Comic Artby James Kalm
The Williamsburg Art & Historical Center
The Ganzfeld (unbound)
Adam Baumgold Gallery
During a recent jaunt uptown I dropped in at the Adam Baumgold Gallery to see The Ganzfeld (Unbound). This was a celebration of the publication of The Ganzfeld, a book of pictures and prose that features the comical work of over 40 artists, including local favorites like Red Grooms and Fred Tomaselli. Works by Jim Nutt, Karl Warsum, and Gladys Nilsson, all members of the Chicago artist group Hairy Who, were also on display. This gang historically has been exploring the terrain between cartoons and surrealism for the last thirty-odd years and is overdue for reevaluation by a younger generation. Also worth mentioning were the deadpan satirical parodies of posters and book covers by Adam Dant, Chris Ware’s comic panels and some provocative collaged constructions with poetry by Michael Bartalos. Bopping down East 79th street after leaving the show, I found myself pondering the complex relationship between avant-garde art, specifically cubism, Dada, surrealism and Pop, and contemporary comic art.
Now don’t spread this around, but before I looked at Rembrandt or Picasso, before I even knew who Norman Rockwell was, the artists I dug were the likes of Al Kapp and the Mad Master, Mort Drucker. Slipping into their unselfconscious worlds of wacky fun taught me a lot about the ability of drawing and graphic design to articulate an emotion, express an idea or tell a story. Kandinsky’s juggernaut of nonfigurative abstraction and its dogmatic doctrines like the ineffability of content, or the embargo on recognizable imagery, are a fairly recent conceit in the 30,000 years of pictorial history. Call me a reactionary, but I’ve always believed that a visual world without sanctions on subject, style, or content has got to have a greater potential for expressing the fullest spectrum of humanity’s capacities and contrasts than esoteric notions of “pure” abstraction.
All this was further reinforced when a few days later I found myself standing in front of the latest body of work by Elizabeth Murray at Pace Wildenstein in Chelsea. Murray is an example of reverse osmosis, being an accomplished painter who has gradually moved from biomorphic post-cubistic abstraction to an unabashed acknowledgement of her cartoon sources. By fragmenting the picture plane into small vignettes of painterly shape, Murray has limited the use of her sweeping stroke, and the beautiful transitions of line and form that seem to require the space of the large overlapping and extravagantly designed stretchers, for which her earlier work was known. There is a similarity between Murray’s forms and some of those used by The Ganzfeld artists. This is not the classic comic elements of Superman or Lichtenstein, but a more highbred comic sensibility, already infected with a dose of postmodern abstraction. Phillip Guston may be the protean influence here, as the painterly Ab Exer who had the insight and courage to add the cartoon imagery of Pop, and thus broaden the pathos and depth of his late work.
Finally, Comic Art, a part of Characterism at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center, brings many of these lines of discourse full circle. Curated in collaboration with David J. Gabriel of the New York City Comic Book Museum and David Bernstein of Grand Design Communications, Comic Art features examples of real working-class artists and their unpretentious labors in the comic industry. The styles vary widely. An example of the light and whimsical is Frank Hill, a prime artist for Hank Ketchem’s “Dennis the Menace,” and his Tahitian melodrama “Soul Survivors.” Eisner Award-winner Alex Robinson’s richly toned page from his graphic novel Box Office Poison is a good illustration of an artist manipulating the conventions of comic syntax. A series of four panels cascade diagonally across the page, overlapping the other panels as if they were cards thrown randomly on the page. This cubistic approach, because it fractures not only the graphic but the narrative flow of the story as well, allows the viewer to readjust the flow of time (narrative) and space (the drawing). Kia Asamiya’s initial drawings for “Dark Angel” are displayed beside the computer enhanced final color versions. Asamiya is a world-renowned Manga artist, and the stylized features of his wide-eyed characters have influenced a generation of illustrators. Marvel veteran Dave Cockrun created X-Men characters like Nightcrawler and Storm, both of whom appear in the new X-Men II movie. His contribution “Thugs” is an ironic combination of humor and sinister menace. In a portentous moment, we see a burly bad guy reclining in his tattered underwear, drooling beer, and munching popcorn, while an unseen person pounds on the front door. The line work is crisp, the massed shadows add dramatic contrasts, and the characterization is effective and economical. “Grope,” a collaborative project by Peter Forakis, Phyllis Yampolsky, and Dean Flemming is a personal favorite and a real eye-opener. Published by Tibor De Nagy in January 1964, this is one of the first “underground,” noncommercial, artsy comic books I’ve stumbled across. The drawings show a fluency in all the conventions of the comic genre, but they are approached with an abstract goal. There is almost no text, and what words there are have a neodadaist beatnik poetic. “The Blown Mind,” a further collaboration between Yampolsky and Flemming, continues their comic book experiment in a somewhat more conventional style. There are figures, narrative, and dialogue, but the play with line, the manipulation of standard comic conventions and the weird subject matter all foreshadow an awareness of artifice that would soon blossom into a golden age of underground comics. The comic idiom has become so pervasive in our culture that we seem—like the folks in Who Framed Roger Rabbit?—to be living in a world that is only half firmly established in hardcore reality. So I guess I’ll see you in the funny papers.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.