I didn’t think that comics were very relevant to the contemporary art scene until I started visiting Manhattan’s galleries. Since then, I’ve seen show after show directly engage in techniques, ideas and presentations that would be familiar to the comics community, and sync well with the theories of Scott McCloud. I’ve become intrigued by the gallery space as an alternative publishing format to the book and strip, and by a possible, invisible class of ‘gallery cartoonists’ experimenting and developing sequential art unsupervised by the mainstream, independent and web- comics markets.
By “gallery cartoonists” I’m referring to artists whose practices and approaches resemble or are in dialogue with the practices and approaches historically associated with cartooning and comic books. I think the present gallery climate is more hospitable to these practices and approaches than its ever been.
For example, as galleries emphasize curating and installation more than ever before, (a shift that largely occurred in the 90s,) curators are increasingly conscious of the gallery space and exhibit as a phenomenological whole. Curators pay attention to the juxtaposition of objects within the show, of objects and accompanying text, (the wall labels, for example,) and how the show is encountered by attendees in both space and time. Some of these decisions have analogues in comics making, and McCloud’s theories can be easily applied to them.
The prevalence of ‘cartooning’ in the gallery might seem like old hat, especially with the popularity of artists like Takashi Murakami. Caricature is one end of a spectrum of figural representation that has been extensively explored by modern and contemporary, Western artists– and in many more periods and places than that. But as the rules about figural and pictorial representation loosen, particularly about what is too indulgently pretty, exploitatively commercial, and genuinely subversive, the full range of cartooning is welcome as relevant artistic practice.
‘Anything goes’ in the art world right now, and marketing continues to perfect itself, so it is revitalizing to find artists examining what makes an object immediately meaningful– what irresistibly draws people to a face, or, when and where and how do people look for and process narrative where it doesn’t obviously exist. Not only does this exploration restore significance to the art world, ( i.e. art that demands to be looked at, art that is rewarding to be looked at,) but it examines how these attractions impact our lives outside of the gallery space. The comics community has been exploring sequence and caricature from the get-go, but I’m attracted to the automatic sociopolitical implications that occur (or are projected) as soon as these explorations are brought into the gallery.
This is not to say that comics or book-arts haven’t been successfully exhibited before. The Cartoon Art Museum and The Museum of Comics and Cartoon Art do great work. Personally, I’ve helped curate a large book-arts show at Carleton College in Northfield, MN. Additionally, “gallery cartooning” doesn’t exclude hanging pages from an existing book on a wall. Interacting with a mounted page can be elucidating and stirring. The re-contextualization can call attention to details that are easy to miss, or that the printing eradicated. The works can benefit from the small amount of effort it takes to walk between each piece, crane your neck, and subconsciously register that you are experiencing it in a public space.
My favorite page-hanging comes from the Walker Art Museum’s retrospective of the work of Alec Soth. Amongst his massive photographic prints, Soth exhibited his artist book, “The Loneliest Man in Missouri.” Rather than mount the book in its entirety, or as an excerpt, Soth adapted the book to the gallery walls, rearranging a selection of pages to create a new but related reading, and ended the series with the video of what was only a still in the book. The two versions of the work, one for exhibition and one for private reading, compliment and complicate each other.
Still, I’m not a fan of just hanging pages and calling it a day. For example, The Portland Art Museum hung R Crumb’s Book of Genesis in its entirety. The show was an unimaginative leviathan that tangled confusingly through several galleries like a doomed game of Snake. Or, when curators excerpt pages from entire careers, too much of the emphasis is placed on the technical skill or historical value of the page– an uncomfortably “natural history” approach to comics. To be honest, I’m not sympathetic to the use of the gallery context to elevate comic art. Not only are there more efficient and inspiring ways to do this, but art history somewhat regards the gallery context as both a joke and a problem. It makes me uncomfortable when the comics community doesn’t register this.
This is also not to dismiss the historic antagonism between the comics and art industries. The comics world has repeatedly found the art world predatorial and bigoted– mocking and making no concessions to forms of labor and nostalgia it neither appreciates nor participates in. Of course I’m talking about Roy Lichtenstein. The collision course of comics with appropriation art was probably inevitable, fueled by miscommunication, mistaken entitlement and mistaken identities on both sides, and culminated in honest human tragedy. The ghost of Lichtenstein floats over most discussions of comics and fine art. This is partially because people assume that the conversation stops with Lichtenstein.
It doesn’t, at least not in the “art world.” And it doesn’t stop with superheroes either. Or Peanuts. Or Maus. Or New Yorker cartoons. One gallerist rebuffed my initial gallery+comics skepticism when he told me that he represents “a cartoonist.” I have also been referred to the ubiquity of “cartoonists” in other stables. Celebrity gallerist David Zwirner represents Marcel Dzama, Raymond Pettibon and R. Crumb (!) alongside Donald Judd and Dan Flavin. I personally have not detected much irony, condescension or dismissal in people’s attitudes toward comic art, including in book and narrative form. Rather, its been a reliable and rewarding conversation starter.
It might just be in my head, but I’ve encountered an allure that’s vaguely reminiscent of the neo-primitivist longings of the turn of the 20th century, as if cartoons and comic book artists were spared the corruption of the art-market through their isolation, their blissful ignorance, (and troublingly, their associations with childhood.) I find this both problematic and flattering. Its also possible that people are just being nice. Or think I’m talking about New Yorker cartoons. Or aren’t aware that Marvel and DC still make comic books. Whatever the reason, I don’t think the ‘art world’ believes that comics and cartoons are an embarrassing thing (de facto) to make, and finds them a stimulating thing to talk about. And while this enthusiasm might be fueled by a general, effusive nostalgia, (i.e. I remember enjoying reading these as a child,) I find it refreshingly separated from a specific, visual nostalgia. In terms of books, many high-brow consumers are only now discovering comics narratives and styles that appeal to them. They are not invested in invoking or reliving comic’s stylistic past– particularly house styles. What made comics kitsch was how they looked. The variety of styles and approaches comics enjoy now make them an art—or simply, art.
In terms of gallery art, artists, critics and collectors are very interested in the strengths and approaches of cartooning and comic making— including but not limited to the psychologizing of figures and environments, unseen but implied causality, text + image, and spacio-temporal experience. But they do not identify these strengths and approaches as belonging to comic books, and I don’t believe that these approaches are imports from comics into gallery art. They are facets that are common to both, but sometimes have been better studied as ‘caricature,’ ‘cartooning’ and ‘comics.’ The entire history of figural representation is comprised of choices and simplifications that could be referred to as caricature. And a gutter can exist between two paintings.
In a gallery, sequence and character are unmoored from an explicit narrative, but that doesn’t make an application of McCloud’s or any other theorists’ ideas invalid. In any case, I predict that our narrative facility is still engaged without it, and I’d argue that much recent, brilliant work in comics allows its gutters, sequence, and associative qualities to thwart clear storytelling.
This is my current roadmap for wandering through this topic, if that makes any sense. Most immediately, in this column I’ll be covering gallery shows in New York, expanding (or at least extending,) the conversation on Lichtenstein, and applying McCloud’s theories to non-comics art work. I apologize that my definition of “gallery cartooning” is horrifically undefined– all I have right now are a few observations and a hypothesis, and am excited to see my understanding of the situation trumped, trampled and if I’m lucky, ironically supported in these future investigations. I hope you’ll keep reading, and until then, thank you.