As Tom Spurgeon notes, TCAF is an ideal occasion to enjoy not just a superb comics festival but also a great city. So here’s a tip for Toronto visitors who want to see a little bit more of the city’s culture, while also enjoying a comics-related jaunt: take some time out to go to the Tony Calzetta exhibit at the De Luca gallery (217 Avenue Road – about a ten minute walk from the main TCAF building).
Calzetta cartoons on the canvas, which puts him in a now venerable tradition of comics-inspired painters. Unlike Roy Lichtenstein, Calzetta doesn’t do cool, detached appropriations of illustration images from romance comics or war comics. Rather, Calzetta is closer in spirit to Philip Guston, doodling with his paint brush to evoke the warm, scribbly free-spirited iconic forms of early 20th comic strips. But where Guston’s stubbly, cluttered paintings called to mind the slightly-claustrophobic world of Mutt and Jeff, Calzetta’s open spaces and bold colors evoke the antic play of George Herrimans's Krazy Kat.
Having spent a happy afternoon with Calzetta’s paintings, Herriman was never far from mind. Partially it was a matter of capering shifty shapes that are never content to settle down but are always transforming themelves before your eyes – the stumps that could be elephant feet or steep desert mountain, the upside down umbrella which could also be a ship or a mushroom, the trees that weirdly have branches growing at right angles making them at times look like chimneys with blowing smoke. Herriman’s also present in the way Calzetta stages his paintings – often putting a not-quite-rectangular border within the painting itself, calling to mind Herriman’s play with panels and placing of his characters in a proscenium theatre within the strip (and indeed in earlier painting Calzetta placed his images within a proscenium theatre). And of course, there are the colors – often circus bright in the foreground but set against a darker background.
Beyond all these surface similarities, there is also the feel of Calzetta’s work. Like Herriman, he’s an artist who makes me cheerful even when the work deals mournful themes of loss and separation. The joy that these artists provoke is not a naive pleasure and doesn’t come from the denial of pain. Rather, they have the special gift of returning art in its primordial roots of childhood play even as they grapple with adult concerns.
To say that Calzetta is a Herriman-esque artist is very high praise, but I think anyone who sees his work will realize that he deserves it.
(Calzetta's paintings will be available for viewing on Friday May 4th and Saturday May 5th).