BY MATTHEW THURBER
Cartoonists these days mostly went to art school and know all about the art world, so why does that art world continue to mostly ignore comics? Why were there no comics in the Whitney Biennial, again? (Its curators would certainly have looked foolish if they had left out some other medium, like video or sculpture, entirely.)
Why should you care about comics? Well, you only should if you’re interested in art practices that contain rich content and meaning; that command a large and devoted audience; that couldn’t care less about the market, or investment, or flipping; that are truly radical. Here’s a cheat sheet to 10 names to know, from the absurd to the psychedelic, and everything in between.
In Haifisch’s hilarious comic The Artist the title character is an emaciated and pale bird-creature with red eyes and a few strands of hair. In this chronicle of a life of willful poverty and self-doubt, Haifisch intelligently dissects the mythos of the creative community. Surrounded by babbling snakes in top hats and frumpy ducks (i.e. the art establishment), the artist shrinks from critique. “Do you think you could dance your paintings?” suggests a critic from the German journal Texte Zur Kunst. Artists are sent to Art Jail, where attempts at rehabilitating their “eccentric screeching, loitering and prowling…art rage and whatnot” are futile, resulting in recidivism; the artist smashes her portfolio against a cop car.
Haifisch’s frayed but confident line perfectly evokes the fragility of the artistic ego. Based in Leipzig, in proximity to the famed local painting scene, her work benefits from immersion in that particularly Euro milieu. Her work joins a recent trend of cartoons grappling with the art world as their subject—Walter Scott’s Wendy and Brecht Vandenbroucke’s White Cube notable among them. (Hafisich’s latest book, Von Spatz, takes a slight detour: It’s a magic-realist examination of the life of Walt Disney.)
No other cartoonist’s work functions so well as “art” in the so-called “art world.” Bell’s giddy drawing energy vaporizes these false distinctions. He developed his chops as a cartoonist making Crumb-influenced strips for weekly newspapers in the ’90s. An important scene of collaborative ’zine-making developed across Canada at this time, in which Bell participated, fostering, collecting, and documenting these works in the crucial anthology Nog A Dod: Prehistoric Canadian Psychedooolia.
In the 2000s, Bell made an important strip called Gustun, which cast Philip Guston as a comic character, in essence claiming him for comics. Alongside a series of weekly Shrimpy and Paul strips he drew for local papers, Bell began to create large collages and ultra-dense drawings. This work (collected in the monograph Hot Potatoe) absorbed the image-fracturing strategies of Ray Yoshida and the Chicago Imagists. Just as the Hairy Who successfully ignored the ’60s New York art scene, Bell’s work contains a world of inside jokes and regional myth building that is inherently critical of what he called the “Bloo Chip” system, prompting the question: Isn’t it the artists who work outside of the dominant dialogue who end up seeming most relevant?
In Bell’s early-2000s work, shown at Adam Baumgold’s idiosyncratic uptown New York gallery, text and image became fused in meditative and overwhelming drawings. They’re something like ornate encrustations of the subconscious. Comparisons to Adam Dant, Paul Noble, and Bruce Conner would not be misplaced. Recently, he has returned to comics with the graphic novel Stroppy, which encompasses in its satirical field not only capitalism but poetry and mini-golf……………………………..