Although cartoons and caricatures have played an important role in Western culture since the Middle Ages, the development of the comic strip and comic books are a unique American phenomenon and has contributed significantly to American visual culture.
Nowadays, the contemporary art world is rife with American artists who use cartoon imagery as their main mode of expression. Artists such as Christian Schumann and Barry McGee, who use cartoon imagery in everything from uniquely complex drawings and paintings to equally involved installations, are just two examples.
These artists have joined the ranks of international art stars who also use cartoon imagery, such as Japanese artists Takashi Murakami and Yoshitomo Nara, who both draw inspiration for their art from upbringings that constantly exposed them to an increasingly materialistic society through cartoons and animation.
Works by all of these artists and many more are included in a new show that opened recently at Carnegie Mellon University's Regina Gouger Miller Gallery. "Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation" is an exhibition that explores the use of cartoon imagery in everything from fine art to "alternative" comic books.
The idea for the show began three years ago when Vicky A. Clark, an independent curator and adjunct professor in the School of Art at Carnegie Mellon, noticed the trend while gallery hopping in New York City.
"It seemed like every time I was in New York, I kept on seeing art that used comic and cartoon imagery," Clark says.
With help from two other curators, Barbara Bloemink and Ana Merino, and the Regina Miller Gallery's exhibitions coordinator Rick Gribenas, she began to organize a show that is a virtual visual explosion of comics, cartoons and fine art that includes the works of nearly 80 fine artists and 40 cartoonists. Not to mention more than 350 small, independently produced comics publications called "zines."
In the entrance gallery on the first floor, the overwhelming size of the exhibition is not that apparent, given that a few of the larger works in the show dominate the space. But that is entirely appropriate given the size and impact of works such as Mark Newport's "Freedom Bedcover," which is a quilt made from stitched and embroidered comic book pages, and Gottfried Helnwein's "American Prayer," which is a large hyper-realistic painting of a boy kneeling in bedtime prayer to a large and looming Donald Duck.
About Helnwein's piece: Clark says, "In many ways, this is the signature piece for this whole show, because it shows how cartoon imagery has entered our culture, our world, our daily life."
Upstairs, the sheer amount of work in the exhibition is evident when one steps off the elevator onto the second floor and sees a multitude of cartoon-inspired paintings, sculptures, photographs, works on paper and video, as well as numerous original cartoons and comic book art.
Alternative comic book fans are sure to get a kick out of seeing original hand-drawn pages from Dan Clowes' "Eightball" and Chris Ware's "Jimmy Corrigan, The Smartest Kid on Earth," among many others.
But aside from the entertainment value of such works, Clark says that many of the artists in this show use cartoon imagery to address much weightier issues.
"It is a phenomenal way for artists to introduce things that are very difficult," Clark says. "A lot of the subject matter in here is about race, violence, sexuality, gender, all of that kind of stuff, but you don't necessarily see it at first glance."
Take, for example, Sally French's large and particularly lush painting "Olive Sucks Bees on Candy Ass Pink," which is part of the five-panel piece "Bee Bop" by the Hawaiian artist. In the painting, a rather funny-looking, one-eyed black blob sucks a ball of bees into its pursed lips. At first, one might not get the artist's references to sexual identity issues until more thought is given to the title of the piece, which refers to Olive Oyl, one of our culture's quintessential female cartoon characters.
Other artists are more blunt, such as Nicole Eisenman, whose drawings in the show deal with relationships, or Peregrine Honig's "AWFULBET," which comprises 26 drawings of young girls on paper bags that correlate self-esteem or identity issues to letters of the alphabet such as "E is for Emma throwing up dinner."
Other works attack consumerist culture, such as several pieces that include references to the Disney corporation, such as the aforementioned painting by Heinwein.
But even with such pointed works, there still are many more pieces that offer something for many people, proving that cartoons and comics are very much a part of our culture.
"This is a language that works on all different levels and from any point of view," Clark says.
'Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation'
* Through March 21. 11:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays
* Regina Gouger Miller Gallery, Purnell Center for the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University, 5000 Forbes Ave., Oakland
* (412) 268-3618
Kurt Shaw can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
click to enlarge
Gottfried Helnwein's 'American Prayer'
Joe Appel, Tribune-Review
By Kurt Shaw
TRIBUNE-REVIEW ART CRITIC
Friday, January 31, 2003
Purnell Center for the Arts, Carnegie Mellon University - Comic Release: Negotiating Identity for a New Generation