Not the Funnies

Comics and the fine arts have overlapped "back as far as Hogarth," muses Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art director Cydney Payton. "Maybe even further back," chimes in Barbara Shark, chairman of the BMoCA board. Payton and Shark are talking about the show they co-organized, Art and Provocation (Images From Rebels), a courageous blockbuster that explores the relationship between contemporary fine arts and the funny papers.

As Payton's reference to William Hogarth--the eighteenth-century Englishman whose bawdy and humorous drawings foreshadowed the modern comic strip--makes clear, Art and Provocation is a fairly open-ended endeavor. "One of the hardest things about doing this show was limiting it," says Payton. "At first we wanted to include [1960s] pop art examples, but we soon realized that what the pop artists had done with comics was completely different from what artists are currently doing with them. We were looking for pieces in which artists mixed a variety of influences, in particular surrealism, with the comics."

The show, including works from more than forty artists from across the country, fills the entire exhibition space available at BMoCA. It begins in the front gallery with the two artists Payton and Shark consider pivotal to their theme: Robert Crumb, the father of the alternative or underground comic, and Philip Guston, the late abstract expressionist turned figural artist. Stylistically, the rest of the exhibit lies somewhere between Crumb and Guston. So, perhaps, does the entire contemporary art world.

Crumb is represented by two complete ink-on-paper strips, "Jellyroll Morton's Voodoo Curse" and "Where Has All the Good Music Gone?" Crumb, whose earliest comics date from the 1940s, became a household name in the 1960s when his Zap Comix first appeared. Many of his creations became part of the popular consciousness of the time, notably his "Fritz the Cat" series. "Fritz," the foul-mouthed and dirty-minded anthropomorphic feline, and Crumb's "Keep on Truckin'" image of walking, bell-bottom-clad men, both achieved an incomparable level of popularity, appearing not only as comics but as popular bumper stickers and even tattoo images, especially in the 1970s. Crumb left the United States in the 1980s and settled in France, where he still lives with his wife, cartoonist Aline Kominsky-Crumb. After a period of popular neglect, Crumb has enjoyed a revival in recent years owing to Terry Zwigoff's documentary film Crumb.

According to the informative text panels that have been prepared by art historian Kelly Price and sprinkled throughout the show, Crumb's great innovation was the way he wedded the style of such kiddie cartoons as Carl Banks's "Donald Duck" to the narrative content of grittier superhero strips. Another important early influence on Crumb, Price writes, was Walt Kelly's often inscrutable political strip "Pogo," which also used kiddie-style cartoons to raise adult issues.

Unlike Crumb, Guston was not an underground figure. In the 1930s and '40s he was recognized as an accomplished regionalist-style painter, and as a result, he received mural commissions from the federal Works Progress Administration, including one for the 1939 New York World's Fair. Then, in the late 1940s, Guston launched a second career, this time as an abstract painter. By the late 1950s and early '60s he was internationally recognized as an important--if second-generation--New York abstract expressionist. Most artists would be satisfied having attained recognition in just one style of painting, but Guston wasn't even satisfied with two. In 1970 he launched his third and best-remembered style, a crude figurative approach characterized by the expressionistic rendering of recognizable images through the use of thick, awkward and clunky lines.

The three Guston lithographs included in Art and Provocation are all closely related and all date from 1980, the year Guston died, at the age of 67. "Coat," "Elements" and "Room" are ostensibly still-life scenes, but Guston has imbued the mundane objects of the titles with spiritual or psychological content. The rumpled garment in "Coat" is not an innocent article of cloth but rather one that looms ominously in front of us. In "Elements," inanimate objects have been animated through Guston's use of heavy, halting smears of dark black ink.

Looking at these Guston pieces, it's hard to remember how stylistically outrageous they were at the time they were made--but they were. In fact, it is only because Guston inspired so many of the young artists of the 1980s and '90s--who responded to his radical work by creating pieces that could be called "Gustonian"--that the master's style has come to seem less idiosyncratic.

The show that unfolds beyond Crumb and Guston can roughly be divided into artists who create fine art with comic content and those who create comics with fine-art ambitions. When it came to displaying the comics--which, after all, aren't normally seen in art galleries--the decision was made to present them in entire strips instead of sample sheets. "The narrative content is so essential to these pieces, we felt that complete strips needed to be exhibited together," Payton explains. This, of course, made a cogent overall presentation difficult, with multiple-panel strips hung next to single paintings. But Payton handled the job expertly. In fact, the density of the material--many examples include lengthy passages of text--does more to unify the show than does the actual installation in the galleries.

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