June / July 1999
GRUESOME! The Influence of Comics on Contemporary New Zealand Artists.
Edited by Warren Feaney
(The McDougall Art Gallery and Annex
ISBN 0-908874-50-2 $12.00)
In 1955 Margaret Dalziel observed in Landfall that there will be no attempt to give [comics] serious consideration on aesthetic grounds, because they are simply not worth it. My, how times have changed. These days Robert Hughes can call Robert Crumb the Breughel of our times and Art Spiegelmans graphic novel Maus can win a Pulitzer Prize. Another sign of the changing critical fortunes of comics has been a series of exhibitions on their relationship to so-called fine art: the ICAs Comic Iconoclasm in London, MOMAs High and Low in New York and now our very own Gruesome! at Christchurchs McDougall Contemporary Art Annex.
Gruesome! assembles work by artists such as Mark Braunias, Dick Frizzell, Gavin Chilcott, Paul Radford, Bill Hammond, Tony de Lautour, Saskia Leek and others. The catalogues introductory essay by Warren Feeney also points to an evident interest in comics in the work of Philip Clairmont (who drew cartoons for Canta in the early 1970s), Russell Clark (who once drew a satirical strip for the Listener in 1954), Rita Angus (who developed a series of comic strips for the Junior Press in the mid-1930s) and, of course, Colin McCahon (many of whose paintings adopt the visual iconography and even narrative structure of comics).
Feeney also gives examples of the New Zealand cultural establishments hostility towards comics, including A. R. D. Fairburns assertion that allowing children to read comics at school would be rather like giving them free methylated spirits to drink in schools instead of free milk. Even more interesting is the response of art critics like Francis Pound and Wystan Curnow who - even while praising the use of comics iconography in the work of McCahon, Frizzell et al - cant quite shake off the old high-low art dichotomy. Indeed, one of the mysteries of the art world is that they seem so surprised that serious artists (ie. those who work in the genres and subcultures identified as the fine arts) should be influenced by the low or popular arts. Most still dont seem to have noticed that those low arts have themselves produced plenty of serious artists.
Even Feeneys catalogue occasionally reveals an ignorance of the comics world (referring, for example, to George Herrimans Crazy Kat and Ignat Mouse, [sic]). And its significant that much of its fascinating information about the cartoons of Philip Clairmont and Rita Angus and the opinions of A. R. D. Fairburn, John A. Lee and others were actually dug up by cartoonist Tim Bollinger, whose epic history of NZ comics remains as yet incomplete and unpublished.
The worlds of painting and comics remain separate subcultures, each with their own values, codes and territorial concerns. As much as a show like Gruesome! serves to point to connections and sympathies that cross the border between them, it is still coming at the question primarily from the cultural perspective of the fine arts world. There are painters and cartoonists working today who have truly gone beyond the high-low dichotomy and are comfortable with seeing paintings as comics and comics as art. Perhaps one day an art gallery will let such a person put together an exhibition surveying the territory as if that imaginary border didnt exist. Until then, shows like Gruesome!, comics like Raw and books like Scott McClouds Understanding Comics serve as tantalising excursions into the disputed border marchland.
Aside from these minor reservations, Feeney is to be commended for compiling a catalogue which seems to have been motivated as much by his enthusiasm for comics as for the paintings theyve inspired. This is clear from the rest of its contents: an entertaining and irreverent interview with Saskia Leek and Violet Faigan entitled Art is Easy - Comics are Hard and a gloriously iconoclastic 6-page comic by Tim Bollinger which explains Why Art is Shit and Comics are so Fantastic.
Bollingers contribution in particular demonstrates that the art establishments attitude towards comics is often firmly and intelligently reciprocated by cartoonists. As he provocatively concludes: A single comic book image reproduced on a T-Shirt, coffee mug or gallery wall will usually fetch a better price than a hundred of them jammed together in the pages of a comic book. The authors meaning is too explicit, its substance too threatening, its power too volatile and too direct to ever go by the name of ART. Not that thats any kind of drawback, mind you... As far as Im concerned ART IS JUST BAD COMICS!
1. Poke #1 by Rod Fransham ($3 from 59 Nairn St, Wellington). A drawing style reminiscient of early Peter Rees and a storytelling sense thats clever, witty and endearing make this an extremely promising new entrant to the NZ minicomics scene.
2. Chicken is Champ #1 by Toby Morris ($3 from 16 Duncan St, Tawa, Wellington). 18-year old Morriss endearing strip The Droid Youre Looking For may already be familiar to some readers of Salient. Chicken collects the first 7 of these, along with some other bits and pieces (one of which, Landslide, suggests great things to come if Morris continues to mature at the rate he has to date).
3. The Horrible Truth about Comics by James Kochalka (Alternative Comics). Kochalkas manifesto (drawn partly in response to Scott McClouds Understanding Comics) is typically lyrical, playful and beautifully drawn. More meditation than theory, it is an inspiring call to cartoonists to boldly seek depth, understanding and greatness in their work.
4. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen by Alan Moore and Kevin ONeill (Americas Best Comics). This 6-issue miniseries is just one of many signs that Alan Moore is back on form and determined to conquer the American comics industry all over again. And to have enormous fun doing it.
5. Mona #1 edited by Robert Boyd (Kitchen Sink). Yes, its true: Kitchen Sink has finally lost its fight for survival after a quarter of a century of publishing great comics. At least they went out with a couple of big bangs: the collected Cages (by Dave McKean) and the first (and last) issue of this fine anthology of international comics. Mona was intended to focus on long one-off stories - including in this issue Tom Harts Emerging Markets, a 35-page sequel to Hutch Owens Working Hard and Lorenzo Mattottis 20-page masterpiece The Thinkers Secret.
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© Copyright 2000 Dylan Horrocks