Not the Funnies

"The show is more thematic than linear, with a lot of layering," adds Shark. "The viewer is not supposed to get it all in one shot." Amen to that. It would take many hours of careful looking and reading to fully explore this mammoth show.

Among the artists obviously influenced by Crumb are several standouts, including Denver's own Joe Clower, one of only a handful of locals who were asked to participate. Clower is represented by the stunningly austere thirty-panel comic "Por Fin Se Desprendio Que..." The strip is enigmatic in any language--Clower has written that it concerns "the decentralization of the ego." Easier to appreciate is Clower's masterful handling of the black paint and his brilliant sense of composition. His elegant draftsmanship, like that of so many artists in this show, recalls the style of mid-century comic books. That retro quality is also seen in "Whoa, Nellie," a pen-and-ink essay on female wrestlers by Southern California's Jaime Hernandez, and in "Barefoot Gen," in which Japanese artist Keiji Nakazawa relates a gripping childhood memory: the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima.

Nakazawa isn't the only artist here who translates difficult personal experiences into the world of the comic strip. In "Constellations," Debbie Dreschler of Santa Rosa, California, takes up the topic of childhood sexual abuse, showing a charmingly illustrated young girl being fondled by her equally invitingly drawn father. Yikes! Another disturbing episode--a young heterosexual man being mistakenly gay-bashed on the subway--is even more disarmingly captured by Toronto artist Seth, who uses a style reminiscent of old New Yorker cartoons. London artist Sue Coe explores the inhumane treatment of animals in "Large Hog Hoist" and "It Got Away," whose gouache, watercolor and graphite approach recalls both traditional printmaking and noirish adventure comics.

As may be expected, the paintings, drawings and prints in Art and Provocation have less narrative content than the comic strips. Many artists, however, include words in their pictures. Aspen's Pamela Joseph uses Monopoly boards and markers to explore her own role as a woman in "Pamopoly (Board With Hat)," a photo lithograph with silver leaf and murrine glass. More explicit messages are conveyed by Los Angeles painter Georganne Deen in the oil and collage on linen "A Child's Garden of Criticism," wherein grotesque heads utter remarks written in caption balloons. The heads tell the child of the title--Deen herself, presumably--that she is a "liar," a "slut" and "greedy."

Several of the artists in the show fall squarely into the Guston camp, creating work in which aesthetic concerns take precedence over any narrative content. That's surely the case with New York artist Amy Sillman's "Dead Man" and "Ratfink," a pair of oil-on-wood paintings in which Sillman lays down an abstract-expressionist ground and then adds quirky cartoon drawings.

Well-known artist Kenny Scharf, who came to fame in New York but now lives in Miami, goes even further, turning abstract elements themselves into a cartoon in the acrylic on canvas "Escalana." New Yorker Carroll Dunham also renders abstract compositions as though they were cartoons; his lino-cuts are some of the most conventionally beautiful objects in this show; in "Nine Color Reproduction Print," Dunham has made an abstract portrait of a figure that looks like Bullwinkle--if Spanish surrealist master Miro had drawn him.

One piece included in Art and Provocation that differs from all the others--and not just because it's the only sculpture--is the unbelievably complex tour de force "The United States Marine Corps Memorial Lounge and Disco," by Denver artist and former radio DJ Bill Amundson. Mounted on a wall shelf, the neoclassical creation is surmounted by a re-creation of the flag-raising on Iwo Jima and surrounded by three-dimensional depictions of the debauchery of off-duty Marines. The elaborate diorama is made of soft woods and Plexiglas and features scores of carved figures that have been carefully painted.

After seeing Art and Provocation, the typical viewer may emerge blurry-eyed and perhaps even addle-brained. And that must be exactly what organizers Payton and Shark had in mind. Why else would they have crammed it with so many different artistic approaches and so many different ideas? "It's part of our mission to provoke thought," says Payton. In that regard, this show comes through in spades.

Art and Provocation (Images From Rebels), through December 24 at the Boulder Museum of Contemporary Art, 1750 13th Street, Boulder, 443-2122.

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