Frary Gallery in Sarasota will host an art show of a different kind: cartoons for grownups by an art critic – me.
I’ll be giving a brief talk on the history of adult cartoons, which dates back centuries, back to painters William Hogarth, Francisco Goya and Honore Daumier – each of whom lampooned the foibles of their time in both cartoon format and in their painting. Attempting to following in their path (the operative word is “attempting”), I paint as well as cartoons and my subject is not unlike theirs: the human condition.
It’s notable that Hogarth didn’t think much of painters who are “too much captivated with the works of art… apt to pursue the shadow, and drop the substance.” He probably wouldn’t approve of me as a painter.I pursue the shadow like crazy. It’s your call whether I “drop the substance.” My paintings – faces in different states of mind – will be included in my cartoon collection of poster-size panels parodying human relations.
One of my cartoons describes a figure explaining abstract art like this: “My painting is about people, their fears, loves and hopes.” And an out-of-sight voice says, “That stuff is too deep for me.”
Another cartoon showing two figures carries this dialogue:
“Take my advice and forget what he says.”
“I can’t. He called me stupid.”
“Don’t care what he thinks, I tell you.”
“But I DO care!”
“Boy, are you stupid!”
One look at the societal scoffing of yesterday’s cartoonists and you can see TV cartoons like The Family Guy coming.” A grin can start at the edge of your mouth and then, suddenly you un-grin when, say, Baby Stevie tells his mother, who asked him to play in another room, ‘Why don’t you burn in hell?’
Cartoons are a powerful medium for talking about human frailties. While they go through our motions, they’re in a safe remove. Exaggerating the way we act and talk through comic-book figures both enlarges the sight of our weaknesses and makes it easier to take.
One might ask if cartooning is a fine art. Self-serving as it sounds, I vote “yes.” Through the ’90s, while painters, photographers and performance artists were turning art inside out, reinventing it, belching out one regurgitated style after another, cartoonist Lynn Johnston stirred a nation to weeping over a dead sheepdog with her newspaper comic strip For Better or For Worse.
When was the last time you were whipped by an artwork? When was the last time an image inspired the outpouring of feeling that Johnston’s comic strip prompted in 1995 when a dog saved a child’s life at the cost of its own?
How did Johnston do it?
She did it the old-fashioned way: with good drawing and a down-to-earth storyline – the way Rembrandt did it four centuries ago. His “Girl With Broom” is a portrait of one who has seen too much.
Like the Old Master, Johnston’s models are her family and herself and us, too. Each day after the storyline about the dog began, people called her, starting at 7 in the morning, she told me.She thought it was because everyone was in tears over the Oklahoma bombing.3
Particularly memorable was her drawing of the little girl April saying, ‘Daddy . . . He isn’t breathing!” April’s facial expression had me thinking of Picasso’s 1937 painting “Weeping Woman.” Like the modern master, Johnston didn’t just show how it looks to feel badly, she showed how it feels.
If art’s highest function is to reveal essential truths, the cartoon can be an art, too.
“Faces and the Funnies” by Joan Altabe, Jan. 27 through Feb 10thOpening Janl. 27, 5-9 p.m. Lori Frary Gallery, 1419 5th Street, Sarasota. 941) 587-6012