The first thing you see is a small army of plastic manufactured superheroes, cavorting on a painted plywood board. The board's been set on sawhorses, just the way a kid might organize his collection in his bedroom hideaway. On the plywood battlefield roams a mismatched collection of action figures that includes everything from Star Wars characters--I recognize R2D2 at least--to those medieval wizards of murky historical provenance, and all the half-animal, half-human figures that mysteriously entrance young boys on the cusp of adolescence. The maker of the piece, Ryan Humphrey, an American artist born in 1971, unashamedly gives his work exactly the right title: "Ultra Geek (Episode 1)."
Nearby, Mike Rodriguez has erected a couple of life-size homages in fired clay to the comic-book superhero. One's wearing a close-fitting black head mask of the sort favored by Batman--minus the pointy bat ears--while the other one sports a blond hairdo, Superman-style, with the Man of Steel's trademark single curl tumbling down onto his forehead. Both, natch, are ripped, their oversized muscles readily revealed by skintight neon-color costumes. Rodriguez has given both of these busts fancy postmodern names--"Considering Informative Action (Self-Portrait With Mask)" for the black-masked man and "Considering Informative Action (Mike)" for the blond. But don't let these hip titles fool you. These are pieces of hero worship, holdovers from the artist's superhero-loving youth.
But Humphrey's and Ryan's artworks, tributes to the geeky world of young boys' comics, are nostalgic anomalies in this show. By harkening back to the heyday of the righteous superhero, they demonstrate just how radically comic books and comic art have changed in the last decade. This sprawling, lively and sometimes so-ugly-it-hurts traveling exhibition, subtitled Negotiating Identity for a New Generation, is all about the subversiveness of the new comic art. Its international contingent of more than 50, mostly younger, artists demonstrates that they want nothing to do with Superman's old-style lockjaw rectitude. (One artist, Phillip Knoll, unkindly deconstructs Superman's sexual subtext, as the academics would say, in a nicely painted gouache on paper called "Real and Imagined." He pictures poor old Superman as a naked, leering hunk, soaring through the air clad only in his fetishistic red cape.)
In 'zines, graphic books, anime, paintings, sculptures and hand-drawn comic books, these self-confident young artists "negotiate their identities," sexual, racial and otherwise, and attack war, racial prejudice and a host of other social ills that were decidedly taboo in Superman's squeaky-clean Metropolis. They take a hard look at Disney's corporate art; perhaps a dozen artists use Mickey Mouse as a nasty metaphor for corporate greed, for imperialism, for cultural homogenization. In "It's a World of Laughs and a World of Tears," an oil and acrylic on wood, Deborah Grant places all the woes of the modern world inside the familiar outlines of Mickey's round head and round ears. Her crowded black-and-white drawings, reminiscent of Mark Alan Stamaty's real-life comics, picture gangbangers, adulterers, depressives, and a Mexican worker being excoriated by a doorman as a "wetback." This world of tears is, of course, worlds away from Disneyland, the self-styled "happiest place on Earth."
The curators of this traveling show, Vicky A. Clark and Barbara J. Bloemink, admit in a catalog essay that like most women, they never took a shine to comic books. But they so were intrigued by the increasing incursions of newfangled comic art into serious contemporary art that they decided to put together an exhibition. The movement got its start in the storefront galleries of New York's East Village in the early '80s, when raucous "boy art" paintings bristled with rockets and cars and other masculine icons. Then, in 1986 and 1991, Art Spiegelman published his groundbreaking Maus, one of the first of the so-called "graphic books" for adults. Maus was a superbly drawn, full-length book of cartoon pictures with classic dialogue balloons, detailing the Spiegelman family's tortured experiences in the Holocaust. Cartoon-style, it recast the Nazis as fat cats and the Jews as mice. Comics were forever changed by its welding of a serious subject to the cartoon format.
The new art may have been a boy thing at first, but plenty of women soon jumped in. Lesbian tales abound in 'zines. The naughty new "girl art" works in the show include a fey comic book, "The Adventures of Pussy Marshmallow," by Pamela Joseph, and "Lady and the Tramp," another sexual deconstruction, by Nicole Eisenman in oils on canvas. Lady, the dog of the Disney children's movie, is very hot, not for the alley dog Tramp, but for a human of the tramp persuasion--a vampy, nearly naked woman. Leslie Lew's "Wonder Woman Again Saves the Day" pays cheerful tribute to one of the few superheroines of old. A sculpted oil on canvas, it has our gal in 3-D flying in to save some kids from the bad guys.
Today's comic-book artists defiantly lionize low art, making deliberately bad paintings that challenge what they consider the elite standards of high art. A little of this goes a long way. Some of their stuff is, to put it kindly, hideous. A prime example is Cisco Jiménez's "Diosa de la Fertilidad Ovulando." An Aztec-style acrylic on canvas, it pictures a loathsome female spouting liquids (and some solids) from every body opening. Tiny drawings on her green flesh include figures with toilets for heads, and, well, you get the idea. Picture what the boy in fifth grade used to draw in his copybook to get the girls or the teachers upset.
Even a more serious piece like Jim Torok's "One Week," 2001, a moving remembrance of Sept. 11, suffers from poor draftsmanship. Torok, a New Yorker, has recounted the telling details (a little kid in a park yells out, "They blew up!" the day the towers fell) and conjured up the emotions (an exhausted rescue worker breaking down in sobs). The text is moving, but the people in the pictures are pitifully primitive stick figures. We know the guy can draw because he draws the Ground Zero volunteer in fine detail. No doubt Torok has some well-reasoned spiel about art becoming useless in the face of such a hugely tragic event. But you can't help but think of Spiegelman's wonderful Maus drawings, which did so much to convey the raw emotion of his tragic tale. Art doesn't need to hang it up in the face of disaster. It needs to dive in. Just ask Superman.