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Wry Anxiety

Cartoonist Roz Chast Faces Her Neuroses--and Ours--With a Twist

March 14, 1997|MOLLY SELVIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NEW YORK — You notice the glasses first. They are large, horn-rimmed, Marian-the-librarian spectacles that look larger still atop her petite face and frame. From across the table in a Manhattan restaurant, they appear to magnify her eyes, slightly distort her features. But that's an illusion; for it's we who are examined, analyzed and reflected back through the lenses.

For nearly two decades, Roz Chast, 42, has peered through her glasses into our collective anxieties, laid them bare in the pages of the New Yorker magazine and made us laugh at ourselves. Virtually any subject can and has come within her sights--assisted suicide, the inner life of cats, corporate downsizing, packaged food, overanxious and overindulgent baby boomer parents, urban life, mega-mergers and driving woes.

Chast's work is as distinctive as Gary Larson's "The Far Side" or Scott Adams' subversive "Dilbert." Her drawings too are taped to refrigerator doors and office bulletin boards, or pasted above the department copying machine.

Mention her name and expect only a glimmer of recognition, but pass around a Chast classic, say "The Tournament of Neuroses Parade" (1989) or "The Velcros at Home" (1983), and her work is widely recognized. She mines a familiar vein for cartoonists, the absurdity of contemporary life, and then gently pushes that absurdity over the top--way over the top.

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She readily admits that her own anxieties fuel her work. "If you try, you can be anxious about just about anything. I am that anxious."

In "The Velcros at Home," a hapless mom, dad and kids, dressed in Velcro garments, stick to their living room wall as if thrown by a darts player with poor aim.

In the "Tournament of Neuroses," Chast conjures a parade of floats peopled by contemporary neurotics, such as the "I never really broke away from my parents float" featuring a middle-aged mother and father huddling on either side of their grown son.

New Yorker cartoon editor Lee Lorenz says Chast "seems to have a genius for showing the absurdity of some view of life that has become so cliched that people overlook it."

"People always want to know what she's like," Chast's art dealer, Pam Sommers, says. "What kind of a person sees things the way she does?"

For the record, Chast is an ordinary-looking suburban wife and mother. Dressed in a tailored blue sweater and black pleated skirt, her straight blond hair pinned back on one side, she blended with the crowd during an interview at an Italian restaurant a block from the New Yorker's midtown office. But her usual setting is the suburban Connecticut house she shares with her husband, writer Bill Franzen, their 10-year-old son and 6-year-old daughter, a parakeet, four mice and four lizards.

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It's her humor more than her art that sets her work apart and commands between $600 and $1,500 for her original drawings. Sommers, who sells Chast's drawings from the Illustration Gallery in her Manhattan loft, says most of her customers are "typical New Yorker readers," with a large sprinkling of doctors and lawyers in the 30- to 50-year-old age range. Sommers attributes Chast's appeal to her ability to "see humor in the little things but in a twisty way." A common reaction to Chast's drawings, Sommers says, is, "That's what I meant to say but I couldn't put it that way."

"Rorschach's Parents" is one such work. The 1989 cartoon features a little boy, squeezed between his two domineering parents as they battle over the meaning of the blob of milk he spilled on the table.

A psychiatrist purchased that cartoon through the catalog of Chast's work. Other psychiatrists, who also apparently had hoped to acquire it, pestered Sommers endlessly, "unable to accept the fact" that the drawing was sold, she says. Chast's customers "have to have a keen appreciation of the neurotic," she says.

Chast's nervous lines and the wry and often wacky humor her drawings evoke also finds common ground with Matt Groening's "The Simpsons." Chast and her two children are, in fact, huge "Simpsons" fans. She estimates they have seen every episode of the animated TV show at least three times. But unlike Groening or Adams, Chast serves up few ongoing characters and her cartoons range from single drawings to story panels.

Her climb to that pinnacle of arch humor, the New Yorker, reads more like a fairy tale than grist for her free-range anxiety. A Brooklyn native, Chast "always loved to draw" and began experimenting with cartoons as a child. Charles Addams, whose darkly humorous cartoons were a fixture of the New Yorker until his death in 1988, was one of her childhood heroes.

By 14, she felt she had developed a kind of style. At the prestigious Rhode Island School of Design, Chast tried graphic design and illustration before graduating in 1977 with a degree in painting. But "I knew I wasn't going to be a painter," she says, and quickly went back to "drawing funny pictures."

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