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Horror Vacui 

Pow! Zap! Bam!! Ah, the comics. Their bold, simplified words and pictures are accessible to everyone, especially kids, who might experience them as a bridge to the world around them. And even though cartoons and comic strips became a function of mass print media a century or so ago, their role is not really new -- their larger-than-life, sometimes magical, heroes and heroines simply picked up where the myths and folk tales of earlier times left off.

But as products of mass culture, they typify the kaleidoscopic and speedy quality of modern life, a world where so much flashes by in two-dimensional blips. Most advertising is based on those sorts of snapshot impressions, leaving little room for qualifiers caveats. The genius of pop art was to turn that process on its head, reproducing mass-media icons as paintings or sculpture, as objects meant to be contemplated.

In retrospect, the old superhero characters of mid-century America seemed to reflect the cultural cliches of the age, yet at the time they were often attacked for their sensationalism. One can only imagine what the censors of the 1950s would think of some of the work in the Contemporary Arts Center's Comic Release show. If yesterday's comics re-enforced cliches and stereotypes, the work in this show is more sociological and postmodern, reflecting a trend that has been gaining strength since experimental comics like Art Spiegelman's Maus first appeared in the early '80s. Darkly disturbing, Maus, which used cartoon cats and mice as stand-ins for Nazis and Jews, raised more questions than it answered, and the same holds true for much of the work in this show as well.

Much, but not all. Leslie Lew's Wonder Woman -- Again Saves the Day seems a purely pop statement, a fanciful recreation of an old DC comic book cover with Wonder Woman swooping in on a room full of evil underworld types, deflecting their bullets as she saves a pair of impossibly innocent looking kids cowering in the corner. This is a simple celebration of nostalgia -- a 10-cent comic with kids too innocent to have ever seen MTV -- and Lew re-enforces its dreamlike qualities by building up the images with a thick impasto of oil paints that make it seem more monumental, like a bas relief.

More typical is Deborah Grant's It's a World of Laughs, A World of Tears. Here a flat wooden panel shaped like Mickey Mouse's head, with big round ears, has been painted over with the outlines of razor blades and burning buildings and cartoon figures of teens and parents saying things like, "OK Hector, settle down and take your medication like a good boy ... ." Every bit of the surface is covered with edgy dialogue and imagery that replaces superheroes with antiheroes -- a device also employed by Peter Bagge in his mock comic book Let's Start a Crack House about a pair of geeky low-life types talking about how great their lives will be when they're no longer on parole.

There is quite a bit of this sort of thing with lots of little pictures and tiny, anti-heroic text messages, resulting in a kind of horror vacui environment in which the bolder and more simple statements come as welcome relief from all the minutia. In this vein, Yoshitomo Nara's Unknown Boy, a stylized image of a very angry young boy painted in the Japanese anime style, is a chilling expression of infantile rage. But even some of the large paintings reflect the horror vacui that seems so characteristic of this show overall. Christian Schumann's Dirty Liver is like a surrealistic composite of mostly retro pop-culture forms, cartoon figures, space aliens, aperitif and cocktail glasses, stylized internal organs and flying saucers all tangled up in an abstract expressionist bebop universe, like a weird, Jackson Pollock/deKooning take on Los Vegas. Curiously strange and wonderful. No less eerie is Gottfried Helnwein's American Prayer, a painting of a boy praying, not to the God of the Bible, but to Donald Duck. A closer look reveals that his hands and other appendages have mechanical joints, so this child is really a marionette, a Pinocchio invoking the Disney deities.

And so it goes, a real artichoke of a show that has its moments but can often seem ponderous, a more sociological than comical survey of the new comics culture.

click to enlarge False idols: Gottfried Helnwein's eerie American Prayer suggests an unreal boy worshiping an unreal deity: Donald Duck. -
  • False idols: Gottfried Helnwein's eerie American Prayer suggests an unreal boy worshiping an unreal deity: Donald Duck.

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Speaking of Through June, Comic Release: Negotiating Identity For A New Generation

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