Does a comic strip belong on a museum wall? I ask this not to question the value of cartooning, but because I wonder whether a wall is the best place to experience what comics are designed to do. This ate at me as I wandered through “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now,” the generous survey of 60 years of Chicago’s cartoonists currently on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. There’s absolutely no question that much of the work on display deserves to be known and celebrated. But are the walls of a museum the right venue?
A comic strip is read as much as it’s seen. The artist/writer spends years honing their style and vision, experimenting with format and presentation, but most of the time, the ultimate destination for cartoons and comic strips is the printed page rather than a wall. Context is paramount to the audience’s experience in art, so when comics are taken out of a newspaper or book, something is inevitably lost.
There’s certainly no faulting Dan Nadel, the curator of the exhibition, for the sweep and breadth of this survey. The show traces the art form’s evolution from newspaper mainstay to alt-weekly counterculture outrageousness to hermetically personal expression. Any visitor with even the most casual interest in comics should be able to find something to fall in love with here—but something still didn’t quite connect for me, no matter the quality or subject matter in the vitrines or on the walls.
Nadel was obviously aware of the challenge of displaying art created to be held in one’s lap, up close, and experienced privately. The exhibition addresses this problem with supplementary materials. In the room devoted to Ivan Brunetti, there is a shelf of his personal collection of toys and figurines. Other rooms have maquettes and other work product meant to give context to the artists’ processes. Additionally, many walls are taken up by vinyl blowups of single panels or details of drawings. These oversize copies do little to illuminate each artist’s unique vision and contribute to a chaotically busy visual presentation. The exhibition experience at times felt like being at an estate sale: having to consciously ignore a lot of noise in favor of the isolated objects of personal interest.
There’s such a polyphony of approaches and styles that it felt like artists were yelling over each other. Other times, there was a disconnect between my longtime experience of particular work and how it was presented in these rooms. Lynda Barry’s exuberant panels felt strangely muted, while Chris Ware’s obsessively ordered work suffered from a busy salon-style grab bag installation.
The highlights of the exhibition were younger artists whose work is not dependent on either narrative sequencing, nor the printed page. Edie Fake’s abstract architectural prints left a mysterious magnetic charge and Lilli Carré’s video loop of ever-mutating female figures from art history, seemingly made of rubbery bubblegum, made me smile. I sat through the sequence four or five times and could easily have stayed longer. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Jessica Campbell’s wall of weird acrylic carpet creatures. Their bright industrial colors and artificial turf texture were like a 21st-century update of Henri Matisse’s Jazz series. Unlike so much of the work presented here, which suffered by being ripped from its natural habitat, these funny figures absolutely owned their environment. I could stand anywhere in the gallery and they commanded attention in a way the small ink-and painted-pieces-on-paper of the others couldn’t.
This show is a love letter to comics and our city’s role in comics history. I’d never skip a chance to examine original art by longtime favorites and the inclusion of Black artists’ work going back to the 1940s is illuminating and necessary. For anyone interested in the nuts and bolts of the medium, there are countless examples of in-progress or partially completed drawings that will be especially valuable to young people looking to get into art themselves. In the absence of a more suitable venue than an art museum, I’d urge anyone interested in comics and in this city’s history and culture to visit. But afterwards, pick up Barry’s The Greatest of Marlys, Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, and the exhibition’s accompanying reprint of It’s Life as I See It: Black Cartoonists in Chicago, 1940-1980 to experience the genuine article. v