Adam Helms on Comic Future
30 Jan 2014
Philip Guston, San Clemente, 1975. To commemorate its closing on February 2nd, we’re presenting this series of essays about the artists featured in Comic Future. Previously we looked at Walead Beshty and Arturo Herrera. In this final essay, Adam Helms offers an overview of the exhibition as a whole. Helms is a New York-based artist whose work was part of the Ballroom Marfa exhibitions You Are Here (2005) and Every Revolution is a Roll of the Dice (2007). Comic Future will travel to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio where it will be on view from May 17 through August 3, 2014. ——————————————– The Comic Presence After walking through the exhibition Comic Future, one work of art kept surfacing in my mind: Philip Guston’s San Clemente (1975), the grotesque lumbering caricature of Richard Nixon (fig. 1). In Guston’s later years, this single work (which metastasized into a painting from his drawing series From The Phlebitis Series (1975)) served as Guston’s vehicle for a gesture towards political satire, yet remained in keeping with his quasi-figurative language as a painter. Guston moved from his early years in the ’30s as a social realist into Abstract Expressionism; then finally to a mode of painting and draughtsmanship that incorporated personal narratives and symbols from within a cartoon or ‘comic’ figuration. The only painting of its kind in Guston’s oeuvre, San Clemente suggests that perhaps Guston had doubts about this particular piece. (1) Rather than the ambiguous identities of his Klansmen — or the heads, eyes and feet of his reoccurring figure subjects — this particular piece dealt with direct representation, Guston’s own anger and the politics of the time in which it was painted. San Clemente serves as Guston’s attempt to balance a work as both a history painting and a statement of political satire. In many ways, this Nixon cartoon caricature bridges the gap between Guston’s early social realist concerns — and politics — and the freedom he strove for as a painter breaking new ground rebelling in his departure from abstraction. For Guston’s intentions it straddles the issues of painting as much as it does political cartooning. Guston elevates the political and a mass cultural icon to the level of the sublime. It would be perhaps a form of alliteration to suggest that all of the artists in Comic Future directly reflect the bifurcation of Guston’s piece or intentions, but the spirit of San Clemente echoes throughout the exhibition. Beyond simply a selection of artists that deal with themes of ‘comic abstraction’ or even particular cultural references, Comic Future posits a multitude of questions surrounding political representation, archetypes and visual language, beauty and the grotesque and ultimately: painting and the materiality of objects through the prism of a ‘comical’ gesture. All of the artists represented here look to an appropriated and symbolic language to speak to the time and culture in which they find themselves and in which the works become a reflection or response. Though the intentions of individual artists may vary, the allure and levity of a visual comic language becomes a satirical and subversive conceptual strategy. Works on paper by Sigmar Polke, created between 1964-1969, All works courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London, Photography © Fredrik Nilsen The grouping of Sigmar Polke’s 13 works on paper (1964-69), involves an abject and almost proletariat language of comic-like capitalist imagery. This period of Polke’s work was generated during the postwar years of reconstruction in Germany and “apart from their self-critical questionings of Polke’s identity, parodied a taste for the trivial fueled by the banalities of everyday German life in postwar years and ensuing “economic miracle” (2). Polke together with Gerhard Richter saw their work at this time as “Capitalist Realism”. Influenced as a reaction to American Pop, Polke’s works indicate an almost investigative approach towards what he and his colleagues at the time saw as the “authentic cultural phenomenon” of Pop in the imagery of both the mass media and economic system of the West towards an art making moving from the structures of the conventional art of the time (3). In these works Polke remains ensconced between the camp of a Dadaist-like subversion of consumerist imagery and an embracing the visual apparatus of a mass culture that he would help to elevate to ‘high art’. Mike Kelley, Untitled (Allegorical Drawing) 1-4, 6-15, 1976/2011. Portfolio of 15 pigment prints on German etching