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Comic Artists Reach for Respectability in LACE’s ‘Misfit Lit’ : * Art: An ambitious traveling exhibition of paintings, drawings and graphics seeks to establish comics as a legitimate art form.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Sub-literature is clawing its way to the surface, and high art will never be the same.

So concludes a catalogue introduction to “Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art,” an ambitious exhibition of 150 recent paintings, drawings and graphics that seeks to establish comics--yes, comics --as a legitimate art form.

However, these are not your typical children’s comics. Benevolent superheroes such as Batman and Spider-Man are nowhere to be found. The 49 American and Canadian artists featured here all work in the alternative vein--producing mostly angry, confrontational and explicit works dealing with themes such as the degradation of society, homophobia, limitations of artistic freedom and the banality of everyday life.

Here we find Robert Armstrong’s “Mickey Rat,” a tough, big-nosed rodent who ravages through Dumpsters for recyclable aluminum cans; Mary Fleener’s “A Mother and Daughter Chat,” in which a liberated daughter educates her complacent mother on the joys of sex; Howard Cruse’s “Homoeroticism Blues,” where a gay artist finds that by virtue of his sexual orientation, any art he produces is deemed too homoerotic; and Doug Allen’s environmental commentary featuring a bare-breasted and voluptuous fish popping out of a polluted waterway with dreams of a drunken beer fest.

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Other examples take on the notion of traditional comics, such as Joe Matt’s rendition of a skinny, neon-clad dude stuck in a maze of chutes, ladders and rivers asking, “Awwww . . . NOW what kinda weird strip do I have to go through?”

Organized a year ago by Seattle’s Center on Contemporary Art, the traveling show’s current stop is at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions in downtown Los Angeles. And it’s a fitting coincidence that LACE is merely a few blocks from the Museum of Contemporary Art’s Temporary Contemporary, where the popular “Helter Skelter: L.A. Art in the 1990s” also includes alternative, comic-based work.

“Until very recently, comic artists haven’t gained recognition,” says Larry Reid, who organized “Misfit Lit” as the former program director and curator at the Seattle center. “But it’s become apparent with the success of (comic artist) Robert Williams in ‘Helter Skelter’ and the success of galleries like (Melrose Avenue’s) La Luz de Jesus that this work is gradually being accepted, and that it’s very influential on other artists.”

Although Reid began work on “Misfit Lit” in 1989, the show did not open until last March, several months after Kirk Varnedoe’s controversial “High & Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture” premiered at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. (“High & Low” was also seen in Los Angeles last summer at MOCA.)

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That exhibition included comics among the works representing the “low,” but Reid maintains that the artists behind those comics still went unrecognized.

"(“High & Low”) failed in attempting to lend credence to those artists by including them with traditional fine art,” he said. “What happened was just prejudice . . . those who were taking comic imagery and transposing it into fine art ended up getting recognition as fine artists, while those whose works were being appropriated were not recognized.”

Nevertheless, Reid said, “High & Low"--and now “Helter Skelter"--have succeeded in bringing the underground comics scene to the attention of the art establishment--including critics, curators and institutions.

The works in “Misfit Lit” come from the modern era of alternative comics, which began in the early 1980s as a resurgence of the underground Comix movement, an outgrowth of the 1960s hippie era that had died down in the ‘70s.

Reid attributed the art market’s crash as bringing about the current resurgence, adding: “Finally, this alternative work, that didn’t lend itself well to that market-driven economy, is being given a chance.”

* “Misfit Lit: Contemporary Comic Art,” at LACE, 1804 Industrial St., (213) 624-5650. Closes Saturday.


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