Arts & Culture » Visual Arts

Double vision



Gallery exhibits that incorporate comic-book art are customarily limited in focus, restricting in-sight to the "revelation" that newsstand illustration is owed a measure of grudging respect by the highbrow set. There's more at work, however, in "Bizarro World! The Parallel Universes of Comics & Fine Art" than the impulse to temporarily accessorize a beret with a cape.

Opening Friday, March 17, at the Cornell Fine Arts Museum at Rollins College, the multimedia exhibit maps the ways in which comic artists and their contemporaries in the more reputable disciplines influence and inform each other's output. It's a more advanced, less ironic extension of the previous efforts of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein to infuse commercial images with meaning -- though the show's title is a joking acknowledgment that the union is still a precarious one.

"It's the perfect metaphor for seeing things as parallel to each other," says co-curator Ronald Abram, who's responsible for the "Bizarro" stamp. A hapless character from the "Superman" strip, Bizarro was a highly imperfect duplicate of the Man of Steel whose attempts at heroism were terminally confused. The ambitious Cornell undertaking, Abram admits, makes him and Theo Lotz, the museum's curator of exhibitions, "the Bizarro co-curators" in more ways than one.

A graduate of the University of Central Florida and an assistant professor of art at Denison University in Granville, Ohio, Abram understands the validity of featuring a renegade expressionist painter like Philip Guston, whose work is "inspired by the simplicity of organizing symbols," in an exhibit that's meant to bring the icon-obsessed luminaries of two worlds together. But as a diligent student of popular culture, Abram also can speak to the importance of cartoonist Charles Burns, who takes a stylized, middle-American landscape and pollutes it with unsettling, David Lynchian undertones.

Guston's and Burns' mutual inclusion in "Bizarro World" demonstrates the breadth of the project: Its curators' loose criteria allow for works that share thematic structures, central forms ("lots of images of big eyeballs," Lotz warns) or even a real-world acquaintance between the artists. One of the more integrated pieces, "Ellen and Kaz," is an oversized portrait of Seattle cartoonist/performance artist Ellen Forney, whose shoulder blades are adorned with a tattoo of a drawing by comics artist Kaz. The painting of Forney's back is the product of Philadelphia's Susan Moore, who happens to be married to Burns.

Samantha Simpson, an assistant professor of art at Stetson University, feels that the comics are long overdue for branding as the galleries' equal in credibility, or perhaps even their betters. "The art world is still stuck, I think, dealing with minimalism and the postmodern minimalism that happened with conceptual art," Simpson diagnoses. "It's just barely getting into visual pleasure again. Comics are visually a much richer world."

Her contribution to the exhibit is an acrylic diptych titled "An Easy Mistake to Make," a two-panel study specifically commissioned by Lotz. Given the assignment to produce a "Bizarro" entry that could act as a counterpoint to the portfolio of "Nancy" artist Ernie Bushmiller, Simpson drew on concepts she's toyed with for "five or six years" to posit a girlish monster (Simpson calls it a bear, though it's almost unrecognizable as such) who dons and then withers under a stifling uniform of femininity. Lotz and Abram have included some of Bushmiller's original strips for reference, ignoring his frequent dismissal as a hack to draw fresh attention to his flat, frankly weird shapes. ("Fascinatingly formulaic" is how Simpson judges them.)

With Simpson wrestling with the implications of fuzzy-haired role-playing, it's appropriate that a major motif of the Cornell display is "how the personal relates to the popular," as Abram terms it. Gone are the days when legitimate artists had cornered the market on self-awareness; today, it's just as likely to be practiced by cartoonists whose strips allow them to define their place in the surrounding culture. Witness Dan Clowes, whose panels recall the furious scribbling of his adolescence and his attendant, pathetic fantasies of maturing into a costumed superillustrator.

"The very big movement has been in autobiographical comics," notes Joseph Witek, an associate professor of English and Kirchman Chair of the Humanities at Stetson. The author of "Comic Books as History: The Narrative Art of Jack Jackson, Art Spiegelman and Harvey Pekar" (University Press of Mississippi, 1989), Witek will take part in a March 26 symposium at the museum -- alongside such guests as pen-and-ink pioneer Will Eisner -- in which he'll trace the progression of the taboo-smashing "underground" comics of the 1960s into today's "alternative" market, wherein introspection reigns.

"[These are] often people who are very aware, and see in their lives the operations of political and ideological pressures," Witek says of the draftsmen and women who find temporary residence in "Bizarro World." Ditto the contributors from the fine-art dimension, many of whom employ cartoon imagery to call for social redress. Photographer Renee Cox , for example, turns the idea of the superheroine on its head by modeling as a warrior princess named Rajé, whose mission is "righting the injustices of the world in New York City ... and outer space," Lotz chuckles.

To anyone who grew up during the era when "comic" and "art" rarely appeared in the same sentence, the oeuvre of someone like Cox represents the winking face of change. Just don't call it postmodernism. Shrinking from that term as if it were kryptonite, Abram says, "All of the artists are very genuine in terms of their expression. In separating 'high' and 'low' [art], it's getting to a point soon where no one will even think of that anymore."

"I'm staying away from which one's the Bizarro," Lotz says of his role in the crossover. "Hopefully, the boundaries between both worlds will cease to exist when the exhibit goes up."

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