paper, 14” x 9 ½” each. Courtesy of the Mike Kelley Foundation for the Arts. Mike Kelley’s Untitled (Allegorical Drawings) 1-4, 6-15 (1976/2011) incorporate a similar strategy to Polke. Each of the 15 pigment prints involves a crude almost surrealist approach to drawing. Taking cues perhaps from both Basil Wolverton’s cartoons and R. Crumb’s drawings, Kelley’s pieces meld both a low cultural visual language to the high art apparatus of the art world/gallery context. Kelley’s entire body of work and career signals this methodology in melding the high and low together in myriad forms of art works. These ‘Allegorical Drawings’, first executed in his student days with Jim Shaw, Niagara and Cary Loren–and their artistic collaboration and band: Destroy All Monsters–demonstrates Kelley’s fixation with adolescent formulations and memory from a particular mass cultural perspective (and from his own experience growing up in working class Detroit) creating a distinctly American form of vernacular expression. As a countercultural and DIY approach to the traditional or modernist conventions Kelley was responding to, these allegorical images are a mirror of his own cultural roots and intentions towards critiquing the avant-garde through forms of populist imagery. Installation view, South Gallery, featuring work by Mike Kelley. Photography © Fredrik Nilsen Kelley’s additional pieces, from his City (2007-2011) series are in a way, an ode to Mike Kelley’s life and career as a whole, as in Comic Future they bracket his practice from the early work of his Allegorical Drawings to these, some of his final pieces. Kelley’s Cities point towards the other end of his practice in terms of the formal presentation and fabricated quality of his work. Working from the universe of DC comics and Superman, these cities are inspired by Superman’s former capital city on his home planet Kandor, which was miniaturized and stolen by a super villain (4). The miniaturized Cities here are both a reference to the pop cultural comic universe depicted in Superman and also perhaps an ode to childhood memories preserved in object forms roughly the size of architectural models. These works further demonstrate Kelley’s approach of re-contextualizing icons and themes from cultural source material–such as the comic book–and elevating it towards the sublime as an autonomous art object. Walead Beshty Unmasking (Action Comics 379, Adventure Comics 349, Alpha Flight 12B, Batman 321, Batman 458, Batman 506, Batman Family Giant 9, Betty and Veronica 117, Black Magic 1A, Black Magic 1B, Black Orchid 428, Black Orchid 429, Blackhawk 210B, Blood and Shadows, Bob Hope 93, Boris The Bear 11, Brave and the Bold 176, Captain America 311, Captain America 320B, Captain Planet 800, Daredevil 241A, Daredevil 358. Detective Comics 507, Detective Comics 407B, Excalibur, Gen13 53, Giant Teen Titans Annual, Green Lantern 69, Hawkeye 1, House of Mystery 237, Iron Man 103, Jimmy Olsen 59, Jimmy Olsen 79, Jimmy Olsen 111), 2012. 41 Comic books, each: 14 ¼” x 18”. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles. Photography © Fredrik Nilsen Walead Beshty also incorporates this strategy in the literal format of comic books themselves. In Unmasking (…) 2012, Beshty takes 41 actual comic books and displays them in a sort of assemblage format, meticulously laser cutting shapes in foam core that expose only one or two panels from each page. Each of these exposed panels are representations of characters removing a mask, to reveal an alternate identity beyond the mask. Beshty maps out each of these instances like an index that points to an archetypical theme that occurs in each issue presented. Beshty’s piece is reminiscent of some of the Mnemosyne Atlas’s of Aby Warburg (1866-1929), the German art historian who constructed his Atlas’s as picture grids arranged by differing representations of images from art history and cultural sources. Warburg sought to show that particular visual themes repeated throughout culture and history (5). His Atlas panels were both demonstrations of the repetition of these archetypical images and indexed presentations of his gathered source material. Beshty, like Warburg, creates a link between disparate sources — in this case varying comic books — showing the repetition of a particular action within each narrative. Beshty departs from Warburg in that he creates a piece that speaks to minimalism and modernist themes in art through his deadpan presentation of the piece itself and in the formal attention paid to cutting the shapes that reveal each unmasked panel. Detail from Unmasking (Action Comics 379, Adventure Comics 349, Alpha Flight 12B, Batman 321, Batman 458, Batman 506, Batman Family Giant 9, Betty and Veronica 117, Black Magic 1A, Black Magic 1B, Black Orchid 428, Black Orchid 429, Blackhawk 210B, Blood and Shadows, Bob Hope 93, Boris The Bear 11, Brave and the Bold 176, Captain America 311, Captain America 320B, Captain Planet 800, Daredevil 241A, Daredevil 358. Detective Comics 507, Detective Comics 407B, Excalibur, Gen13 53, Giant Teen Titans Annual, Green Lantern 69, Hawkeye 1, House of Mystery 237, Iron Man 103, Jimmy Olsen 59, Jimmy Olsen 79, Jimmy Olsen 111), 2012. 