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Dan Nadel on Milo George on Ivan Brunetti's Comics Show
posted September 27, 2005
Milo George asked who Karl Wirsum is. Karl Wirsum was a part of the art group "Hairy Who", six Chicago artists (including Jim Nutt) who banded together for five exhibitions and four "comic book" catalogs in the mid-to-late 1960s. Their work was (and is) vibrant, image-based and almost ecstatic with ideas, forms, word-play and humor. They have often been lumped in with comics because they drew on the flat, often grotesque lines and colors of commercial art. But rather than appropriating images, as Warhol and Lichtenstein did, the Chicagoans used the graphic language of comics, signage, wrestling magazines and any other detritus of American culture to make their own unique visual language. Theirs is a "third stream" in American art: image-based, humane, and communicative art mostly ignored by both the modernist fine art and the comics/low-brow canons. Wirsum and his peers, including Peter Saul, are, to my mind, perhaps the most exciting artists of the 1960s and 70s, far surpassing their East and West Coast contemporaries in every respect. Don't even get me started on H.C. Westermann, their spiritual godfather and one of the most brilliant artists America has ever produced, period. Wirsum and Hairy Who was the subject of an exhaustive oral history in my own The Ganzfeld #3, which I actually sent to Milo while he was at the The Comics Journal. It's probably languishing in a used bookstore somewhere. Needless to say, I'm working on a book about this stuff. Pity me.
Anywho, Milo also asked how Karl's work relates to comics. Well, this is a tough question. It relates in as much as artists like Gary Panter, David Sandlin, Mat Brinkman, and, to a certain extent, Chris Ware, have been influenced either directly (Panter and Sandlin are tremendous Wirsum fans and, I might add, the dual repositories of a ton of forgotten art history. Every aspiring artist should try to absorb their knowledge, not to mention their unbelievable talents) or indirectly by Karl's image-making strategies. More directly, Wirsum has drawn some actual comic strips (see Ganz 3) and also some wonderful portraits of comic strip characters (these are printed in the just-out Ganzfeld 4). And more recently, I took Chris Ware over to his house for an afternoon of soda-drinking and funny jokes. So, Karl is adjacent to comics, and any cartoonist could learn a ton by looking at the way he constructs his indelible images. So, is he as significant to comics as Panter? No. He relates as inspiration, instructor, and fellow-traveler. Heavens knows, comics could use more of those. I suspect that by by including Wirsum, Ivan, bless his heart, was trying to open up a discussion about what is important to the comics canon.
It's a discussion worth having, but is a tricky business, and is always met with lots of resistance. The comics canon (and its custodians) tends to be very conservative. Comics people are, for the most part, either suspicious of or outright hostile towards anything they think is "arty." I wish there was more discussion of how artists like Ron Rege, Brinkman, Marc Bell, Ben Jones, et al relate to the world around them. They arguably have more in common with Wirsum, Saul, or Philip Guston than they do with George Herriman, Milton Caniff, or Art Spiegelman. Chris Ware himself was taught by Jim Nutt and Peter Saul. Surely this means something. Robert Boyd attempted such a discussion in his excellent booklet on Rege, but no one else has picked up the gauntlet. It's one of the things I try to do as editor of The Ganzfeld and now as a publisher....but, well, I wish comics would open up a bit to the visual culture around it. We'd all be better off for it. Kudos to Ivan for giving it a shot.
p.s. Wirsum and co. were included in a couple of comics shows in the 80s: one at the Whitney (Fantagraphics helped with the catalog) and one in England called Comics Iconoclasm. And somewhere online are a bunch of photos of Wirsum's house taken by a local cartoonist.