Comics have long been an inspiration and source of material for fine artists. From the giant pop art panels of Roy Lichtenstein to the lumpy cigar-smoking figures of Phillip Guston, contemporary art has often elevated this popular style to the rarefied realm of high art. This month, as it happens, two artists whose works reference the comic strip world are both showing in Seattle in Pioneer Square. Here with our review is KUOW art critic, Gary Faigin.
The fact that both Roy de Forest and Marcel Dzama borrow heavily from cartoons is one of the very few things they actually have in common. The great difference in age between the two artists - de Forest is 71 and Dzama 27 — makes for a serious generation gap. Bay area resident De Forest is an artist who came of age in the heady days of action painting and abstract expressionism. A maximalist, he’s a true believer in the razzmatazz power of paint to celebrate life and release inhibitions. The young Canadian, Dzama, on the other hand, is a slacker — someone whose stripped down drawings disdain color, texture, and sensuality, relying instead on a bizarre and ironic sensibility and the grim humor of the absurd. John Coltraine, meet Nirvana.
The reclusive, hyper-productive Dzama is a rising young star in the art world. His small, engaging drawings are both easy to read and impossible to fully fathom. Each typing paper sized sheet contains a dramatic snapshot of a world of uniformed or typecast people interacting with a menagerie of zoo animals and hybrid creatures. His deadpan style — each sheet is mostly white space - fits somewhere between retro comics like Little Orphan Annie and retro children’s book illustrations like those in Winnie the Pooh. What little color there is is mostly brown and grey, the brown partly achieved with a unique mixture of ink and root beer.
Dzama, like De Forest, isn’t giving very much away - his unframed, seriously cryptic drawings are mostly untitled. Like his erstwhile predecessor in invention, Hieronymous Bosch, he revels in the bizarre. Bosch would certainly feel a kinship with images like that of an Irish street urchin with a giant scissors threatening a dwarf with a giraffe neck, or that of a man tipping his hat as a grinning tree walks by.
Many other drawings lack monsters, but are simply odd and inexplicable. Two sweater girls carry cafeteria trays past a mysterious figure in a ski mask; a jar of poison mixed in with the dishes. A man out of an old gangster movie talks to a row of onlookers while sitting on a bent-over monkey. Someone with a terminally pasty face carries a collapsed child to a horrified mother.
Moving from the grey and troubling world of Dzama to the Technicolor fantasies of Roy De Forrest is a bit like emerging from Dorothy’s dysfunctional Kansas (Dzama lives in Winnipeg) into a cheerful cartoon Oz. De Forrest has a long and distinguished career as a leading representative of California funk art, a hedonistic Bay Area movement whose now grey-haired stars seem forever young. His madcap paintings use nearly every device that Dzama avoids: elaborate decorative frames, three-dimensional paint texture, compositions of absolutely Baroque complexity, and of course uninhibited, eye-popping color, color, color.
His favorite character, a childlike cartoon dog, is embedded in a screaming matrix of grids, squiggles, dots, and airbrushed blobs. People sport large noses, popping eyes, and funny hats — suggesting a cruder branch of the familiar R. Crumb underground comic tribe.
The pictures are portraits of a sort, their centerpiece donkey, dog, or chicken surrounded by scrawls suggesting everything from scientific diagrams to a satirical version of Jackson Pollock. Not to mention quilts, flags, maps, and dollar bills. The balance between the sophisticated and the primitive is so calculated as to seem utterly spontaneous.
The brilliant Dzama has plenty of contemporary artistic company in his theatre noir, full of world weariness and enigma. Far fewer painters are willing to be as playful and celebratory as the elderly Roy De Forest. After September 11, champions of both approaches may find themselves trying to regain their bearings in a changed cultural landscape.