41 Comic books each: 14 1/4 x 18 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles Arturo Herrera, Untitled, 2001. Graphite on paper, 60″ x 94″. Courtesy of the artist and Sikkema Jenkins & Co., New York. Thinking of the comic book and its aesthetic formatting, both Sue Williams and Arturo Herrera include works in Comic Future that have perhaps the most direct lineage in the visual approach from comics and cartoons. Herrera’s Untitled, 2001, is a drawing that incorporates a totality of mark-making, a dizzying abstraction that layers marks and shapes from a cartoon or comic world within the space of the paper as a refined continuous abstraction. The picture plane is crowded with a claustrophobic jamming of images that is not unlike a Jackson Pollock approach to a mode of ‘all-over’ painting. Sue Williams’ WTC and Century 21, 2013 also fills her canvas with a violent swirling of abstractions and gestures that appear like an exploding cartoon. Within the visual miasma, distorted images of the World Trade Center appear and the ‘Century 21’ in the title suggests that this piece could be Williams’ own meditation on the attacks of 9/11 and the destruction visited upon lower Manhattan in 2001, through her signature approach to painting utilizing a form of cartoon-like abstraction. Sue Williams, WTC and Century 21, 2013. Oil and acrylic on canvas, 50″x 58″. Courtesy of 303 Gallery, New York. Like Williams in terms of an approach to painting that signals the political and themes of the contemporary world, Peter Saul’s Mutant Bees Attack Big Money, 2013 is a piece that directly confronts ideas of this moment of Late Capitalism. Saul’s canvas remains steeped within his own lineage of history painting of a sort, working with brash colors and lucidly distorted cartoon images of bees and greenbacks, Saul is an elder in using the strategy of political cartoons and their use towards incendiary political commentary and protest: a ‘Capitalist Realism’ of his own. Erik Parker, New Uptown, 2013. Acrylic on canvas, 68″ x 86″. Courtesy of the artist and Paul Kasmin Gallery. Erik Parker’s New Uptown, 2013 and Dana Schutz’s The Here and Now, 2006 also follow to some degree Saul’s approach towards this commentary and subversion. Parker’s psychedelic landscape, with its bright and dayglo colors appear as some kind of utopian sublime world, framed by the shape of binoculars, pointing to intrusion and surveillance. Schutz’s nude figure stands tall lofting a giant snake, framed within the canvas almost as a symbolic mark that centers the eye of the viewer. Both figures stand among a brutal apocalyptic landscape, strewn with the debris of record players and 45s. Like Parker and Saul, Schutz’s piece speaks to something ominous, the here and now being like a contemporary victory — or defeat — within a burned out Garden of Eden. Dana Schutz, The Here and Now, 2006. Oil on canvas, 78″ x 72″. Collection of Alan Hergott and Curt Shepard. Image courtesy of the artist and Petzel, New York. Carroll Dunham, Blue Planet, 1996-97. Mixed media on linen, 84 1/8″ x 60″ x 1 1/2″. Courtesy of the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels. In Blue Planet, 1996-97, Carroll Dunham similarly creates a painting that deals with the ‘world’ at large. A blue mass like an abstract glob is populated with brash primitive figures that grit their teeth and wield swords. Dunham’s piece is a violent document of a painting, in its professed subject and in its appearance as marks and paint applied to his canvas. In the lineage of Jean Dubuffet, Dunham takes a brutalist approach to figuration yet also remains steeped within a commitment to the painting process itself, allowing for a more complex and hermetic understanding of the social commentary the painting presents. Michael Williams’ Funk Bass for Beginners, 2012, continues this potential for commentary on painting itself. William’s application of paint is dumbed down and in some ways brutalist like Dunham’s. Airbrushed marks upon overlaid images and loose color