January 23, 2003
Leslie Hoffman
It's All in the Timing
Vast comic art exhibition reveals humor and depth
COMIC RELEASE: NEGOTIATING IDENTITY FOR A NEW GENERATION The Regina Gouger Miller Gallery Carnegie Mellon University, Oakland Through March 21 . Mickey: So, uh, guys, it's a small world after all, don't ya think? . Spider-Man: Um, yes. I never really believed I'd ever be in a museum, sharing wall space with you, Donald Duck, or even really with Superman or that weird Ghost World guy. . Daniel Clowes: Hey, I'm right here. I can hear you perfectly well. And it's not just me; there are other alternative comics artists here, too, like Joe Sacco and Chris Ware. We can't believe our stuff is even on the wall, let alone alongside real artists like Barry McGee, Inka Essenhigh or Gottfried Helnwein. . Gottfried Helnwein: Yes, it's quite a mix. I'm not sure what I think about it. After all, I borrow imagery from comics, and I really appreciate the do-it-yourself ethic of 'zine editors...but still, I am a painter and my paintings really do belong in a museum. You guys belong in books, in comic book stores. . This fictional dialogue isn't too far-fetched from the one that the curators of Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation hope visitors will engage in when they visit the show. Curators Vicky A. Clark, Barbara Bloemink, Ana Merino and Rick Gribenas know that this smart and intriguing collection of comics, both mainstream and alternative, 'zines and fine art is about dialogue in more ways than one.
One possible dialogue that pertains to the items collected in the gallery is why they're all together. After all, like Gottfried Helnwein says, don't pages from comics belong in books, in comic book stores, and not framed on a wall next to canvases that are intended for museums? There are skeins of discourse dedicated to the definition of "high" versus "low" art, but the curators of this show aren't interested in the answers. "There are no judgments; we're just mediating a conversation," Clark says.
There are, in fact, striking similarities between the "low" comics and the "high" paintings that merit discussion.
The idea for the show began about four years ago, when Clark began to notice the prevalence of comic imagery in contemporary culture. Helnwein's large painting, American Prayer, for example, depicts how he, a German, was influenced by images from Disney cartoons. In the blue-toned painting, a little boy kneels at his bed, saying his prayers. Above his bed floats a smiling Donald Duck; the boy is praying to the cartoon character. The images in the painting seem somewhat realistic until the viewer notices that the joints of the boy's hands are hinged like Pinocchio, another reference to the wonderful world of Disney.
Clark says that the curators had initially planned to place this image on the cover of the show's catalog, until they learned that Disney would most likely sue them. The Disney corporation's copyrights are so doggedly enforced that any of their images -- whether they're parody or not -- can only be used for commercial gain by Disney.
A piece by Julia Morrisroe, © Disney, illustrates this situation in a humorous way. On a large, white background of gypsum board, Morrisroe has carved out little images in rows that are accompanied by labels and a copyright symbol. She has included such stock images as "balloon," "little rain cloud," "bee," "honey" and "mud hole," all stylized in Disney fashion.
The similarities between the wide range of media collected at Comic Release include not only an abundance of iconic imagery but also the bright colors used, the segmentation native to a newspaper comic strip and the dialogue itself.
Many of the "fine" art pieces in the show borrow from this comic vocabulary. Chris Johanson's Untitled incorporates four sheets of paper and three flat, wooden carvings of people positioned on the floor beneath the drawings. On each sheet of paper, Johanson has inked highly colorful people in various positions: walking on the street, jammed together in a crowd -- one features a bunch of nude men stomping around. Each image is accompanied by a sloppily written, sometimes misspelled note. The people in the street have speech balloons protruding from their mouths: One person says, "I'm super vacant," while another says, "I'm really glad that I am still alive."
Adam Sipe's Cump, I Borrowed Your Bowels, a collection of 70 or so paint chips mounted on wood blocks and painted with "cute" little images, is similar in its methods, as is Lee Chapman's Let your imagination drive, a collection of 20 small canvases splattered with brightly colored paint and scribbled messages.
Barry McGee's untitled sculpture of liquor bottles painted with the pictures of winos also borrows from cartoon imagery. The bottles themselves act as panels on a page, with the totem-like faces of the men resembling the depressive art of alternative comics artists. The pale green glass of the bottles provides a sort of beautiful contrast to the sad-sack, caricatured faces of the down-and-out men.
McGee's sculpture illustrates yet another similarity between the world of comics and the world of "fine" art. One reason that "fine" artists sometimes dig into the realm of comic imagery is that comics are sometimes the most powerful method of discussing difficult subjects. The small collection of comics that tackle the World Trade Center attacks are among the best responses to September 11 I've yet seen: Jim Torok's One Week is most sincere in its black-and-white simplicity. What one might perceive as the childish nature of comics -- although they're hardly childish anymore -- is what allows us to tap in so easily to their wisdom. Their treatment of even the most complex subjects seems pure and unadulterated.
Difficult topics such as body image problems and eating disorders are tackled in Peregrine Honig's AWFULBET. Reminiscent of cartoonist Edward Gorey's macabre alphabet, Honig's work comprises 26 paper bags, one for each letter of the alphabet, each with half a couplet where the bag's letter corresponds to a girl with a different problem. The acts of growing up and shedding childhood illusions are tackled in Debbie Grant's It's a World of Laughs and World of Tears, where hideous scenes of people dealing with abortion, suicide and drugs play out in black and white across a canvas shaped like Mickey Mouse's head.
Many, many more images and canvases play a part in this exhibit, which is extremely dense. Comic Release draws its viewers in by promising them candy -- comics and colorful images -- but sends them away with much more substantial topics to digest, the art as well as its contents. This show, clever in all aspects, extremely well thought out and presented, will be one of the best exhibits the city sees this year.

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