Knock Knock

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.

9 Responses to Knock Knock

  1. patrick ford says:

    I’m picturing an Al Feldstein story were Cattelan reads Dan’s review.
    Tim decides to take in the show, and is to meet Dan the following day at the exhibition.
    When Tim arrives Dan is nowhere to be found, and Tim begins to wind his way up and around the hangings, only to find Dan among them. “Good Lord…Gag”

  2. Ian Harker says:

    I don’t claim to know much about contemporary conceptual art, but I take a peek every now and again. The one thing that seems to stick out like a sore thumb is the general bigness of it. So when Dan says:

    “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.”

    My first thought is, so in the meantime where are we storing all this junk? You can hang a painting on the wall, you can put a sculpture over in the corner somewhere. I imagine that most conceptual art gets uninstalled and put away in a storage facility to rot somewhere. That concept in and of itself is quite amusing.

  3. Gavin Lees says:

    Man Ray’s “Obstruction” (a sculpture made from coat hangers) was presumed lost for years and was only “found” back in 2010… the owner had been using it to hang his clothes on.

  4. Robert Boyd says:

    Ian: most art is stored someplace. Museums rarely have enough space to display everything they own. And collectors usually buy more art than they can show at any given time.

    About Cattelan, I don’t mind the jokey nature of the work (art can be way too serious, after all). This show seems like a joke on the viewer, though–hanging the pieces that way.

    What is appealing about his work is when you stumble across it in a museum–the bizarreness of it and the way it just sits there–particularly the pieces that are full-scale. At a show at the Menil Museum in Houston, he and the curator decided just to mix his works in with the permanent collection. That turned out to be a good way to see it–you walk into a gallery of byzantine icons and there is a full-sized sculpture of a woman strapped cross-style in a shipping crate. It was a genuinely unsettling moment. Or walking into a gallery where there are 10 bodies under sheets on the floor–which on closer inspection turn out to be marble sculptures. It sends a little chill down the spine. What the Guggenheim has done is to remove that possibility. But apparently that is what Cattelan wanted.

  5. Dan, what do you think of David Shrigley? I seem to recall an aspersion cast here …or as least the shadow of an aspersion.

  6. michael L says:

    Oof, that publishers weekly article is pretty hard to read without wincing

  7. Dan Nadel says:

    I like Shrigley — he was in the very first Ganzfeld, actually. I can’t say his work has grown that much in the last 6 or 7 years, but he’s a funny cartoonist. I’m not interested in his stuff as gallery art, really, but he’s a good book-maker and I don’t think he has ambitions much past what exactly what he’s doing. Every now and then someone who might otherwise “only” be doing books, etc., breaks through and winds up in serious galleries (as in, galleries with international reputations — I’m not talking about Juxtapoz land, etc.). Shrigley, Dzama, and, after 15 some odd years, Pettibon in the 90s and most recently Crumb, tho Crumb is a special case as he evinces no interest in the gallery as a locus for art-making. There are plenty of other examples. If I could articulate the whys and wherefores I’d… be doing something else! Like making money.

  8. NRH says:

    I always think of Marc Bell as the artist who’s work most benefited from the gallery/book making crossover…

  9. Just saw the show today, the day before it closes. Great writeup Dan, though I had a slightly different take than you. I thought the problem was in the disconnect between the pieces and the curatorial salesmanship.

    I put up a short post on my blog HERE.

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