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May 16, 2014

Five (Plus) Reasons Folks Should Go Visit Columbus, Ohio, And Not Wait A Long While Before Doing So

Due to the great generosity of the nice people at Columbus, Ohio's Wexner Center, I took a quick peek at preparations for the traveling Dan Clowes Modern Cartoonist show landing in Columbus for a full summer run starting this weekend with a gala opening this weekend. I was only in Columbus for a few hours, on my way to somewhere else, so I appreciate being able to see it -- they were also still putting the finishing touches, so I am further thankful they let me in at all.

I also got a look at the influences show that Clowes assembled from the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library & Museum holdings with the assistance of Caitlin McGurk, and a show of modern artists using elements of cartooning and comics in non-comics work. I also -- it was a hell of a two hours -- got my first look at the Bill Watterson and Richard Thompson exhibits that opened earlier this spring.

You can see all of the Clowes-related activities listed in one place here.

A few notes.

image* with these five exhibits, the general opportunities afforded by the Billy Ireland space (you can arrange to see material from their holdings or get some very specific research done) and the various ins into the local comics community provided by people like McGurk, I can't imagine that anyone in comics wouldn't want to spend at least a little time in Columbus this summer. Thompson/Watterson/Clowes is a major festival's worth of exhibits.

* I mean, the Clowes stuff all by itself would be worth a road trip, and was on previous stops in Oakland and Chicago. There's a bit of a risk in a museum taking on a show that was previously up within a half-day's driving distance, so I hope that people in Cleveland and Pittsburgh, for example, consider a day trip to see it. This weekend's discussion between Clowes and Hillary Chute is something I very much wish I could see, and I would take a second trip just to do so. Clowes is a bit under-interviewed among his peers, and I know he's smart and articulate.

* on the day I visited I saw the Watterson first. That show is exactly what was required: a major, done-in-one statement about a major cartoonist who has only become more popular since his retirement getting closer to 20 years ago now. It was going to be good unless curator Jenny Robb super-screwed up, because Watterson's work is lovely, but it needed to be authoritative. This does future exhibits greater permission to do variations of the career retrospective rather than attempting to get one of those into place.

image* I think Robb hit it dead on. Cross "major Bill Watterson gallery show" off the list of things we need to see.

* everything provided is worth stopping and reading -- I couldn't see any early computer-aided production in play, like repeated panels or stripped in lettering, and the bulk of individual pieces were completed strips, particularly Sundays. They're a little smaller than I might have guessed if I had taken a stab at it back in 1989. They're also a little more worked on than I think most people might expect, given Watterson's ample chops. What gets into print is all that matters, though, for sure, and that was a great strip.

* one touch I appreciated was a pretty extensive, two-wall influences section, with writing by Watterson himself -- he was always an astute observer, so these are sharply penned. With Jim Borgman's work listed, too, it was a reminder just how powerful regional editorial cartoonists were for cartoonists that came up from the early part of the 20th Century through the 1980s. Those at the opening event for TCAF, for instance, will remember Lynn Johnston praising Len Norris.

* there are also strips from a first shot at putting together work for syndication. That's a thing I always find fascinating because I wonder if the strip I'm seeing would have been successful. I think it's also instructive, in that it's a reminder of how delicate the success enjoyed by a comic strip might be.

* one thing they did with this show as opposed to the Richard Thompson show right next door is make it bigger, with these really boldly constructed arrays of thematic cartoons supplementing a more standard eye-level hanging of featured Sunday work. I would imagine that's the only way for a theme to make an impression at a show like this -- which mirrors the comic strip conventional wisdom that you have to show something for six months for it to become a reality in the feature.

* I'll need to go back and look at the art at some point, but from the dates I caught during my brief walk-through, I wonder if Watterson didn't become a bit looser in those last couple of years, and I wonder about his use of negative space as the strip continued. I look forward to a second shot at that one.

* the Richard Thompson exhibit is similarly excellent. It's much smaller than the Watterson show in terms of number of pieces shown, and it's in the smaller of the two rotating spaces. It's well-selected, both in terms of providing affecting examples of Thompson's non Cul De Sac work and in hitting all the major notes, like the George Bush parody speech cartoon. That's not easy, and it's great to see Caitliln McGurk take on a project with a relatively high degree of difficulty her first time out. I think hardcore Thompson fans will be happy with it, and newbies will have plenty to read and enjoy.

