On the Wall
By David Filipi
Why hang cartoon art on a gallery wall?
For some, the gesture might be rather presumptuous if they have not been moved from a rather narrow definition of “art” by the work of Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman, Marjane Satrapi, the Hernandez brothers, Alison Bechdel, Hergé and thousands of others around the world and over the past century. But if you’re reading this, I assume we at least share the common ground that cartoons-comic books-graphic narratives are art, and one can find examples of dreadful and sublime artists and work in abundance equal to any of the more traditional disciplines.
That said, it is still worth contemplating the growing practice of presenting cartoons in a manner in which they were not designed to be appreciated and consumed.
The rise in cartoon exhibitions can partly be attributed to an ongoing attempt by cultural institutions to appeal to a broader audience. It can also be attributed to a generation of curators and critics who grew up in an era filled with great examples of cartoon art and who see no qualitative difference between it and other mediums just as earlier generations eventually recognized artistry in popular music and films.
But there is a big difference between putting Art Spiegelman’s Maus or Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, for instance, on the pedestal once reserved for the fine arts and taking a single page from the story and mounting it on a wall.
“But is it an art show?”
That anyone would ask me to write an essay about cartoon art is a surprise to me, even after my experience as co-curator of the exhibition Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond at the Wexner Center for the Arts in 2008. I’m humbled by how little I knew about the form before I started that project and how much I’ve learned from critics and artists such as Scott McCloud, Paul Pope, and Art Spiegelman, not to mention Jeff, and my conspirator on the exhibition, Ohio State Cartoon Library and Museum curator Lucy Shelton Caswell.
The issues involved in hanging cartoon art in a gallery had never occurred to me before Lucy and I started organizing the exhibition. In fact, to the best of my memory, my only encounters with cartoon art in a gallery were occasional visits to Lucy’s relatively modest gallery and the examples of Chris Ware’s work that were included in the 2002 Whitney Biennial.
When I first proposed the idea of a gallery show featuring Jeff’s work to my colleagues at the Wexner Center there was immediate recognition of his talent and importance as a cartoon artist. And the biggest anticipated hurdle in getting the exhibition on the schedule – the fact that the Wexner Center had never presented anything remotely like it – was overcome rather quickly and painlessly. The notion of featuring such a prominent local artist was appealing to everyone as was the cross-campus collaboration with the Cartoon Library and Museum.
“But is it an art show?” some of my colleagues asked.
The question had two layers. The first was a general concern about the overall “whiteness” that would result from an exhibition of relatively small white pages on the Wexner’s white walls. These concerns were allayed easily by the inclusion of a selection of color pages by Jeff along with work by influential artists such as Walt Kelly, Carl Barks, and Charles Schulz. Additionally, our exhibition designer Will Fugman created a deep-purple, nearly abstract mural on one gallery wall to add balance to the “whiteness” of the exhibition and to catch the eyes of those passing the gallery.
The second was the issue referenced above. Does a single page, removed from its intended context, adequately convey the work of an artist who creates comic books?
Though he was approaching the concern from a different angle, Jeff asked the same question. He constantly reminded us that this (pointing to an original page) isn’t his work, this is (holding a floppy single issue in his hand). But he also understood that we didn’t have an exhibition without original art and, philosophical concerns aside, we proceeded to select the best examples from Bone’s 1300 pages. (1)
I imagine that every cartoonist would agree with Jeff – that his or her work is the final, mass-produced book and not one of the original pages. But it is also hard to imagine a cartoonist turning down the opportunity to present original work in a gallery.
While the artists one might feature in a gallery likely don’t need any additional validation, there is no arguing that an exhibition does introduce an entirely different audience to the work. At the time we did Bone and Beyond, one could probably count the number of contemporary cartoonists that had been given serious, sustained attention by the formal art press on ten fingers or less. An exhibition at a venue like the Wenxer Center changes that, for better or worse.
More importantly, a cartoon page on a gallery wall commands a different level of attention. A viewer is compelled to study the illustration and interplay between panels in a manner much more focused than someone reading the book and caught up in the story. Also, the original pages often give the viewer more access to the artist’s craft and creative process than do the final printed pages. Jeff’s Bone pages were filled with original blue pencil sketches, white-outs, and strips of paper covering mistakes or indicating changes to dialogue balloons. As Art Spiegelman says, “Oddly, the messier the original, the better it tends to look on a wall.” (2)
Indeed. In May, I saw the scaled down version of Krazy!, an exhibition at the Japan Society in New York. When originally presented at the Vancouver Art Gallery the show included a wide array of work from comics, video games, and other pop culture inspired art but the Japan Society’s version only included examples of Japanese manga and anime. The content of the exhibition was interesting enough but what was missing was that electricity, that Benjamin-like “aura” of the original that one gets knowing that Charles Schulz or Will Eisner or Jeff Smith once put pen to this piece of paper.. The manga “originals” in the show were digital printouts, reproducible by anyone with access to the original file. I tried to give each page my full attention but quickly found myself skimming. And there was no reason to look for the hand of the artist on these pages because there wasn’t one.
The experience was disappointing and unsatisfying to say the least, but at least I had my best answer to the question “why hang original cartoon art on a wall?”
1. To better capture the narrative aspects of cartoon art in general and, more specifically, Jeff’s talent as a writer, Lucy and I included every page from the highly regarded Bone #16, hung in order.
2. From an email to the author from Art Spegelman on July 2, 2009. The relevant portion read: “Their "nervous"/unsettled status as art objects is interesting (since it's more like hanging up a carved piece of wood rather than a final woodcut, or hanging a movie still as an art photo or something) but, depending on the artist and page it of course offers a lot worth looking at. (Oddly, the messier the original the better it tends to look on a wall.)
David Filipi is the Curator of Film/Video at the Wexner Center for the Arts. He is on the OSU Cartoon Library and Museum Advisory Board and co-curated Jeff Smith: Bone and Beyond in 2008.