June 2, 2006

Chris Ware’s urban cartoons make a strange but effective art exhibit

Cartoon art is in a strange place in the art world at the moment. For decades dismissed as a young male hobby or as a section of a local tabloid that is best-forgotten, comic art, like film and photography before it, is currently changing from a adolescent hobby into a valid artistic medium. This transition can be attributed to a few certain works—Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay are a couple that have been deemed Pulitzer-worthy—or it can be seen as a larger intellectual progression that has been building up for the last 30 years.

And like film, comic art’s most obvious predecessor in the transition into the intellectual world, the people driving the change are debating how best to approach comics as an art. Comics can be viewed as a unique narrative form, as a collection of discrete visual images, or both. The exhibition of the works of Chris Ware, running at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MCA) until August 27, reflects the current confusion in the debate over comics’ place in the art world—as well as why such a debate is worth having.

The MCA describes Ware as an “alternative cartoonist,” an extremely vague term supplied simply due to a lack of better options. With superheroes and the fantastic dominating the pages of Marvel and DC as they have for the past 70 years, Ware’s comics depict the intense emotions that can be found in everyday life. He’s been featured in The New Yorker, yet he’s not a New Yorker cartoonist; his works are not slices of life, they’re extended narratives on how people deal with the frustrating and never completely satisfying twists and turns life throws at them.

The fact that he can do this while drawing sparse, forceful images of city life is particularly striking. No wonder The New York Times serialized his Building Stories over the course of a year—he managed to capture the harshness of urban loneliness better than anyone since Tom Wolfe, and he did so with an approach that no one would have expected.

That being said, you can’t get over the feeling of the immense oddity of the setup of the MCA exhibit. The exhibit takes up just two rooms, yet due to the abundance of drawings and even greater abundance of text, it would take days to completely examine each image. The first room features Ware’s Building Stories and his lesser known Branford the Bee. Both works show characters who seem uncomfortable in their situations in life, even though they’ve been in those situations all their lives.

Perhaps most emotionally jarring is Building Stories: Anatomy, which features the chronic depression and loneliness of a woman with one leg. We learn about her tortured childhood, her unrewarding experiences with her first and only boyfriend, and her self-hatred over her weight. Ultimately, we see her give up any hope of happiness as she enters middle age. It’s impossible not to think that there must be thousands of women in Chicago who feel the same way.

The other room features the entire spread of Ware’s most famous work, Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. The work is admittedly semi-autobiographical, focusing on the traumatic experience of an emotionally detached man’s experience with his estranged father. The work traces Jimmy’s fears, his mistreatment by the people in his world, and how his expectations and hopes of acceptance are continuously unfulfilled. The work is featured both in large black and white drawings, as well as in smaller frames with full color. Strangely, the glass-encased Jimmy Corrigan merchandise fills the center of the room, apparently for lack of better ways to fill the space.

There’s no way of getting around the fact that this is quite possibly the strangest choice of exhibit the MCA could have possibly made. While Ware’s drawings in Building Stories are slightly more refined, Ware’s artistic merit is undeniably lackluster. The exhibit’s strength lies primarily in its narrative. Ware is an extremely gifted storyteller and he paces his narrative brilliantly through the frames. Yet, while quality narrative is all fine and good in a bookstore, what place does it have in an art museum?

Oddly enough, the exhibit still works, in its own way. The drawings may be crude, but their minimalism accentuates the vapidness of his character’s inner thoughts and shows how their lives are tragic in their boringness. But what makes the exhibit effective, more so even than its visuals, are its distinctly artistic emotions. Any art exhibit, whether it consists of painting, sculpture, or graphic art, must be considered effective if it shows inner pain, feelings of unworthiness, and the violence of the ordinary as directly to the viewer as possible. The Ware exhibit does just that.

The Ware exhibit accomplishes its goal in a roundabout way, and indeed, there’s no way of knowing if the MCA chose the exhibit for this reason or simply because it was a unique graphic art form. Either way, Ware has always been effective at shaking up people’s expectations of what the graphic art form can be. It’s not entirely out of line for the MCA to do the same for a major art museum exhibition.