Bizarro World! The Parallel Universes of Comics & Fine Art

Bizarro World! The Parallel Universes of Comics & Fine Art

The Cornell Fine Arts Museum, Rollins College, Winter Park, FL • March 17 – April 30, 2000

Art Spiegelman says “comics art” is the bastard child of art and commerce, and that sounds good to me. Any cartoonist with ambitions beyond Garfield will tell you story after story about Not Being Taken Seriously. You overhear Dad telling some guy painting watercolors of old barns at the mall that he hopes you’ll snap out of it and start painting old rusted pick up trucks soon. Your professor critiques a pal by saying, “Look at Dave — he’s a cartoonist and he can draw, too!” Your girlfriend flat out tells you comics can NEVER be fine art, and she should know, ’cause she studied at the Art Institute of Chicago. So we smile grimly, clutch our copies of The Comics Journal and Juxtapoz tightly, and keep drawing.

So it was not without some trepidation that I went to the opening of Bizarro World! at Rollins’ Cornell Fine Arts Museum. The show promised to commingle fine art pieces inspired and reflecting the comics medium with the best of contemporary cartooning. The exhibit’s title is inspired by the character from Superman who is Supes’ imperfect duplicate — low art to the Man of Steel’s Fine Art. Oh boy. Still, at this show the bastard child at least gets to eat at the same table with the rest of the family.

Most fine art exploration of the comics form in the past usually mechanically dissects the visuals for their mechanical elements (see Lichtenstein or Warhol) or appropriates the iconography to make ironic statements on sentimentality, politics, or life in America, without much regard for the truly unique elements involved in cartooning. A few of the pieces in the show take the easy route of image appropriation ( Fear of Music by Jerry Kearns) or re-creation (Renee Cox’s too-obvious superheroine photographs). It’s a stretch to link many of the pieces to comics at all: the unsettling pieces by Don Colley and Rick Ortwein are likened to horror comics because of their macabre imagery; they could have just as readily been used as examples linking horror films or Gothic culture to fine art. The video installation Colors by Tony Oursler, a video of a woman’s face projected on the pillow of an upturned bed, is interesting, but it’s hard to find any connection to comics.

Philip Guston’s images are another story. He used early 20th century styled bigfoot cartooning licks (a la Happy Hooligan) to create animated landscapes and atmospheres. Laylah Ali is represented with a series of untitled gouache pieces featuring “the Greenheads,” which flow with a simple, wordless style, showing an understanding not just of the iconography of comics but of the dynamics of panel-to-panel sequencing or “storytelling.” Also notable are two monumental pieces by James Barsness, figural drawings on newsprint collage which owe as much to Crumb as to Giacometti.

The comics portion of the program is predominantely original drawings, supplemented by a few prints and lithographs. The “old masters” are represented by pages of work by Al Capp ( Li’l Abner ), Harvey Kurtzman ( Mad ), and Will Eisner ( The Spirit ). These works are as notable for their marked-up, taped-up appearance as for their craftsmanship — they are relics from a time when the printed strip was the product, not the drawing. The Li’l Abner pages especially are so chopped up, taped together, and yellowed with age that these “flaws” add another aesthetic flavor to the drawing.

Outside of a couple of old works by underground master R. Crumb, the rest of the comics work exhibited is by members of the post-underground “alternate” community: Dan Clowes, Charles Burns, Ellen Forney, Chris Ware, and Kaz. As each artist is represented by a limited number of pieces, Clowes is the least well-served of the group; many of his best strips are poignant multi-page epics, and one or two pages of a longer piece display his draftsmanship well, but underrepresent the strength of his work as a whole. All of these artists work with a very crisp ink line, but Burns and Ware have such razor-sharp marks that one is left more than impressed. Chris Ware’s pages, from his Acme Comics Library books, are a revelation: his underdrawing is done with a non-photo blue pencil, which eliminates the need for erasing; rather than revealing a loose, gestural underdrawing, what Ware leaves uninked is discarded detail — building silhouettes seen through a window, clouds in the distance, exhaust behind a car. A fascinating look into his visual/editorial decisions.

Worth noting are three pieces by three artists which almost work together as a narrative. First is a tattoo design done for Ellen Forney by Kaz; then is a painting of Forney’s tattooed back, Ellen and Kaz, by Susan Moore; finally there is a self-portrait by Forney of her being tattooed with the Kaz image. (A fourth element was added to the triptych at the show’s opening, as Ellen Forney attended in a backless dress which helpfully displayed the finished work.)

There is a separate-but-connected show in an attached gallery featuring the work of Art Spiegelman. It focuses on his well-known Maus project, but also displays artwork from his magazine RAW and from The New Yorker , including his notorious IRS Crucifix cover. More than any other cartoonist, Spiegelman deserves credit for adopting a fine arts point of reference to his comics work, in technique, visual vocabulary, and ideas. His mastery of traditional comics storytelling and draftsmanship allows his deconstructions of the form an authority not found in the works of academically-grounded fine artists. The design of RAW was famous for its conceptual experimentation, notably the “torn-corner” cover — the upper right corner of each printed cover was torn off by hand, placed in a pile, then randomly taped to one of the damaged books. The print shop bindery personnel were understandably perplexed by this.

Despite my reservations about the relevance of some of the pieces, this is a show well worth seeing. Curators Theo Lotz and Ronald Abram did a remarkable job gathering works from such disparate sources, without, I suspect, the anal-retentive knowledge of the comics side that the average fanboy would possess. Of course, this spares the show from becoming a homage to The X-Men or Dilbert , which is no small triumph in an exhibit featuring contemporary comics art.

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