheric and unsettling experience within which to explore themes of anxiety, insanity and fractured self-perception.(1)
The narrative of 'Worry doll' is complex. Roughly summarised, the series depicts three possibly conscious dolls who stumble upon the brutal murder of their 'host' family. This traumatic discovery prompts them to flee the crime scene and embark on a nightmarish journey that plunges the trio into the very madness they are attempting to escape. Initially, the story's point of view appears to belong to the dolls, but it soon emerges that it actually belongs to a deeply disturbed man. He carries the dolls, his cherished belongings, around in a suitcase and brings them out to bear witness to his dastardly deeds. Coyle agrees that 'Worry doll' is confusing, yet 'much of the pleasure lies in the confusion of the images, and being in a strange, nightmarish world . . . I can assure you that [the series] has a clear logic and follows the clue-puzzle format of the detective story. Eventually the whole thing makes sense if you want it to'.(2)
Coyle says the inspiration for the work started with the initial murder scene and as the series 'evolved to explore ideas of multiple selves and split personalities, the dolls began to represent the conflicting components of a troubled soul'.(3) Film is clearly a major influence on Coyle's art and, like works by American director David Lynch, the nightmarish imagery and fractured narrative of 'Worry doll' only makes sense if the viewer is prepared to work at interpreting it. Alongside Lynch, Coyle cites auteur directors Orson Welles and Stanley Kubrick as major influences, as well as pop horror movie classics such as Evil Dead, Halloween and Friday the 13th.
As critic Sebastian Smee has noted, Coyle's richly detailed drawings are 'extraordinary feats of concentration and control'.(4) Indeed, each obsessively rendered drawing is the product of a huge amount of manual labour. Coyle devoted nearly a decade to drawing the plates that make up 'Worry doll', further extending the hyper-realistic style he first honed in his 1996 graphic novel Registry of Death. Coyle estimates that he spent around 60 hours on each image, hand-inking each photo-realistic page with a fine-tip black Artline pen:
'I draw like this because I love the initial feel of realism, the unease, or the uncanny feeling that it's not real . . . and I am never bored with drawing like this. Lines are beautiful things, and it's a constant battle for perfection.'(5)
'Worry doll' is an astonishing achievement, clearly marking the graphic novel as an artistic genre is here to stay. With each carefully composed image, Matt Coyle has successfully combined 'hallucinatory realism with various dislocating graphic effects' to create a mesmerising dreamscape over 33 plates.(6)
Bree Richards, Artlines, no.3, 2008, p.25.
1 Matt Coyle, quoted in Sebastian Smee, 'Nightmare world at the tip of his pen', Telegraph (UK), January 2007, p.1.
2 Coyle, quoted in Smee, p.3.
3 Gary Butler, 'Blood in Four Colours', Rue Morgue Magazine, September 2007, p.1.
4 Smee, p.1.
5 Coyle, quoted in Smee, p.2.
6 Smee, p.2.