New Chicago Comics and The Comics Consumption Problem, Part II

Yesterday, I shared some thoughts about the Museum of Contemporary Art's ongoing exhibition entitled "New Chicago Comics," focusing specifically on the presented work of Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen and how the comics presented in the exhibition, and in particular the way they are presented, tell us something about "comics" as opposed to "comic art" and how that clarifies some of the ways that the form of comics is unique.

Today, I'm going to discuss the work of Lilli Carre and Jeffrey Brown, the other two Chicago cartoonists featured in the MCA's gallery. Although all four artists have a good deal of work at their backs, Brown may be the most prolific (or, he appears to be in terms of books published- Nilsen may very well have more published pages). His comics are displayed in two glass cases at the center of the small room, and what we see is as much process as finished product. Brown uses a new notebook for each of his works (which, when published, retain the notebook size and look) and complete and published works are presented alongside notes, sketches and other ephemera. Accordingly, his work is the most obviously transformed from consumable art into art object by its presentation in the exhibition; we get bits and pieces of individual stories, but totally out of context and surrounded by both pages from other, entirely unrelated, stories and artifacts from the creation of those other stories. Outside of the individual pieces of comic art (which, remember, constitute complete, although not necessarily completely intelligible, wholes), there is not even a real attempt at presenting it as comics like there is with
Hornschemeier, Nilsen and Carre (we'll get to her in a second); Brown's work is presented such that we don't get a complete picture of anything, not even the cartoonist himself. Sure, we're given a glimpse into his work and his process but, ultimately, a glimpse is all it is, and, without the wider context of having read his work, we can't understand Brown as a comics artist, just as an artist in the comics style: by turning his consumable art into art objects, the MCA has turned Jeffrey Brown into Roy Lichtenstein.

That might sound like a dig at Lichtenstein- it's not. He intentionally did what I think must be accidental here, but that is another possibility that we must file away for consideration later. Instead we turn to the work of Lilli Carre, who's presentation proves incredibly intriguing. Carre, like Hornschemeier and Nilsen, has bits and pieces of her work (most notably a several page sequence from her graphic novel Lagoon) hung on the wall, presented as examples of her comics but coming through mostly as examples of her comics art instead. Like a portion of the Hornschemeier wall, a section of one of her graphic novels is presented; it is coherent and whole in its own terms, but without the knowledge of what comes before or after. The part of Lagoon that is shown is impressive in terms of art, all inky and black with these thin little white lines and bulbous white figures that seem particularly strong surrounded by all that oppressive ink, and I would very much like to read the rest of it. In this format, it is fully legible, but the effect is similar to that of attempting to read bits of the copy of The Three Paradoxes used to wallpaper the plaster opposite Carre's work, with the exception that the whole thing is inherently more honest. There's no possibility that one could read the whole of Lagoon while standing there, and so a viewer feels less cheated by the transformation of a work meant to be read into a work meant to be viewed, for it can be both read and viewed- it is both coherent consumable art and an art object.

Of course, the coming together is imperfect- we see a whole, yes, in fact we see several wholes coming together to make another whole, all intelligible on their own and yet... all missing something important, that is, the other wholes that add up to a whole piece of graphic literature. On the Carre wall, however, there is one piece that represents a perfect comic together; something that is both a complete work of consumable art and an art object:
It's titled My Dreams Have Been Quite Strange Lately and it's a hand made, two sided, accordion book: small enough to be presented, as a whole, in the exhibition.

(Incidentally, if you want a better picture of the book- it's beautiful- Carre has some high-res close ups on her website. I thought about including those instead of this, but this shows the presentation as well as the work itself, so I stuck with what I took at the show.)

The fact that we can read the whole thing as presented means that, in the terms we have been discussing here, it's a perfect synthesis of art meant for observing and art meant for consuming- My Dreams Have Been Quite Strange Lately, as presented by the MCA, is a oasis of possibility in a dessert of confused terminology and intentions. Is New Chicago Comics presenting comics or comics art? Which is it intending to present? Which is it actually presenting? Carre's book, delicate and handmade, is the eye of the storm that is the exhibition- it provides a look at the fascinating limitations of the show, while suggesting the possibility that the presentation of comics in a gallery, the presentation of comics as art objects, need not be as disorienting and ultimately disappointing as the presentation of The Three Paradoxes across the way. It would be hard to manage, certainly, and one might need an awfully large space, but it is certainly possible, and it would be incredibly interesting to see, to both view and consume, on a macro scale. Imagine the whole of Sandman or Asterios Polyp, presented as both consumable art and art object. Surely, it would be something magnificent and interesting to behold.

This is a problem related to the unique essence of comics, and it's an essential piece of The Comics Consumption Problem puzzle. New Chicago Comics is a great exhibition, not least because it exists in the face of such interesting questions, and if you're from Chicago (my kind of town) or there for any reason before the end of January, you should check it out; the MCA is free on Tuesdays, so you have no excuse. You should also check out the various works of Jeffrey Brown, Lilli Carre, Paul Hornschemeier and Anders Nilsen; each has fantastic qualities, and each has its own subtle charm, a charm I expect will increase when I can take in complete works. I plan on adding to my library from their bibliography; I will let you know what I find when I do.

1 comment:

  1. Really exciting stuff Josh! You've quite nearly parsed that weird effect that I've noticed and never articulated: comics pages displayed on a wall in a gallery space are comics but not comics at the same time.

    I'm reminded of the first major comics museum exhibit I went to: "Masters of American Comics" as it was presented by the Jewish Museum here in New York (late 2oo6-early 2oo7). They concentrated on gathering as many short comics stories pages together as they could. So many of the rooms contained entire stories on the wall. It was there that I first discovered Gary Panter and Harvey Kurtzman and really got perspective on Will Eisner, Jack Kirby, and Chris Ware.

    Full stories by Eisner, R. Crumb, Kurtzman, and Panter were displayed on the wall and I found it a successful if awkward presentation of the comics medium while showcasing the individual pages as comics art. The medium is always going to be READ and VIEWED. That's part of what I like so much about it.