In the throes of a love affair with Pop Art in the '60s, a would-be artist named Richard Turner decided to follow Roy Lichtenstein's lead.
"I was an undergrad and realized I didn't want to learn how to draw," recalls Turner. So, like Lichtenstein, he found himself an overhead projector and traced a comic-strip image onto a canvas.
The strategy gave Turner a new technique, but beyond that it launched a long-lasting fascination with comic book and cartoon imagery, which he has been appropriating from time to time over the past decade. Now he has made it the focus of an exhibition at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery.
"TAKEOFFS: Cartoon and Caricature in the Fine Arts" showcases 11 contemporary artists who use either comic book/cartoon imagery or caricature in their work. The artists are Cameron Jamie, Doug Harvey and Brian Tucker of Los Angeles; Peter Mitchell-Dayton of San Francisco; Rachel Hecker of Houston; Nicole Eiseman, Gary Simmons, Christian Schumann and Katie Merz of New York; Yoshitomo Nara of Japan, and Angus Fairhurst of London.
The exhibit is no visit to the Disney Store. Such recognizable figures as Archie and Veronica, the Tasmanian Devil and Peter Pan make appearances, and some works are rendered in frame-after-frame comic-strip format; others recall quirky New Yorker magazine cartoons. Humor, silliness, unpredictability and exaggeration abound.
But the artists are dealing bluntly with such issues as gender politics and sexual identity. And irreverence is their code. They may chop the hands off cuddly little animals from Saturday morning TV, or make wide-eyed innocents into nasty subversives to deliver an array of psychological and social commentaries.
Turner, who directs the Guggenheim Gallery, has his own name for Nara's dark adaptation of happy Japanese comic book figures: "Hello Kitty Goes to Hell."
The late Basil Wolverton is the only actual cartoonist in the show. A seminal caricaturist who drew for Mad Magazine, among others, Wolverton created ugly-goofy, pockmarked humanoids with misplaced, distorted, distended body parts and bulging eyes, expanding the art of caricature with his freewheeling grotesqueness.
"He is," Turner says, "the granddaddy of a lot of this work."
Though cartoons and comics have been part of American art since Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol mined the funny pages, this iconography has emerged with increasing frequently over the past five years. Turner says it extends the rebellion by artists challenging the Establishment with previously shunned strategies and materials, like the assemblage artists of the '40s and '50s who used society's detritus.
Other factors are the widespread popularity of video games and their imagery ("a lot of artists are interested in that," notes Turner) and the underground psychedelic comic books of the '60s, which, Turner says, "are enjoying a renaissance.
"They are being reprinted, and their artists are being revisited, and the comic as a format has radically evolved. In comic book stores now, there's a broad variety of subject matter, from horror and sex to completely idiotic non sequiturs."
Dayton's work puts a new spin on the wholesome Archie comics. Look, that's Archie; there's Betty, and this one's Veronica--no mistaking them. But what's this? The two best girlfriends having sex? Archie embracing a nude Veronica, her mouth agape, her eyes wide with fear? Or is it loathing?
Schumann alludes to the frame-by-frame format of comic strips by giving his lush, whimsical "Something Special" a background grid of colored rectangles. "It's vaguely like the funny pages, with all those rectangles, but it's a much more personal funny pages," Turner says. "It's non-sequential, non-narrative and not meant to be particularly accessible."
"Something Special" is inhabited by idiosyncratic blob-like or eerie, hairless creatures (no Archie here) and words ("stinky") and phrases ("fat fingers"). Turner says Schumann "uses the license of the comic-strip artist to be as nutty, irreverent and crazy as he wants to be."
No recognizable cartoon figures populate Fairhurst's drawings, either, but his precise renderings of a gorilla up to no good are among works reminiscent of a cartoon style, specifically the New Yorker's. Turner categorizes them as closer to graphic art than to fine art and says they have forced him to expand his definition of the latter, a challenge he welcomes.
"They are troubling to me, which is why I put them in the show."
In fact, he adds, his overall curatorial inclination is to seek out troubling work, and he says he is heartened by the increasing influence on fine art of such pop cultural forms as comics, cars, tattoos and skateboards. Indeed, he says there shouldn't be any distinction between so-called low and high art.
"To me, a healthy art scene is one in which there are always people challenging me to expand my horizon as an artist. And when I have people working in materials or strategies that I haven't even thought of before or recognize--that's where it's exciting."
* "TAKEOFFS: Cartoon and Caricature in the Fine Arts" is at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Monday through Friday, noon to 5 p.m.; Saturday, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Through Nov. 12. Free. (714) 997-6729.
In conjunction with the exhibit, John Kricfalusi, creator of the "Ren and Stimpy Show," will discuss his work on Nov. 2 at 7 p.m. in Room 208 of the Argyros Forum on campus.