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The Backward Charge

Comics get the high-culture treatment at the Cultural Center, but the white walls don't make them art.

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I can't remember a time when cartoons--hand-drawn visual jokes, narratives, commentaries--weren't a huge part of my cultural environment. I've been swimming in them since I was little. We all have, through film and TV, comic books, and of course the funny papers.

So it's a little strange to hear people talk about a renaissance in comics, as if they'd had to be revived like Greek philosophy in the 14th century. Still stranger to hear people claim that the form has only recently begun to be appreciated in a high-culture context. It was more than four decades ago, after all, that Roy Lichtenstein helped invent pop art by absorbing cartoon images, tropes, and techniques into his paintings. In the mid-60s Chicago imagists including Gladys Nilsson, Roger Brown, and Karl Wirsum created a visual vocabulary that built on old-style comics art even as it anticipated the moody, often grotesque surreality of putative punk groundbreakers like Gary Panter.

Strangest of all, though, is the notion that there's some kind of triumph in the fine-artsification of comics, that a white-wall exhibition somehow validates them. I always thought it was precisely their populist lack of couth--sanctified by the occasional flash of grace--that made them so cool. Yet "Raw, Boiled and Cooked: Comics on the Verge" is explicitly out for validation. As curator Paul Candler says in his catalog essay: "Comics are on the verge of something, something significant, in America. Ameri-can comics are finally catching up with their European and Japanese contemporaries, gaining the respect and recognition that they richly deserve."

This show--consisting of flat work, animations, and objects by 38 leading comics artists--is the second I've seen this summer that makes a priority of grabbing some cultural prestige for an essentially popular art form. The other was the MCA fashion exhibit "Skin Tight," where the attempt backfired completely. There's a wry sadness to these efforts, like something out of Chekhov: curators trying to get their arriviste proteges invited to all the right parties.

Not that a good many of the cartoonists represented in "Raw, Boiled and Cooked" couldn't make the fine art guest list if they wanted. Some already have. David Sandlin's hell-haunted paintings, portfolios, and assemblages are exhibited at the Carl Hammer Gallery. And Jonathon Rosen--whose spectral photo composites and animations convey the goose-bumps menace of that killer video in the 2002 film The Ring--has had one-man shows on both coasts and in Venice. But these two artists have also drifted very far from anything that might be thought of as orthodox cartoons. Sandlin owes more to William Blake and Rosen to Man Ray than either does to Al Capp.

The majority of the "Raw, Boiled and Cooked" artists don't seem to care about getting the respect they so richly deserve. They stick to the low-culture tradition, asserting the uncouth workaday conventions of comics even as they find new uses for them. These guys use frames. Characters. Word balloons. They tell stories. They get violent, sexy, and grotesque. Far from placing themselves on the verge of anything, they seem in fact to be making a principled retreat from certain kinds of development. Oddly enough, the overwhelming impression conveyed by this show is one of nostalgia.

The backward charge is led by Art Spiegelman, Pulitzer-winning author of Maus and cofounder of Raw magazine, who ranks up there with R. Crumb as one of America's preeminent theorists, historians, and practitioners of comics art. Spiegelman's pair of color lithographs, Lead Pipe Sunday I and II, explicitly address the heritage of newspaper funnies--the first by turning Dick Tracy into a sort of Dada/cubist valediction mourning generations of spilled ink, the second by imagining a comics creation myth featuring Art and Commerce as the parents. Both lithographs recall the stylistic and technological characteristics of early cartoons, even down to a careful--and rather gorgeous--skewing of the color registration.

Tony Millionaire also makes self-conscious use of time-honored tropes, though he's as apt to subvert as endorse them. His Maakies animations take what might be called the recuperative convention--the one that allows Wile E. Coyote to survive a thousand-foot fall or Daffy Duck to snap right back from a shotgun blast--and push it to a new level of morbidity where the wounds are no longer played for laughs and the traditional assurance that all will be well is withheld an extra beat or two. Or several.

But the nostalgia isn't confined to form. It dominates content as well. Able to create their own worlds, a remarkable number of the artists represented here opt for ones that are long gone. Jaime Hernandez's Cocktail Hour With Mini Rivero takes us back to the Kennedy era. Chris Ware's untitled wall-size narrative about a lonely woman's cloistered life sticks to the first 60 years or so of the 20th century. Mary Fleener and several others focus on tales of their own youth. There's a strain of moral nostalgia, too--a fixation on old taboos--that appears most explicitly in Sandlin's 7 Sips of Sin.

The worst thing about this nostalgia is how often it results in oversimplification and cliche. The show's many tales of love, loss, nerdish angst, and--well--cartoon violence demonstrate the powerful pull of the reductive where comics are concerned. There are some exquisite exceptions, though. One is Jim Woodring's installation A Day for Divine Play, which mixes simple ink drawing with a kind of latter-day whirligig technology to create a few frames of cosmic beauty and horror. David Mazzucchelli's Stop the Hair Nude--about a Japanese censor's strange obsession--offers a surprise ending rich in ambiguity.

His work is also quite beautiful, as is practically everything here. If "Raw, Boiled and Cooked" can't quite make good on its claims for comics as fine art, it demonstrates the incredible draftsmanship and aesthetic sophistication of the form's best practitioners--even when they're at their least couth.

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