With "Krazy!" the Vancouver Art Gallery draws a line between comics, culture and Contemporary Art.
BY: Jill Sawyer
When the Vancouver Art Gallery opens Krazy! on May 17, the gallery will take a giant leap over the line that still sits between contemporary art and visual culture. Conventional wisdom puts painting, fine art photography, even installation on one side, and on the other the colour-saturated, fast-moving pop wallpaper that surrounds all of us — comic books, animation, and video games. The show is a fantasy catalogue of one hundred years of pop culture touchstones, from the endearing early animated films of illustrator Winsor McCay to the social relevancy of Chris Ware’s meticulous strips. Co-curated by the VAG’s senior curator Bruce Grenville, with artists Seth and Art Spiegelman, animator Tim Johnson, cultural critics Kiyoshi Kusumi and Toshiya Ueno, and game designer Will Wright,Krazy! combines a multitude of media and historical documentation, combined into a dynamic survey of past, present and future. Galleries West asked Grenville for his take on some of the show’s top talent.
In one cinematic panel after another, the mid-20th-century mad-genius comic artist and editor Kurtzman managed to recreate a medium that had gone primarily to pulp. In the midst of the heated comic book competition of post-WW II, Kurtzman landed on the life raft of William Gaines’ EC Comics, where he master-minded series of horror, sci-fi and war titles before going on to create and edit Gaines’ Mad magazine in his own image. These Korean War-themed panels typically pare a complex story into an accessible, immediate visual style.
BRUCE GRENVILLE: Reading Corpse on the Imjin, you realize how your point of view shifts, from the U.S. soldier to the Korean soldier, how the composition heats up and then dissipates. It’s a powerful anti-war statement, beautifully composed. Kurtzman really brought comics into their mature phase. As an editor, he taught other artists about narrative, even in his satirical themes.
The familiar, mid-century masculine world of the Guelph-dwelling artist and author Seth has permeated illustration, graphic novels, and book design, starting with his first serial comic, Palookville. Often highlighted in a single colour, his panels reflect whole universes of imaginary / ordinary life, bringing back an idealized past that may have never really existed. George Sprott (1894 – 1975), originally created for The New York Times Magazine perfectly distills Seth’s interest in elaborately detailing the lives of seemingly regular, if old-fashioned, people.
BG: Seth has an international reputation as one of the great comic artists, but at the same time, he’s an incredible historian, and has done a huge amount of research into forgotten Canadian comics. His stories are often located in southwestern Ontario, but I never feel their meaning is limited to that place. His work has an indeterminate temporal feel to it. It’s an everyman quality, but surprisingly specific to a time and place if you happen to know Guelph.
One of multitudes of artist/authors toiling 24/7 in the manga studios of Japan, Okazaki got a taste of worldwide fame when his obscure serial, Afro Samurai, was picked up by producer GONZO and made into a TV series, with title character voice work by Samuel L. Jackson, and a soundtrack by the Wu Tang Clan’s RZA. Afforded instant cred and a growing international audience, this classic modern quest tale lives on in anime, manga, and video game format.
BG: Afro Samurai is something very strange. It has a samurai theme, with robots and rocket launchers, and is incredibly violent. It was originally published in a tiny, avant-garde, underground magazine, and (co-curator) Toshiya Ueno was interested in the fact that it established its mature form in a niche market in the U.S., and then returned to Japan as a hit.
Revolutionizing the concept of the “graphic novel”, and in turn, the concept of comics themselves, Spiegelman’s groundbreaking Maus series remains one of the greatest tellings of the personal experience of the Holocaust. A memoir and intimate family story set against a brutal true history, Mauswon the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. A giant in the world of underground comics in the 1970s and 80s — he co-founded the serial anthology Raw Spiegelman chronicled another dark moment in recent history with his 2004 personal / political graphic take on September 11, In the Shadow of No Towers.
BG:In the 1970s, Art was interested in experimenting with the form and content of comics, thinking about appropriate ways to represent content, and reconfiguring them so they weren’t just seen as a pulp medium with absurd narratives.Maus was a bit of a surprise even to him, and he wondered about the viability of it, but Maus, as an autobiographical narrative, is a very articulate, powerful story. Maus seems to be told in exactly the right way — and this is when comics are at their best.
Author and illustrator of a mass of new-nostalgic ephemera, including the graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan and the Acme Library of Novelty, Ware’s work can often be found in the pages of highbrow magazines like The New Yorker and The New York Times Magazine. In fact, the Ware pieces chosen for the show are from these very magazines. They include a Thanksgiving-themed panel from The New Yorker that Art Spiegelman calls “maybe the richest and most complex single page of comics ever made.”
BG: Building Stories doesn’t have a clean narrative thread, it’s more a study of what happens when a building itself becomes a character. Chris is interested in finding ways to reconfigure comics. He’s restless in the medium. He’s like a Duchamp let loose in the world of comics – he wants to reconceptualize them without the conventional narrative arc.
Best-known for his lush, early-20th-century serialized newspaper strip Little Nemo, McCay also made groundbreaking contributions to the earliest days of animated filmmaking. For Krazy!, co-curator Tim Johnson chose a 1914 animated film of McCay’s popular character, Gertie the Dinosaur, who began her career as part of the artist’s vaudeville act, interacting with him onstage in a remarkably prescient mix of live action and animation.
BG: We have drawings in the show that are dated from as early as 1909, and the film that came out in 1914 — around the same time McCay was drawingNemo, and you can tell it’s the same guy, who just wants to tell a magical story. The film is incredibly inventive, with a melding of the real world and the animated world. It’s a remarkable, sweet, elegant film, and you have to conceive of the fact that he created more than 10,000 drawings for it – this was in the days before cel animation. It’s stunning just to see what a computational tour de force it is.
The best-known of the Pop artists of the 1960s, Lichtenstein’s work provides the boldest line between comics and contemporary art. Obviously influenced by the worlds of comic books and advertising, one of Lichtenstein’s aims was to present pop culture images filtered through the opinionated eye of the media, rather than as straight reproduction. There’s a whimsical quality to his mimicking the dot-pattern technique of press production in his painting, and Lichtenstein’s judicious choice of subject matter keeps the works relevant almost 50 years after they were created.
BG: I really struggled with putting this work in the show. The comic community is still very critical of its appropriation, but Lichtenstein clearly had an incredible respect for the dynamic compositional elements of comic art, and the sheer beauty of the design. To me, this work is all about the exchange of glances between the viewer, the artist, and the subject. It’s about culture reflecting back at itself.
A Los Angeles native steeped in the underground glamour of that city’s punk scene, Pettibon’s artwork touches on comic style as it ranges between painting, graphic design, music and video. He started in the late 1970s with an experiment in linear comic art in a ‘zine he published called Captive Chains. The ‘zine quickly devolved into an explosion of mixed styles, obscure references, sex, violence and sports. Since then, he’s gone on to critically acclaimed solo and group shows in prestigious galleries, and has had his work absorbed into the collections of the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
BG: Pettibon drew on his personal links to punk culture (his brother was a member of Black Flag) and the underground comic scene to explore and redefine the medium. The result was a hybrid drawing style that easily moved from the page to the wall and back again. In the early works that we’re showing, you can see his interest in pushing beyond the conventions of both the comic and of visual art.
Krazy! The Delirious World of Anime + Comics + Video Games + Art is on at the Vancouver Art Gallery from May 17 to September 17, 2008.