The art establishment has a long and distinguished history of dismissing cartoon imagery. "Of all the lively arts the comic strip is the most despised, and with the exception of the movies it is the most popular," critic Gilbert Seldes wrote in 1924. That perception didn't change much until the last decade and a half.
Now comic and cartoon characters are seemingly everywhere in the art world. That ubiquity inspired the show "Comic Release! Negotiating Identity for a New Generation," now open at the Armory Center for the Arts in Pasadena. The traveling exhibition of 77 artworks, 28 graphic novels and 400 zines from the last decade focuses on identity politics, but it also demonstrates how cartoon imagery is becoming increasingly accepted.
"I think it's really interesting how many aspects of comic imagery have crossed over into art," says co-curator Vicky A. Clark, art critic for the Pittsburgh City Paper and adjunct associate professor of art at Carnegie-Mellon University. "These artists have brought a freshness, a casualness to their work. Many of them are consciously creating a cartoony, very flat space that looks almost naive in these complex, difficult times.
"How do you deal with 9/11, with abuse, with racism?" Clark adds. "These images allow artists to approach difficult topics in ways that are more accessible to many people. They also become a tool that enables a lot more people to express their thoughts and ideas."
Take Peregrine Honig's "Awfulbet," a 1998 series of simple pen-and-ink drawings of women on paper bags with accompanying verses ("E is for Emma throwing up dinner"). They lack the graphic sophistication of their obvious model, Edward Gorey's deliciously macabre "Gashlycrumb Tinies" ("E is for Ernest who choked on a peach"). But they describe contemporary women's issues relating to body image, appearance and so forth.
The works in "Comic Release" vary widely in technique. Some, such as Peter Williams' large oil painting "Opera Bouffe" (2000) or Michel Boulanger's spoof of Dali and Disney, "Nature anxieuse" (1999), display polished draftsmanship and painterly skill. Others are less than accomplished.
Still other works use elements of comic books and strips, political cartoons and American and Japanese animation in works that recall the comic book-verite style of Harvey Pekar's autobiographical "American Splendor." That's the model followed by Jim Torok ("One Week," 2001) and Graham Annable ("Pacific Time," 2001), who recount their activities on Sept. 11, and Linda Medley, who tackles an all-too-familiar question in "Where Do You Get Your Ideas" (2001).
Embracing the diversity of styles and formats has been a learning experience for the curators. In the show's catalog, prepared by Clark and Barbara Bloemink with Ana Merino and Rick Gribenas, they describe themselves as "middle-aged curators attempting to come to terms with a changing culture." And they wrestle with questions of "how do you value a work; what are the standards in the art world; and are they applicable to graphic novels or zines? Or does each category have its own series of standards?"
As such, they've modified the show as it has traveled from Pittsburgh to New Orleans to Pasadena and beyond.
When it opened at the Regina Gouger Miller Gallery at Carnegie-Mellon in January 2003, the exhibition of artworks and graphic novels was considerably larger -- it had to be cut back from 174 to 105 items to accommodate space restrictions at various venues.
But the number of zines has grown as the curators have added examples from local artists at each stop.
Among Southern California zine contributors in the show, brothers Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez each have panels from their alternative comic books, which blend storytelling traditions learned from their Mexican relatives with their own experiences growing up locally.
Looking back on the creation of the show and the changes it's undergone, Clark reflects, "One thing I would change if I were to redo it is, I'd like to mount a complete graphic novel on one wall. Obviously we knew were taking pages out of context, but I didn't realize how much that would bother me later on.
"I'd love to do a show with only six or eight artists, including one or two graphic novelists, and let people really see the narrative qualities of their work -- and the difficulty of achieving a narrative in a painting."
But for now, Clark hopes viewers will walk away from "Comic Release" with more questions than answers.
"I'm a child of the '60s; I believe in changing the world," she says.
"I want people to think about the issues surrounding why so many artists are using this format to deal with questions, including their identities.... It represents a way of bringing up issues in a country where dissent is not encouraged and possibly not even allowed."
'Comic Release! Negotiating Identity for a New Generation'
Where: Armory Center for the Arts, 145 N. Raymond Ave., Pasadena
When: Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday; noon to 9 p.m. Friday.
Ends: Aug. 15
Contact: (626) 792-5101, Ext. 122; www.armoryarts.org