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Bart Beaty On Museumification And The Blab! Show In Kansas
posted September 25, 2008


By Bart Beaty

I've been on the road for the past week and thinking a lot about comics and the way that they are being integrated into art museums. Last week I spoke on the topic at Memorial University in St. John's University and on Monday at my alma mater, McGill University in Montreal. One of the things that has come up a lot in those discussions is the idea that comics are now increasingly well along in the process of "museumification," but that it is not necessarily proceeding in the best possible manner.

On Tuesday, for example, I had a long talk with a friend who is an art historian about comics. Other than living a couple of blocks away from Drawn and Quarterly's wonderful new store in Montreal's Mile End neighborhood, much of the work that I was talking about was alien to her. What she wanted to know from me was, how had contemporary cartoonists adapted their work to accommodate the sense of embodied space that galleries and museums encompass, given that the best exhibitions start from an awareness of those spaces. I told her that, sadly, it was only the rarest of cartoonists who seemed to take these issues into consideration (I could cite recent exhibitions by Matthew Thurber and by Rupert and Mulot at Fumetto as strong examples, but they are in the obvious minority).

For the most part, comics exhibitions consist of pen drawings on large white pages hung on the white walls of a gallery space, and they are death to look at. This was the model of the Masters of American Comics show (they, at least, painted the walls colors other than white... ), and they always disappoint. In Unpopular Culture I quote Joann Sfar as arguing that comics cannot compete with painting, because the size, shape and wall impact of painting will always overcome the comics page. Hang a Crumb and a Guston on the walls of the Art Institute of Chicago, Sfar essentially suggests, and the Crumb looks all the poorer for the comparison, not because of inherent differences between the artists, but because of the biases of the space.

imageUndoubtedly, Sfar has a point. But it's also nice to spending time today in Manhattan, Kansas seeing the retrospective on Blab! that is mounted at the Beach Museum of Art at Kansas State University. If a show about the quintessentially Californian lowbrow art movement seems out of place in Kansas to you, it might reassure you to know how good the show looks in the phenomenal exhibition space of the Beach Museum. Curator Bill North has brought together the largest ever exhibition of work from Blab!, with more than one hundred pieces on display here from 46 artists like Chris Ware, Peter Kuper, Steven Guarnaccia, Tim Biskup, Gary Baseman, Spain Rodriguez, Elvis Studio, Laura Levine... Well, open up any of the recent issues and you can begin to fill in the rest of the list yourself.

The advantage of a Blab!-based show is that so very few of the works here (Spain, Ware, maybe a couple of others) are actually pen and ink drawings on white paper. Most are fully painted. Some, by the likes of Levine, for example, are painted not on paper or canvas but on wooden doors. The craft level is, of course, quite high, and the "wall impact" of these unusual creations in various media is striking. The Beach has eschewed a strictly chronological arrangement, opting for a more arresting non-linear presentation. The overall effect is much more appealing than, for example, the chronological arrangement of "masters" put on by the Hammer and MoCA in Los Angeles a few years back.

Of course, as North notes in the catalog, not everyone would see Blab! as comics (in the McCloudian formalist sense). I've been arguing recently that we need to move (quickly) out of that narrow formalist ghetto, reconceptualizing comics in relation to other art forms. The Blab! show is prima facie evidence of that need, and it underscores the way that comics are transforming themselves in interesting and unexpected ways at the current moment.

The Blab! show runs through November at Kansas State and a catalog (designed by Monte Beauchamp, with essays by North, David Berona and others) is available. I will be speaking on Blab!'s relationship with comics and the lowbrow movement tonight, so if you happen to be in the area please come by and say hello.


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