From Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth
From Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth Credit: Courtesy Chris Ware and the Art Institute of Chicago

The November 10 cover of the New Yorker features a drawing by renowned cartoonist and Oak Park resident Chris Ware. It’s an illustration of a health clinic at a Walmart-style big-box store: a clinician walks out of a door into the waiting area looking down at a clipboard he’s holding; seated are mothers with children on their laps. Aside from superb color choice and hyperprecise lines, what stands out are the gestures: the children all reach out for one another while their mothers, looking askance, pull them away.

A line of gallery text in the Art Institute’s charming, maddeningly brief “The Comic Art and Architecture of Chris Ware” offers the best description I’ve read of what makes the artist’s work so special: Ware, it says, has command of “a unique visual language engineered specifically for the way the human mind inherently processes pictures in sequence into something understood as narrative.”

The museum’s decision to mount an exhibit of Ware’s work largely divorced from narrative seems to contradict this dead-on insight. As the recent New Yorker cover indicates, a Ware drawing without any sense of story seems unimaginable.

But “The Comic Art and Architecture” is more concerned with setting than plot or character, connecting Ware’s illustrated environments to the history of Chicago’s built environment. For the most part, Ware’s drawings are juxtaposed with items from the Art Institute archives that he has used as source material—Chicago photographs, drawings, artifacts. These are displayed in small glass cases in the museum’s Ryerson and Burnham Libraries, which are open only on weekdays (a limitation that makes for a nice excuse to pop in during a long lunch break). In the show’s most striking side-by-side, Richard Nickel’s photos of bygone works by Louis Sullivan are positioned next to drawings by Ware in which he faultlessly replicates the buildings from the images. And yet the artist’s style is so distinctive, Sullivan’s signatures somehow become unmistakably Ware’s work.

Despite being centered around only a half-dozen displays, the exhibit’s reference points are abundant. Aside from Sullivan, Ware riffs on the World’s Columbian Exposition and the work of Daniel Burnham, Françoise Mouly, Art Spiegelman, Frank Lloyd Wright, Ray Yoshida, the Chicago Imagists—a constellation of Chicago and comic-artist influences. Still, the experience of seeing “The Comic Art and Architecture” didn’t really remind me of reading comics or looking at art or architecture. Rather, it brought to mind a movie: Richard Linklater’s Waking Life, the rotoscoped 2001 film in which drawings on top of each frame give the work an extrasensory dimension.