* Thompson also works smaller than you might expect on the Richard's Poor Almanac and Cul De Sac cartoons he did, although the size of the originals isn't surprising in the way Watterson's are. Some of the best pieces in both shows feature hand water-colored Sunday, but the difference is really dramatic with Thompson.

image* a couple of my favorites of Thompson's are in the show -- the Beethoven caricature, and the Sunday Cul De Sac were Petey experiences the last day of school as an odd, decaying wasteland. Thompson's color sense interests me in a different way than Watterson's, in that I never quite get a handle on it and the dominant color in my mind's eye when I think of Thompson's color pieces is gray. That can't be right.

* the strips selected make for fine never-seen-the-strip-before gags if you're unfamiliar with Thompson's work. I asked a fellow patron if she were familiar with Thompson's work, and she wasn't, and she kind of laughed her way around the room.

* the belle of the ball in that room was the original for that wonderful Cul De Sac landscape, which I guess was solicited for a specific show of similar bird's eye views of comics places. I only vaguely remember that.

* the Petey Otterloop painting Watterson did rests outside of both shows and thus unites them. There is a feeling of collegiality throughout the place, a sense of mutual respect that doesn't feel jarring and out of place. The solicitousness with which Bill Watterson has dealt with Richard Thompson, particularly since the public reveal of Thompson's diagnosis, has been one of the very best things about comics. It's hard not to see it all over these shows.

* the other three shows are hosted by a more general cultural facility, the Wexner Center, about fifty yards away from the front door of the Billy Ireland. They have slightly different aims than the comics-focused institution, but they're very comics friendly and smart about what they allow to go up there.

* the Dan Clowes exhibit was still being physically put into place as we walked through it, but it looks distinctly massive and oh my goodness there's some ambition to the way that show was and is being staged. I'd go to see any art presented like that. Additionally, there's something about making the installation part of the aesthetic being expressed that really works for an artist like Clowes, whose art is perhaps best seen in a continuity of single images, original art and published work. But that room should be lovely right now, and extremely impressive, and certainly a testament to the potency of Clowes' career to date.

* I'm not sure I know about that particular show traveling anywhere else after this -- I figure it might, I just haven't heard, but I also figure it might be a little elaborate for a lot of spaces and budgets. At any rate, I hope you stop by that one. The end result should be super-impressive.

* it hit me that afternoon that watching Columbus people stand in a three-quarters circle and talk about all they're planning to do for a comics-maker when they're in town may be my favorite new activity of the last two years.

image* my last stops were by the two accompanying Wexner exhibits. The Clowes influences shows features some excellent Otto Soglow and some unique pieces from EC Segar and Wally Wood. We also get a lot of Winsor McCay's non-Nemo work, and enough Dick Tracy that Clowes won't lose his "I'm From Chicago" membership card. The McCay choice struck me as interesting because that work is not everyone's cup of tea despite its frequent, bold displays of craft.

* I did not see the comic books to be displayed along with the hanging original art, even though I know one will be a Jimmy Olsen.

* the hanging works are arranged for clean stylistic breaks, and it's almost jarring -- which was a actually a cool way to look at that art. The moment of resettling your eyes acts as a palate cleanser that enables you to take in the art you're seeing next. This is also, of course, how a newspaper comics page might work, and my own memory of processing work that way. I do wonder how younger cartoonists that are able to piece together comics enounters that fit their very specific and strongest tastes, might be different than those artists that had to take what someone provided them. At any rate, I liked it quite a bit, and it's a flattering accompaniment to the Modern Cartoonist event. I hope that becomes a feature of exhibits in Columbus, and I expect that will be the case seeing as showing off the collection is basically in the bold type of their secret origin/mission statement.

* I'm not sure I have a ton to say about the third exhibit, Comic Future, although many of the pieces were cool-looking and seeing the elements of comics used that way will likely foster some thought about the nature of some of comics' formal flourishes. I think comics fans may respond most strongly to a series of Mike Kelley drawings that look like they could appear in Weirdo, and a piece where pages are covered by white space except a cutaway on top of a secret identity reveal, a big Laugh-In wall or advent calendar of "shocking comics moments."

Anyway, that's a fun line-up of shows, all of super high quality. I hope everyone within the sound of my on-line voice will consider stopping by. I'd drive five hours just to see the Thompson.


* top image ganked from the forthcoming exhibition book -- that's Dave Filipi of the Wexner Center, Caitlin McGurk of Billy Ireland, and Dan Clowes himself
* a Bill Watterson image
* Richard Thompson's beautiful Beethoven illustration
* one of Dan Clowes' influences
* "Untitled," Arturo Herrera, 2001, from the Comic Future show



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