If you loved the "Spider Man" movie and can't wait for "The Hulk"; if you still have a tattered stack of Mad Magazines in the attic; if you think that "The Simpsons" TV show deals with sociological issues better than "Nightline," then I've got an art exhibit for you. "Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation," a group show of works by 109 artists from around the world now on display at the Contemporary Arts Center, is a delirious chapter in humanity's ongoing love affair with toons in all their various forms.
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Is that you, Pooh?
Not that it's all kid stuff. These artists are sophisticated, talented and anything but respectful of their comic inspiration. They slice, dice and distort beloved old cartoon images like the Road Runner slices, dices and distorts Wile E. Coyote. Though mostly good natured, there are a few images in the exhibit that might shock the younger set -- or, worse yet, their parents. If an aroused Winnie the Pooh (a drawing by notorious performance artist Karen Finley) would bother you, then "Comic Release" won't be your cup of tea. If you're giggling at the thought, then by all means get ye to the CAC (in another drawing Finley accuses Pooh of having a substance abuse problem).
Here are a few of my favorite pieces in the show. Colombian sculptor Nadin Ospina's reclining Mickey Mouse, carved from stone, is fabulous -- cartoon rodent as mesoamerican deity. Austrian artist Gottfried Helnwein's huge photorealist painting of a Pinocchio-like half boy/half puppet praying to a levitating vision of Donald Duck is equally good -- Durer meets Disney. New Yorker Meredith Allen's color photo of a melting Snoopy ice cream bar is a haunting bit of Americana -- so real it's unreal. Arizona artist Mark Newport's "Freedom Beadcover," a quilt made of superhero comic book pages coated with patches of flocking and edged in duct tape, is a meticulous marvel that also puts a strange spin on homeland security. Similarly strange is Canadian Myfanwy MacLeod's big-headed plush costume that would convert an adult into a clumsy cartoon toddler -- think Baby Huey.
The two videos in the exhibit are terrific, too. And you won't here me say that very often. I don't like video art in general: There's something about standing in a public place wearing headphones and watching a television set that makes me uncomfortable. Not to mention that art videos are almost always awful.
Not this time. New Yorker Jim Torok's low-tech animations are a scream. They're crude drawings on graph paper, presented in a clunk, clunk, clunk slide-projector style. Look for the tiny television reporter interviewing a burning man and the faux public service announcement warning against being run over by a truck. Torok's cartoons are so dumb they're brilliant.
The same could be said of New Yorkers Reed Anderson and Daniel Davidson, who recreated one of those cheesy giant-monster-wreaks-havoc-on-city scenes, in a cardboard Tokyo of their own creation. The chunky robot costumes are great, the claustrophobic scenery is great and the silvery tone of the video is great, too. Reed and Davidson simultaneously lampoon and pay tribute to the original atomic-era Japanese horror flicks by creating a flowing image that is stylish, beautiful and smart. Godzilla would be so proud.
The long view of the low arts
The art historians among you are probably eager to point out that there's nothing new about comic book/cartoon imagery in fine art. Pop artists such as Roy Lichtenstein made careers of imitating comic books and cartoons, beginning in the 1960s. Pop/graffiti artists such as Kenny Scharf and Ronnie Cutrone did cartoons to death (again) in the 1980s. Does "Comic Release" breathe any fresh air into the stale old subject? Yes, it does.
Lichtenstein and the rest of the original Pop artists were ultra-cool ironists. They used silly graphic images in their work, in part to make fun of all the oh-so-emotional expressionist work that had come before them. Heaven knows Jackson Pollock never painted Porky Pig.
Scharf and the other hip East Village artists of the 1980s were raised-on-television kids who'd been told too often that cartoons were ruining their generation -- so they painted cartoons to prove how really ruined their generation was. If you think that seems a bit adolescent, you're right.
The generation of artists represented in "Comic Release" is a world more artistically mature. They've brought the concept of Pop imagery full circle: If Lichtenstein et al used comics to distance themselves from emotion, the new generation uses them to express emotion.
Son of Slidell
And no one is a better example of that phenomenon than 32-year-old Slidell artist Blake Boyd, the only Louisianian included in the show, whose huge, eight-part photograph titled "Death of a Poet" shows Boyd, dressed like Pinocchio, dying in the arms of a nude model wearing Mickey Mouse ears.
"What I'm doing, and what I think a lot of the other people are doing, is using comics to symbolize personal stuff . . . me or other people in my life," Boyd said. "I've wanted to be an artist since I was in the 10th grade. My first influence was Abstract Expressionism. My paintings were imitations of Richard Johnson and Allison Stewart (renowned local abstractionists), but then I saw Pop paintings by Warhol. I didn't know that that could be art. I started drawing a wizard character from a Ralph Bakshi film ("Wizards") to represent me . . . then later Batman.
"I wanted to show what comics had become, like religious icons. Now I use Pinocchio. I'm using the character to write my diary. I want to say everything that happens in my life, with that character. Early on, I remember my father saying that he hated the work, cause it's just comics, it wouldn't pass for art."
Boyd hit on two interesting points. The "Comic Release" generation generally uses familiar cartoon imagery as a form of autobiography. They also understand comics not as low art, but as a traditional fine-art motif, as tried and true as landscape painting. In other words, their brand of comic art has as much to do with Warhol and Lichtenstein as Captain America and the Green Lantern. That art historical layering is what makes the show so rich.
Walter Robinson's maroon Bart Simpson sculpture is about "The Simpsons," it's about the tradition of Pop art appropriation, and it's about Robinson's self-image (which I bet has something to do with hot cars, considering the gold-flecked maroon finish) -- a Post-modern hat trick.
I like "Comic Release," but I have two small quarrels with the curators, Barbara Bloemink and Vicky Clark of the Pittsburgh Center for the Arts. First, what exactly does "Negotiating Identity for a New Generation" mean? Visual art types love those post-colon clauses, but aren't they supposed to explain what the pre-colon clause meant?
Much more important, "Comic Release" should have been two shows, not one. In addition to all the paintings, sculpture and video, there's a really great selection of original drawings by some of the best alternative cartoonists: Chris Ware, Renee French, Brian Ralph, James Kochalka, Ted Stearn, Seth Gallant, Charles Burns and dozens more (including English cartoonist Glen Baxter, a personal favorite -- who, in the '70s, pioneered the kind of dry absurdity that we now take for granted in alternative comics). These are first-class draftsmen, wryly chronicling our life and times from acidly outré points of view. Plus, there's a tabletop filled with "zines," fascinating homemade comic books that are the labors of love of amateur cartoonists across the country.
The trouble is, the comics are mixed in with the rest of the art, despite the fact that comic drawing is a distinct art form. These artists work in a very strict craft tradition that -- despite some superficial similarities -- really has nothing to do with libertine third-generation Pop art. I'm not saying the cartoonists shouldn't be along for the trip, but they should definitely have their own room.