The multipanel narratives by cartoonist Robert Crumb have a
persistent undercurrent of satire.
Sep. 14, 2008
By Edward Sozanski
Contributing Art Critic
The Institute of Contemporary Art should post a caveat regarding the
four exhibitions that opened there last weekend - anyone with
attention deficit disorder should think twice about entering. The two
major shows in particular, a retrospective for counterculture
cartoonist Robert Crumb and an extensive suite of collages by Douglas
Blau, require considerable focused attention and meditation.
You're in for a lot of reading (Crumb) and an equally demanding menu
of close observation (Blau). One can't just skim these shows and
expect to take much away.
A strong supporting cast, Kate Gilmore in the Project Room and Odili
Donald Odita on the ramp, also deserves close attention.
The narrow switchback ramp that connects the first and second floors
has frustrated many artists. Odita has created a dazzling color-field
wall painting that compels visitors to consider both the merits of
his design and the way it transforms the space.
Crumb, the Philadelphia-born cartoonist credited with popularizing
the underground "comix" movement during the 1960s, is the biggest
name among the four. Now an expatriate living in France, Crumb has
been apotheosized as a comic genius - art critic Robert Hughes even
compared him to Bruegel - and denounced as a sex-obsessed pornographer.
This exhibition, organized by the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in
San Francisco, is billed as the largest show of Crumb's work in the
United States. Even at more than 100 drawings, it initially doesn't
look big enough to describe a half-century's worth of work.
Appearances turn out to be deceiving, however. The drawings and
cartoon panels are so densely packed with images and text that
reading them all requires persistence.
You might ask, what is a cartoonist doing in an art museum in the
first place? You would ask this only if you regard Crumb as just a
visual funnyman. As you go through the material, much of which
consists of multipanel comic-book narratives, you'll uncover
something deeper than sight gags.
You'll discover, for instance, that Crumb is resolutely misanthropic;
that he's obsessed with sex, especially with female buttocks; that he
isn't reluctant to deploy racial stereotypes, particularly involving
blacks; and that he isn't constrained by bourgeois standards of taste.
Crumb's self-analysis, his portrayal of the artist as Everyman, is
often brutally raw and annoyingly adolescent. He's perpetually angry
at society, particularly at American culture. He's not nice.
Yet he is brutally frank about human inadequacies, for we all share
many of his. His sulphurous rants, which are frequently hilarous,
embody a subtle but persistent undercurrent of coruscating satire.
Comix these panels may be, but their sting makes one uncomfortable.
Crumb as Bruegel is a stretch, but he's certainly Daumier with a vengeance.
Crumb is the visual Lenny Bruce, relentlessly exposing social
hypocrisy, posturing and pretension. You might find him ugly, you
might not like him as a person, but you can't ignore him.
New York artist Douglas Blau is much smoother and easier to take, but
also much more enigmatic. His show consists of suites of collages
composed of various kinds of printed images - photographs, film
stills, postcards, and reproductions of paintings being the most common.
Most of the works consist of nine or 12 framed collages arranged in a
grid; a few are larger. Individual collages are identically framed in
either black or white. Blau uses color and black-and-white images in
various combinations, although the latter predominate.
Each suite suggests a narrative or the spirit of a particular time,
place or activity. Some depict people talking, either in small
conversational groups or large conclaves. A suite called The Course
of Empire: Twilight, is populated by top-hatted men. A fashionably
dressed Tissot woman animates Public Gardens (The General's Daughter).
Perhaps the most beautiful piece is (Dance of the) Dragonflies,
which, besides the eponymous insects, features women in flowing white
gowns. For The Condition of Music, Blau mixed pictures of langorous
females, perfume bottles, and delicate glass vases.
Blau's juxtapositions are exceptionally subtle, sensitive and
refined; they consistently invoke a fin-de-siecle resonance. He has
obviously considered each combination carefully, because the
conjunctions are judiciously matched. Add to that flawless
craftsmanship and you get a near-perfect expression of the collage aesthetic.
There's nothing soothing about Kate Gilmore; her performance-based
video pieces in the Project Room, one of which includes an
installation used in its filming, are concerned with struggle to
In Main Squeeze, for instance, Gilmore tries to force her body
through an impossibly narrow passage. Don't watch this one if you're
claustrophobic. In another, she constructs a rickety pile of
furniture, then tries to climb to its top to reach the video camera
that's filming her.
In the installation piece, called Between a Hard Place, we watch
Gilmore, in black dress and bright yellow shoes, smash through a
succession of plasterboard walls, using only her hands. In the most
distressing piece of all, Every Girl Loves Pink, she's scrunched up
at the bottom of a triangular well trying to extricate herself from
Laocoön coils of pink paper.
To varying degrees, these are distressing scenes because Gilmore's
energetic and frustrating struggles appear mildly perilous. She seems
to be in trouble, and we aren't sure how these situations will
resolve. Her message seems metaphorical. Perhaps the scenarios
address feminist concerns about battling fate or prejudice, but they
also can be read universally. Either way they jangle one's nerves.
From Gilmore, one enters the ramp to confront Odita's supercharged
abstraction, which zips down the ramp from top to bottom. The mural
is composed of sharp, interlocking stripes and spikes of vivid
colors, 115 hues in all, according to the ICA.
Because Odita, who teaches at Tyler School of Art, was born in
Nigeria, one looks for African antecedents in this design; textiles
appear to be a possible source. But Third Space is closer to pure
modernism, particularly to color-field painting, albeit far more
energetic and aggressive than the norm for that genre.
Even though the ramp is too cramped for viewing at a distance, the
work's thrusting linearity permits the viewer to grasp its essence
from any point along the way. At the lower end, the streak of
sensation ends in a wall of colored shards, as if it had shattered on contact.
Art: ICA's Full House
Institute of Contemporary Art, 36th and Sansom Streets. Noon to 8
p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays and
Sundays. Crumb, Blau and Gilmore exhibitions through Dec. 7, Odita
ramp project through March 29. 215-898-7108 or www.icaphila.org.
Contact contributing art critic Edward J. Sozanski at 215-854-5595 or