Today on the site we have Shaenon Garrity’s latest column, this time on reader-based comics.
I enjoyed Tim’s post yesterday, all the more because on Monday I went to see the Maurizio Cattelan show at The Guggenheim. Cattelan, according to the Gugg is “Hailed simultaneously as a provocateur, prankster, and tragic poet of our times.” Well, in art magazines at least. Outside of that context he was little known until this big show. And his pranks and provocations exist as such only within a particular contemporary art world. Cattelan makes sculptures and situations that are generically well crafted and slightly surreal. Think of a less imaginative B. Kliban. Or Gary Larson gone undergrad. The Pope is struck by a meteor. Hitler kneeling in prayer. Various self-portrats as a hung-man. These are sight gags that are as readable as a gag cartoon. And it’s interesting (why, you ask) because it says something about the way both function. He, more than almost anyone else (well, not as much as Richard Prince, who literally put gag cartoons on canvases), has figured out the art-as-gag cartoon formula. That is: Glance, read, grin. There’s not meant to be any subtlety, no deeper level — none created and none intuited. Certain artists, of course, made it into something more than that — your Arnos, Steigs, Addams, et al — but the vast majority of gag cartoons are merely functional. That’s about the best you can say for Cattelan — his art functions to give its viewers a laugh in an otherwise supposedly humor-free zone: The Museum. So in that sense it’s a crowd pleaser, and of course because of the somewhat blinkered curatorial practices of contemporary art, most curators don’t even know what easy gags (the pope, Hitler, suicide) Cattelan is trafficking in. In fact, I bet he doesn’t even know. And I’m leaving the best part out: The entire show is hung from the Gugg’s rotunda — all the art suspended, meant to confound institutional expectations. What it does instead is just another adolescent gag: Emphasizing the “show” in art show and making the objects (if possible) even less interesting.
OK, obviously I didn’t like the show much. Maybe I’m lame that way — I like my gags as gags — I don’t need them rendered into three dimensions. But I did think Tim was painting “conceptual art” with a thick brush. It’s almost as big as “the graphic novel” and contains a lot of different strains. I happen to like some of the work Dutton dismisses, thought I wouldn’t argue with the “easy” nature of it pinpointed by Barthelme. That’s part of the point — the ease on display (whether it’s just a sentence hung on a wall, or a painting that says “painting”) was meant, way back in the late 1960s, to be a critique of macho Ab-Ex and commodified Pop. It was saying: “Look, Duchamp was right, knock it off, it’s just art. Let’s have fun with it.” Of course, that initial anti-commercial attitude was eventually commercialized, the critique handily absorbed without too much fuss from the artists (and who can blame them — ya gotta make a living somehow). But I find a certain sublimity in work by Joseph Kosuth and John Baldessari (another one with good, though in his case profound, gags), and a satisfying sense of space and scale in Lawrence Weiner and Sol Lewitt, and I could go on and on. What’s annoying about Cattelan, and others, like the hugely overhyped Christian Marclay, is that the work depends on the audience’s ignorance to get over. It just uses and recycles without even a nod towards anything outside the product. I can relate to Dutton’s frustrations, but not really his conclusion that the stuff might fade away: Given our continued interest in Cubism and so many other “isms” borne of pretty insular dialogues, I suspect we’ll be looking at this work for a while. It, like art in general, is less a part of the culture than it used to be, but it will be around.
Anyhow, the point of all this was to say something like: Yep, a lot of art functions like gag cartoons, and that points, I think, to a certain impoverished sense of visual culture and meaning among institutions and galleries (not because gag cartoons are so shitty, but because the corresponding art has to shoulder a lot of heavy claims for importance) as well as to notions of how meaning works, how much can be communicated by a set-up and delivery. That’s territory I’d like to see mined a bit more. Guys like Kliban could deliver more meaning the someone like Cattelan (whose schtick, before anyone calls me on it, is modesty and self-deprecation, but believe me, that Gugg show is not modest) could dream of, but it’s not in the context required to allow for it. And, needless to say, for the gag-cartoon-as-critique-of-itself-while-still-being-hilarious, one can look to Mark Newgarden, whose numerous meta-examinations of the gag cartoon are unsurpassed.
Right, so that’s what I have. Oh, you want some links, too? Fine: All-time great underground comic book artist Frank Stack is opening a retrospective exhibition on January 20th in Kansas City, MO. I love Stack’s work unreservedly — Matthew Thurber recently turned me on to his early ’70s classic Amazon Comics. Check it out. Here’s the Publishers Weekly Critics Poll. And here’s an interview with Sammy Harkham by James Romberger.