fields speak to a ‘low art’ language of cartoons or a primitive approach to mark making; referencing a questioning of painting and representation as conflicting strategies in themselves. Michael Williams, Funk Bass for Beginners, 2012. Acrylic and air brush on canvas, 70″ x 90″. Collection of Virginia Lebermann. Image courtesy of Michael Werner Gallery. Liz Craft, from left to right: Candy Colored Clown 3 (Animal), Candy Colored Clown 1 (Soccer Scarf), Candy Colored Clown 2 (Harlequin) all from 2010. Steel, bronze, powder coating, merino wool, 4′ x 4′ x 1′. All courtesy of the artist. Photography © Fredrik Nilsen Liz Craft and Aaron Curry both hold different and specific territories in Comic Future, both in their practices as sculptors and in creating an argument towards levity, countercultural gestures and the absurd. Craft’s three Candy Colored Clown pieces, all 2010, approach an almost anthropomorphic nature in their depiction of clown faces and expressions. Utilizing a process of fabricated sculpture, the materials Craft uses function as pieces of ‘high art’ while creating an absurdist and grotesque comment on source material from popular ‘lower’ culture and objects one might expect to see at a state fair. Craft’s dual Hairy with Thought Balloon, both 2005, further expound on the three dimensional realization of a character possibly from an underground comic from the 1960s. Craft takes these cultural references to a level of absurdist humor and material substance as sculptures that leave a convincing argument in their weight as conceptual objects. Curry’s Deadhead and Thing both 2012, are like Craft’s vision in their translation from historical notations into epic sculptures. Curry’s pieces are like marks or objects from Picasso’s Cubist period meeting elements of Calder’s mobiles and color schemes. Curry’s two massive sculptures are like marks jutting up from the landscape they surround as anthropomorphized gestural figures frozen in stance and primary color. Curry’s materials are also those of hefty public sculpture and grandiosity, yet as evidence from his two smaller spray painted collages Untitled, both 2013, he takes his cues from the more democratic accessible sources of magazines and other elements of mass culture utilizing the Mike Kelley strategy of elevation into the context and institutions of high art. Aaron Curry, Deadhead 2012 (right), Thing, 2012 (left). Painted Steel, 11’5” x 13’ 8 3/4” x 6’ 9 ¼”. Courtesy of the artist and Michael Werner Gallery, New York and London. Photography © Fredrik Nilsen The final piece, which perhaps brings the conversation back to Guston’s San Clemente ethos is Paul McCarthy’s Painter, 1995. Painter is an examination of the intuitions and hierarchies of the art world itself. In keeping with McCarthy’s methods and approach in his videos of this period, the work is as much repulsive, extreme and rife with a frustrated pathos as any of his other pieces. In the 50-minute video, McCarthy himself as the ‘painter’ mumbles incoherently, creates paintings in a set surrounded by human sized tubes of paint, throws ego-driven fits with his dealer, has a collector sniff his ass, in a moment of artistic frustration cuts off his enlarged fingers, and as a demonstration of vanity sits in an interview with collectors as one of the artists in their collection. Within the video references are made to other famous contemporary painters and McCarthy’s character complains of needing money and adulation. As much as it is a piece dealing with Freudian psychology and the human condition, it’s also a Bruegel-esque mockery of the stratagem of the artist/dealer/collector relationship in the art world. Each of the characters in Painter has an enlarged bulbous nose attached to their face, and perhaps this is what is a reminder of Guston’s piece; but more so it could be the sounds of the video that waft and follow the viewer throughout the experience of Comic Future. Beyond McCarthy’s character’s incomprehensible babblings, the sound of a voice repeatedly uttering: “DE-KOOOO-ING! DE-KOOOO-ING!” reminds one of the powers of satire. – Adam Helms 1 Andrew Graham-Dixon, “A Maker of Worlds: The Later Paintings of Philip Guston” in Philip Guston Retrospective (Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth in association with Thames & Hudson, 2003): 57. 2 Michael Semff, “Line, Dot Screen, and “Glass Painting” on Paper: Notes on the Artistic Principles of Sigmar Polke the Draftsman” in Sigmar Poke, Works on Paper 1963-1974 ( The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1999): 24. 3 Semff, 1999, p.25 4 Kandor. In Wikipedia.