The 'Toon Age, Embalmed
An exhibition of art inspired or influenced by cartoons, in the broadest sense of that word, sounds like a surefire winner. Its well of potential material is deep and vast, from classic animation and comic strips to contemporary anime and underground comix.
So why is "Art in the 'Toon Age," now at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, such a dreary affair? With more than 40 works by 32 artists, it should be a fairly substantial show, and yet it feels curiously incomplete and overdone at the same time.
The center has always been something of a wild card in the South Florida art world, with straightforward, even conservative shows balanced and offset by more brazen ones that challenge visitors to rethink their assumptions about modern and contemporary art. If you made it to "Up From the Underground" and "Sideshow of the Absurd," to name just two standout exhibitions, you know what I mean. The center's resident curator, Samantha Salzinger, and her predecessor, Lawrence Pamer, both have wonderfully unpredictable curatorial instincts; Salzinger especially has demonstrated a bracing willingness to showcase works in a wide range of media. Under her tenure, it has become common to find the galleries strewn with installations and mixed-media pieces of an experimental bent, often incorporating sound, motion, and light.
But "Art in the 'Toon Age" comes to Hollywood from Michigan State University's Kresge Art Museum, where it was shown three years ago. The works are drawn exclusively from that museum's own collection, which perhaps accounts for the show's limited scope.
The real problem, however, is most likely curator April Kingsley, who put the show together for the MSU museum. Her approach to the art is so arid and academic that it seems to have sapped all vitality from the work she takes the fun out of cartoons and comics and replaces it with parched theory.
I'm almost always an advocate of text panels, brochures, catalogs anything that provides some context for the art presented in an exhibition. Indeed, I'm usually quick to point out when such a context is lacking or even missing altogether, as it so often is. But I'm equally opposed to text that explains the art to death, which is sometimes the case here.
Kingsley starts off innocently enough. In the introduction posted at the beginning of the exhibition, taken from the black-and-white catalog produced for the show's MSU run, she states, "A springing, resilient line, bright, flat colors, the use of shorthand communication devices, and a generally upbeat mood are often clues that cartoons, comics, animation or popular illustration have influenced an artist."
She goes on to separate the artists included here, most of whom are American, into three generations, representing the 1960s and '70s, the '80s, and the '90s (even though more than a dozen pieces were created since 2000). The intro also includes other reasonable generalizations: "The art in Art in the 'Toon Age ranges from satire and send-up to the sublime. Though it may look beguilingly innocent, much of the work is formally and psychologically loaded, both with compositional conceits and fictive possibilities."
The trouble sets in with the text devoted to the individual artists and works. Kingsley has apparently never met an academic credential she didn't like. She offers at least a passing reference to the institutions where all but three of the artists were educated, and in many cases, she specifies degrees, years, and instructors. She's similarly enamored of the galleries and museums and collections that have given the artists exposure.
There's nothing wrong with a bit of background on an exhibition's artists, but Kingsley's litany the academic credits are the first thing mentioned in eight cases gets monotonous. After a while you may wonder whether she's more interested in the artists' résumés than in their art.
That's unfortunate, because there are some first-rate artists here, represented by excellent examples of their work. Inka Essenhigh, who was the subject of a fine show at the Museum of Contemporary Art in North Miami a while back, contributes a dazzling silkscreen print, Daedalus and Icarus (2000), in which she radically reinterprets ancient mythology using her surreal, biomorphic forms.
The big curved wall at the far end of the museum's main gallery features a suite of six large, untitled photogravures from 2000 by Venezuelan artist Arturo Herrera (who, by the way, studied at the University of Illinois-Chicago). They're stark black-and-white compositions with simple shapes and lines that are essentially abstract but also lend themselves to any number of readings.
Kingsley declares, "Both silly and elegant, they could find a place within a comic strip as easily as in a painting by Robert Motherwell." I can imagine the latter but not the former. Then again, I'm hard-pressed to pinpoint the influence of cartoons and/or comics on many of the artists included here that is, without resorting to Kingsley's sometimes tenuous arguments.
There are some outstanding works with a clear cartoon connection. For Superstar Ken (1999), Steve DeFrank has taken a lightbox and, using Lite Brite plastic pegs, created a partial portrait of Barbie's ex-boyfriend, who somehow comes across as a gay icon. As Kingsley rightly notes, a lot of cartoon-based art has sexual subtexts in varying degrees of subtlety. Jim Nutt's simultaneously goofy and disturbing Giddy-Gag (1969), painted in acrylic on plexiglass and wood, appears to depict a pedophile trying to sublimate his inappropriate desires. And in the screenprint Five Views of the Inscrutable Neighbors (1995), Roger Shimomura mimics the multiple-panel format of a comic strip to present enigmatic glimpses of such things as Andy Warhol's portrait of Elizabeth Taylor hanging on a wall, a barbecue grill, a box of Kentucky Fried Chicken, and a red-high-heel-clad female foot upended in a suggestive manner.
Peter Saul's Business Man Returns to His Home (1966) mines sources as diverse as Picasso, Francis Bacon, abstract expressionism, and Mad magazine comics for a rich stew of ingredients, including body parts blended into architectural elements. The piece, rendered in ink, crayon, and pencil on cardboard, exploits its raw materials even as it transcends them.
Not surprisingly, an old hand like Red Grooms fares remarkably well in an exhibition of this sort. His 3-D color lithograph EXTRA! EXTRA! READ ALL ABOUT IT! (2003) is an exuberant pop-up-style re-creation of a big-city newsstand. It's like a much smaller version of one of the artist's large-scale installations that you can actually walk through, and it similarly toys with our perceptions on several levels.
Kingsley's text for Grooms' work is refreshingly free of jargon, unlike much of her other commentary. Steer clear of the information panels alongside the pieces in "Art in the 'Toon Age" or at least don't read much further than the artist's name, title, medium, and date and you're likely to have a much better experience at this potentially frustrating exhibition.
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