Taking the mickey

For two decades, a group of artists have been using images from comics and animation as their springboards for abstraction. Yolanda Zappaterra looks at a new exhibition in the US which explores territory at the intersection of low- and highbrow art

Think comics and art and what probably comes to mind is the in-your-face ‘wham bam, thank you ma’am’ macho posturing of Pop Art by people such as Roy Lichtenstein. But, in the past two decades a number of artists have been working at the intersection of comics and art in more thoughtful, critical ways, building on the idea of the comic’s increasing engagement with politics at both personal and wider levels, as an exhibition opening at The Museum of Modern Art in New York next month, Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making, shows.

In curating the show, MoMA department of photography curator Roxana Marcoci was keen to focus on this new work, and, in particular, on the interplay between abstraction and comic models of representation. ‘In recent years a number of exhibitions have addressed the impact of comics in contemporary art, yet they all focused on figuration and easily identifiable pop characters and themes. I was interested in approaching the topic from a different angle. This exhibition looks at the ways artists, particularly in the past 15 years, have used certain images – culled from slapstick, comic strips, film, caricature, cartoons and animation – as springboards for abstraction, not to withdraw from reality but to engage with it more critically, and address perplexing questions about war and global conflicts, the loss of innocence, and racial stereotyping,’ she explains. You might be hard pressed to find easily identifiable characters and themes in Comic Abstraction, but in the wonderfully eclectic and wide-ranging work of the 13 artists Marcoci has included, they are there in spirit, from the super-famous to the more obscure. Polly Apfelbaum’s floor paintings, for example, are abstracted from Craig McCracken’s wonderful, psychedelic Powerpuff Girls, while Arturo Herrera draws on motifs from fairy tales and Walt Disney, his giant wall painting All I Ask turning characters from a Snow White colouring book into a mass of lines that explore narrative and understanding. Michel Majerus’s collages and video installations marry the well-known world of lowbrow comic and digital culture – Toy Story, Donkey Kong, Super Mario and Space Invaders – with highbrow contemporary art like Martin Kippenberger’s work.

But some of the characters and figuration are less familiar to us. Much of Algerian Philippe Parreno’s comic abstraction is centred around a Manga-style cartoon character he purchased in 1999 with fellow artist Pierre Huyghe. Named AnnLee, this character, more a cipher than a figure, instigated a three-year project involving a number of artists which explored the relationship between an image and its genesis, a theme that’s at the centre of all Parreno’s work, according to Marcoci’s book accompanying the exhibition.

Brazilian artist Rivane Neuenschwander’s work uses a Brazilian comic published by Disney to explore systems of communication in general and cultural clichés specifically, obliterating characters, dialogue and structure in the hugely popular Zé Carioca comic so that viewers could reconstruct and reinterpret the stories in their own ways using elegiac, empty grids of coloured frames and speech bubbles.

To select these artists for special mention is no reflection on the work of the others in what looks set to be an excellent exhibition. As Marcoci says, ‘Idea-based group exhibitions can never be comprehensive or definitive, but the best ones can present an innovative, conceptually persuasive selection of artists and works, and all of the 13 artists included have been from the start key to the elaboration of this show.’

Certainly, looking at the work of Guy Simmons, whose chalk drawings and erased, racist motifs culled from animated cartoons of the 1930s and 1940s deal with memories of racial division, and Takashi Murakami and Inka Essenhigh, who explore culture and political meanings in the mass culture of technology and gaming, there’s definitely a sense of this show being, as Marcoci says, ‘not a survey’. She explains, ‘It does not attempt to identify a zeitgeist, let alone a movement. It is rather an attempt to shape a discourse about what it means to bridge the rift between abstraction and comics in ways that are at once critical and playful, and to underscore the way popular imagery, which is so deeply imprinted on our collective consciousness, carries an extreme visual potency even when totally abstracted.’

Beyond signposting the visual potency of popular imagery, this exhibition is also vital to our understanding of contemporary art and graphics, and their ability to communicate and express increasingly complex issues in increasingly complex cultures. As Marcoci points out, ‘What does it mean to confront political issues with humour instead of a straight face? How might comics serve as an effective medium for tackling difficult questions? One answer is that humour empowers through subterfuge, hence the oft-used expression “the weapon of laughter”. Playing with comic motifs in art is not unlike making a joke: they both aim to perturb, insinuate, tease, and demystify assumptions. Comic Abstraction highlights the intensely personal bonds that contemporary artists sustain with the political situation of the world.’

The exhibition Comic Abstraction: Image-Breaking, Image-Making runs 1 March to 11 June at The Museum of Modern Art, New York. The accompanying book is published by The Museum of Modern Art and distributed in the UK by Thames & Hudson, at £22

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