Where does High Art stop and Low begin? It may never have been a simple question, but Pop Art ensured that from the ’60s on, parsing the issue would be murder — for anyone, that is, who needs to draw a line. Craig Yoe is not one of those people, as he proves in Arf Museum (Fantagraphics), issue two of an anthology chronicling “the unholy marriage of art + comics.” (Modern Arf came out last year.)
Yoe’s curatorial philosophy is so eccentric it’s hard to describe, but one consistent theme is the interplay between cartoonists and their museum-celebrated cousins. Digging back through a century of obscure newsprint, he finds strips mocking art trends, toying knowingly with highbrow concepts, and making sly allusions to celebrated paintings.
Yoe also hints at influences in the opposite direction (Roy Lichtenstein copping Jack Kirby panels, for instance), but those can be harder to pin down. Anyone who’s been reading Arf, though, can’t help looking at the occasional museum exhibition as a tangential extension of the concept. MOMA’s recent Dada show (a catalog is available from DAP), for example, chronicles troublemaking artists who not only used newspaper illustrations as raw material, but thoroughly embraced the anarchic spirit of the funny pages and occasionally even (as with Otto Dix and Georg Scholz) made paintings that look like beautifully rendered editorial cartoons.
In more contemporary art, of course, the line between painting and comics is often blurry, and plenty of hipsters view them both in pretty much the same light. That might lead to odd concepts at gallery shows, but it can make for great magazines where anything goes. Unfortunately, personal experience indicates that the most interesting of these aren’t necessarily the ones that get the widest exposure.
In The Drama, a quarterly mag now in its eighth issue, the front half of the book takes the form of a friendly art/culture digest — the kind of place where artist Q&As and gallery profiles keep company with a few pages of “X v. Y” record reviews (example: John Coltrane vs. Acid Mothers Temple). The back, though, calls itself “This It” and presents, without commentary, a couple dozen single-page examples of new comic work that ranges from sketchbook pages to quirky gag strips.
Also in its eighth issue is Comic Art (now published by Buenaventura Press, the folks behind the cutting-edge anthology series Kramers Ergot), which as the title suggests examines comix in a format akin to glossy art mags. Here you’ll find things like Chris Ware offering lavish praise (read: comparisons to James Joyce and Stravinsky) to the Richard McGuire piece “Here,” which blew my mind when Raw printed it in 1989. Elsewhere, profiles of obscure (in the U.S., anyway) creators like Anke Feuchtenberger sit beside a long, and long-overdue, article on caricaturist Drew Friedman. For my money, the mag strikes just the right balance between familiar faces, explorations of stuff I’ve heard of but didn’t really know, and artists who were completely unknown to me. (This new issue comes with a beautiful micro-book by Seth, in which the famously anachronistic cartooonist profiles 40 of his favorite obscure “cartoon books.”)
Lastly: Any of the above periodicals would likely be happy to profile Jon Langford, the Mekons and Waco Brothers troubadour with a sideline in fine art. Nashville Radio pairs the musician’s lyrics and scraps of memoir with the inimitable paintings that have earned him an increasing following over the last decade. Enamored of Nashville’s golden era, adorned with odd bits of oft-macabre humor, and lovingly abused to create just the right faux-vintage patina, Langford’s portraits of folks like Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn are like a hillbilly’s version of Andy Warhol. I smell a future issue of Arf in there somewhere.