ART REVIEW : Odd Coupling: Cartoon Show, Life's Tensions


Another cartoon exhibition? Do we really need another survey just months after such material was shown at the Muckenthaler Cultural Center and at Orange Coast College? Ah, but "Takeoffs: Cartoon and Caricature in the Fine Arts"--at Chapman University's Guggenheim Gallery through Nov. 12--is on to something else entirely.

The show does include some "real" cartoons: a set of suavely observed grotesqueries by Basil Wolverton, admired by several younger artists. But the focus is on young artists' use of motifs from the innocently upbeat cartoons of their childhood to point up the tensions and uncertainties of contemporary life. Virtually all of this work, selected by gallery director Richard Turner, is deliciously rambunctious or just plain delicious.

Christian Schumann's large painting "Something Special" soberly offers up a compartmentalized catalogue of Mr. Peanut mutations, daisies, puddling liquids, gnarly abstract patterns, '50s typography and other pop banalities that begin to take on a weird family resemblance the longer you stare at them.

Several pieces play with the senses of perpetual movement and mutation that are at the heart of cartooning. In a group of small, deadpan drawings, Rachel Hecker envisions perky folk making sudden, improbable discoveries: observing a purchased string of pearls that melt; emerging from a turnstile with amputated hands.

The smugly blinkered outlook of the conservative '50s--and by extension, conservatives of our time--also is a natural for a cartoon-based artistic strategy.

Prime examples are Doug Harvey's painting "Lacuna"--a wallpaper-like melange of cheerfully stereotypical images of occupations, animals and everyday objects, blurred by a thin wash of white paint--and Peter Mitchell-Dayton's immersion of blank-faced Archie and his squeaky-clean girlfriend in a world of sexual fantasy and innuendo ("Crossing the Tracks").

The additive quality of cartooning adapts itself to the contemporary belief in a plurality of viewpoints rather than a single privileged "truth." Katie Merz repeats strings of improbable, punning dialogue and oddball characters in slightly differing versions in "Comics No. 1-31." The peeling paint in Schumann's paintings--allowing glimpses of a layer of alternate imagery and texts--also reveals a deliberately open-ended approach.

Invested with built-in lovability, cartoon characters indulging in forbidden behaviors appear doubly trangressive--a boon for an artist interested in tweaking gender issues. Nicole Eisenman draws a scene of Peter Pan reluctantly lifting "his" jerkin for the inspection of shocked Disney dwarfs, who stare at the hero's female genitalia. (Maybe they never heard of Mary Martin?)

The genial, lowbrow attitude of cartoon shorthand gives Gary Simmons a way of addressing heinous social behaviors in a deceptively casual way. In "Kick Tomorrow," a trio of nooses holds sacks that read "cookies," "spookies" and "gookies." In other imagery in the piece, Cinderella's slipper has been set on fire (the burning cross of the yuppie set?) and a step-pattern diagram turns a social dance into a contact sport.

Other strong work in the show is by Cameron Jamie, Angus Fairhurst and Yoshitomo Nara. An essay studded with fresh insights by artist and critic Jan Tumlir adds luster to this show, which continues to uphold the Guggenheim's reputation for showing cheeky younger artists in a thoughtful context.


"Takeoffs: Cartoon and Caricature in the Fine Arts" continues through Nov. 12 at the Guggenheim Gallery, Chapman University, 333 N. Glassell St., Orange. Noon to 5 p.m. Mondays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays. Free. (714) 997-6729.

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