Art reviews: R. Crumb @ UCLA Hammer, ‘India’s Comics’ @ LACMA

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Cartoons have been art’s most common language going on 50 years, ever since Roy Lichtenstein painted Mickey Mouse and Edward Ruscha conjured Little Orphan Annie.

Make that 140 years if you believe (as I do) that the brushy, broken, unfinished-surface look of Impressionist paintings derived from the oil sketches that artists of the French Academy used to map out the slick, highly finished surfaces of their often grandiose canvases. They called those preparatory sketches cartoons, and the Impressionists latched onto their raw energy.


Two small museum shows put current cartoons in our sights. In different ways, both use the form as a method to consider ancient texts.

The more bracing of the two is “The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis” at the UCLA Hammer Museum. Robert Crumb spent nearly five years thinking about and drawing 206 sheets to illuminate the first book of the Old Testament — chapter by chapter, scene by scene — inside rectilinear panels (as many as six per sheet) whose wavy contours frame events with nervous visual energy. At the Hammer, the sheets are lined up edge to edge around one gallery, as well as around a circular wall built in the center of the room.

As a general rule manuscript illumination has long-since gone the way of lighthearted children’s books. Crumb, however, takes on the daunting task with a fierce intelligence and the graphic skill one expects from a founding father of the radical underground comics movement. (His first issue of the counterculture masterwork, Zap Comix, was published in San Francisco in 1968.) Crumb’s familiar drawing style — black ink, a tremulous line, dense cross-hatching that darkens the field and electrifies the light through contrast — gives Genesis the punch of a heavy graphic novel.

Consider God, who appears in the first panel spinning a black void as if it were a dangerous, cosmic play-toy. (As the story unfolds, that’s sort of what it turns out to have been.) Crumb’s God pushes the standard visual motif of an old man with white hair and a flowing beard into an ancient man with locks and whiskers that practically reach the floor. A scowl is almost permanently implanted on his face, as might befit a demanding Old Testament deity known for doling out retribution.

Rather than do what many of the artist’s research-models displayed inside the circular room do — Bible comics that lighten the book’s frequently dark mood, biblical epics from Hollywood that sprinkle star-dust in heaping helpings — Crumb plays it straight. Thick-bodied men and women with blunt expressions enact a straightforward text with a minimum of fuss.

That’s not to say Crumb skimps on carnality or gore. Genesis is often emotionally brutal, physically violent and sexually startling. (It’s not for kids, nor is this rendition.) For instance, some argue that Eve was made the fateful agent of sin in the garden of Eden, giving the apple to Adam, as a way to undermine the ancient power held by matriarchy; the velocity with which Crumb’s fall from grace unfolds — the bliss is all over in 11 pages — packs a wallop.

Engaging a master of the profane like Crumb to tell a sacred story could have proven to be a wincing gimmick, but he’s too good an artist for that. Crumb announces in a hand-lettered forward that he’s not a believer in the divinity of the Bible’s authorship, and that sense of human origins is conveyed by his distinctive drawing style. (He used Robert Alter’s 1996 English translation of the Pentateuch, plus the King James Version.) The invigorating result is the restoration of historical literary and artistic power to a world-changing narrative.

The same cannot be said for “Heroes and Villains: The Battle for Good in India’s Comics” at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The show is certainly fun, even lighthearted, but it’s also lightweight.

Modern Indian comic books are paired with manuscripts chosen from the museum’s collection and dating from the Mughal empire. (Most came to LACMA from the great Paul F. Walter and Nasli and Alice Heeramaneck collections.) The connections between new comics and old manuscripts are largely narrative — the Ramayana, for example, an ancient Hindu epic told in classical paintings in opaque watercolor and adapted today by Liquid Comics, a company based in Bangalore but employing digital collaboration in Los Angeles and New York.

Twenty framed comic-book pages are on display, but it’s the 15 black ink drawings for several of them that capture attention. Beautifully rendered in pencil and black ink, the images bristle with elaborate, melodramatic flair. Using sharp-tipped pens and dry brushes, the artists create flat, intricately patterned figures who dominate the space with extreme, violent gestures.

An engaging nearby video shows how digital coloring and embellishment are added. The result is almost Gothic in its dark mysticism. But these are merely the processes by which the actual artworks — the comic books — are mass-produced; it’s telling that the production story is more compelling than the thin (if admittedly amusing) finished product.

That’s not the case with the smashing Mughal watercolors in the next gallery, dating from the 16th to the 19th centuries. Their style is mostly classical — flat, stately relief figures in a dramatic hierarchy. The manuscripts create a powerful illusion of eternal verity that couldn’t be more different from the playful, short-attention-span theater of their comic book progeny. The pre-modern drawings aren’t steps to something else; they are the main event.

--Christopher Knight

The Bible Illuminated: R. Crumb’s Book of Genesis,” UCLA Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Blvd., Westwood. Tue., Wed., Fri., Sat. 11 a.m.-7 p.m.; Thu. 11 a.m.-9 p.m.; Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Ends Feb. 7. $7. (310) 443-7000.

Heroes and Villains: The Battle for Good in India’s Comics,” Los Angeles County Museum of Art, 5905 Wilshire Blvd. Mon., Tue., Thu.12 noon–8 p.m.; Fri. 12 noon–9 p.m.; Sat., Sun. 11 a.m.–8 p.m.