Though it’s tempting to pronounce the atmosphere in James Albon’s Her Bark And Her Bite as retro or even nostalgic, timeless might be the better word. It pulls from a fantasy version of an older era, but manages to do so in a way that is neither entrenched in the era it evokes or lodged in the present. The art world is filled with its stereotypes and archetypes, and Albon plays off some of these as he depicts a world of clashing passions — on one side, passion for seriousness, on the other, a passion for frivolity, both featuring their own pitfalls.
Rebecca moves to the big city in order to pursue a career as a painter, but feels even more oppressed by her cousin’s apartment where she bunks than she ever did at home. Hoping to find her own space, as well a place within the art community that she wants to be part of, Rebecca begins to run with a partying crowd of gallery-goers, and meets Victor, a flighty, irreverent young gadabout who seems to take nothing seriously and aims only to have fun. Mismatched from the moment they first met, Rebecca and Victor begin a relationship, and Rebecca finds herself analyzing her own goals in context of a social scene that, at best, she has a love-hate relationship with. But is she only enduring the hate part because the love part consists of her love of attention and love of art career stepping stones? The answer comes careening fast when Rebecca is faced with an unexpected rival for Victor’s affections.
This is not the contemporary art world, but something more akin to the crowds you might read about in Evelyn Waugh or F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Albon’s colorful, sketchy, busy layouts help that world burst out of the pages, giving it real life. It’s a contrast to the story itself, which is a mostly casual depiction of Rebecca’s journey. There’s measured drama, but none of the torture you’d expect from the story of a serious artist attempting to climb to the top of the heap, as if Rebecca herself is overwhelmed so much by the vividness of the world Albon has fashioned that she knows her own despairing emotions can’t possibly match it — she can only be engulfed by it, give herself to it, let it control her movement.
It’s an apt metaphor for anyone who has ever been a creative, young person making their way to a big city with the idea of making a success of their creativity. A city offers connection, and an actual system for success in the arts, but it’s also fraught with distractions. It’s easy to become the victim of the movement of crowds in that scenario, and so many do. Albon gets that, and this allows him to also ask questions as to the sincerity of Rebecca’s artistic work, most importantly what she actually wants out of it.
In the end, the lesson may be that you have to fight for creative achievement, or at least continually acknowledge the importance of it. With Victor as the shallow snake in the garden, Rebecca faces a temptation that threatens to derail the singleness of purpose she requires to achieve her artistic goals. Making that choice is about self-preservation, and in Rebecca’s case, it involves the realization that happiness and fun are not the same thing at all, anymore than art and the art world.
John Seven is a journalist and children’s book writer living in North Adams, Massachusetts. His books include ‘A Rule Is To Break: A Child’s Guide To Anarchy,’ ‘Happy Punks 1-2-3,’ ‘Frankie Liked To Sing,’ and others. Find out about all his things at johnseven.me.