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.

"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.

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia