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Angry anime: Murakami’s Puka, Puka.

Your Brain on Comics

 By Meisha Rosenberg

Art in the ’Toon Age

The Hyde Collection, through April 13

Unless you grew up under a rock, you grew up influenced by comics. Many baby boomers fondly remember Nancy and Archie. Strips like Peanuts and Doonesbury influenced us Gen-Xers, and our tender developing brains were also exposed to Disney’s Cinderella on TV and Schoolhouse Rock. These animations taught us about language and shapes (not to mention how to beg our parents for plastic character toys). Generation Y has achieved total cartoon saturation with anime and films based on graphic novels (V for Vendetta, Persepolis).

Art in the ’Toon Age, a traveling version of the Kresge Art Museum show that opened in 2002 in Michigan, looks at three overlapping generations of contemporary artists whose work has been influenced by cartoon styles. It’s a fun, dizzying collection that warps shapes, turns up the volume on colors, and plays with perspective. More all-encompassing than similar exhibitions (Comic Abstraction, at the MoMA last year, and the wince-inducingly named Splat Boom Pow!: The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art, which opened in Houston in 2003), Art in the ’Toon Age can seem scattered. There is everything from Peter Saul’s 1966 Business Man Returns to His Home, a hallucinatory Mad-style drawing that shows its age, to prints by Jeff Koons, and to the space-flattening, plastic forms in Inka Essenhigh’s wonderful painting Daedalus and Icarus (2000). While most artists are American, there is healthy diversity with Italian, British, Japanese, and other nationalities represented.

Cartoon-influenced art has arrived; an Web site urges novice painters to consider “comic abstraction” as a style. Art in the ’Toon Age, curated by April Kingsley, preceded Splat Boom Pow! and Comic Abstraction in juxtaposing works by Yoshitomo Nara, Takashi Murakami, and Arturo Herrera. And Kingsley succeeded in giving a well-rounded vision of an art form that ranges from underground subversivity to slick consumerism, telling me in an e-mail, “I got the idea for it from an artist, John Clem Clarke who . . . uses the ‘Disney way of drawing’ as someone else described it, to make fine art paintings.” Clarke’s Green Paint Can with Brush (1989) opens the show.

The exhibition is most successful when it groups similar artists together, such as members of the Hairy Who, a group of Chicago imagists from the 1960s. Representing them are Karl Wirsum’s arresting neon-painted wood Aztec head, Traffic Touch (2002), as well as a warm, loopy watercolor, Red Tables-Blue Room (2001), by Gladys Nilsson. Nearby hangs Giddy-gag (1969), a painting of a disturbing character shaped like an ejaculating nose by Nilsson’s husband, Jim Nutt. This character is similar to works by R. Crumb, which made me wonder: What is the difference between regular old comics and “comics-inspired” artists?

If “cartoon-inspired” art is its own discipline, there are distinct approaches. Some, like Jerry Kearns, appropriate comics. His American Noir (1992) combines a film still, a comic book image, and a painting by Frederick Church to create a new, layered image. Then there are distorters like Michael Craig-Martin and Sue Williams, who play with color intensity or perspective. Another category could include Laylah Ali, Ida Appelbroog, and Marcel Dzama, who create cartoon characters—but mysteriously, their works do not appear together (and Dzama’s pieces were hidden in a corner).

For background, we get an abruptly presented section on comics history with books by Art Spiegelman and Chris Ware under glass. Better are the original ink comics hanging: Nancy and Spider-Man, among others. One of my favorite items is “Wicked Witch,” a color animation cel from the 1937 Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It so neatly captures the deceptive simplicity and layering techniques of animation.

One has to really squint to find any resemblance to cartooning in the works here by Arturo Herrera, Paul Henry Ramirez, and Elizabeth Murray. I could also do without works here by Jeff Koons and Steve De Frank, who are heirs of pop art, which flaunts its superficiality—in contrast to the essentially exegetical goals of comics.

Comics transport readers into other dimensions through characters who are nothing more than simple lines and dots. Explaining that gift in the exhibition text is Chris Ware: “The ‘essence’ of comics . . . is fundamentally the weird process of reading pictures, not just looking at them.” Readers of comics imagine actions that happen unseen, between panels, negotiating words with images that can contradict them.

The most exciting works here pick up on this interpretive dimension, such as Takashi Murakami’s screenprint Puka, Puka (1999), which depicts a character shaped like a bubble or a floating tumor, all wide eyes and sharp teeth. His works ‘read’ anime, showing viewers a violent, sexual subtext. Roger Shimomura’s clever geometric vertical panels on screenprint use the bars of window panes, fencing, and doors to tell a story about Five Views of the Inscrutable Neighbors (1995). Viewers are meant to read Enrique Chagoya’s marvelous accordion-fold book, El Regreso del Caníbal Macrobiótico (The Return of the Macrobiotic Cannibal, 1998), from right to left, and his darkly humorous collage shows the violence of colonialism. There are a lot of wonderful artists here, as well as food for thought, and one hopes that this dialogue between comics and capital-A “art” will continue in many forms.

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