Easy on the eyes

At Whitney Art Works, "The Funnies" directly engage viewers with 150 pieces by 25 artists.
By KEN GREENLEAF  |  February 26, 2009

 090227_Funnies_Main
NOT QUITE FUNNY But still enlightening: A Ryan LaMunyon strip.

The sad ghost of post-modernism. By Ken Greenleaf.

"THE FUNNIES" at Whitney Art Works, 492 Congress St, Portland | works by Ben Asselin, Jeff Badger, Nick Colen, Jay Cornell, Pat Corrigan, Amanda Curreri, Haig Demarjian, Sean Foley, Mike Gorman, Sam Henderson, Charlie Hewitt, Graham Kahler, Victor Kerlow, David Kish, Ryan LaMunyon, Amy Morken, Michael Nakoneczny, Deb Randall, Alex Rheault, Irene Stapleford, Tyler Stiene, Aaron Tompkins, Chad Verrill, Ty Williams, and Henry Wolyniec | through February 28 | 207.774.7011
"The Funnies" at Whitney Art Works is a sprawling show of upwards of 150 pieces by 25 artists, all of whom have been brought together by local artist — and show participant — Jeff Badger to make a point about cartoons, or perhaps several points. By "cartoons," we mean here work that comes under the broad heading of the comics as they might appear in that section of a newspaper.

Not that most of these works would necessarily be in a publication, but they mostly all use something like that method making a piece of graphic art. Many of these pieces aren't funny or intended to be, but that's true of much comic art. "Comic" in this sense refers to a graphic genre, not to comedy. The unspoken assumption here is that the genre is an uppity response being held up as a mirror to the idea that there is other art that inherently possesses a higher level of accomplishment.

Comics have been around, of course, for years, and some of them have been very deep indeed. With his Krazy Kat strip in the 1920s and '30s, George Herriman sometimes produced wonderful surrealist visual and verbal poetry. In our own time Art Spiegelman's Maus addressed a difficult subject, the Holocaust, in surprising ways. Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer combines great drawing with lonely pathos and rewards re-reading.

Roy Lichtenstein referred to comics in his earlier Pop paintings, but he brought a highly trained visual intelligence to his work. Likewise, when Philip Guston went from abstraction to his more cartoon-like images, he still brought years of experience to them. In hindsight, neither artist looks as subversive as they first did. They were both really good painters.

The distinction between art with a commitment to seriousness and comic art is comprehension. It takes repeated visits to Matisse's masterpiece "The Red Studio" to learn to apprehend the deep aesthetic experience it provides. The same is true for Rembrandt, Cézanne, Caravaggio, or, for that matter, Beethoven. Great art takes time, attention, and patience. Cartoons are intended for quick amusement and the presentation of an easy-to-get idea.

But there is no continuum along which comics are placed lower than serious art — they are separate intellectual domains. There's occasional overlap, but the intentions and value are of each essentially distinct. Most of the pieces in this show make their point unambiguously. The idea might be indirect or cryptic, but it's right on top.

Take, for instance, Badger's own "Sell Me Your Eyes, I Need Them," in which the title appears in the painting, as do a metal head and a hand clutching money. While the circumstances implied are a little obscure, the message of imperative exploitation is sledgehammer clear.

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