Comics have a fraught relationship with the gallery. High artists like Roy Lichtenstein and Jeff Koons have mined comic books for imagery and energy, demonstrating the genius (and bankability) of the genre by finding worthy subjects in even the lowliest pop detritus. Comics artists have reacted to this elevation with a mixture of resentment and self-loathing; creators like Chris Ware and Daniel Clowes first reject their own pulp roots in superheroes, then reject the high-art snobs condescending to them. When comic work does make it onto the gallery wall (as in the Clowes exhibit earlier this year at the Museum of Contemporary Art), the miasma of resentment, desire, and anxiety can overwhelm any other aesthetic effect.
Lilli Carré is best known as a comics artist, but her current show of new work at the MCA is notably, even startlingly, free of anxiety. Most of the exhibit fits snugly into a single space about the size of a living room. The art itself is quiet and comfortable: abstract drawings on the wall, some ceramic tchotchkes on pedestals. The pulp vigor that attracted Koons, et al, is nowhere to be seen; instead of hyperbolic narrative contrivance, Carré has settled on a cozy domesticity—craft fair rather than mass art.
The eschewal is deceptive, though. In the first place, a comics artist referencing craft fairs in a museum (quite deliberately in a piece called Rock Collecting—basically a case full of ceramic rocks) can’t avoid a sideways acknowledgement that crafts and comics occupy a similar, subordinate, and anxious position vis-a-vis the gallery. More importantly, even though its traditional characters and imagery are largely absent, Carré’s show is obsessed with the comic book form.
This is most obvious in two pieces titled One Second (Eucalyptus) and One Second (She Was). Both are drawings of delicately rendered, vaguely organic forms divided into grids. But both are also animations; the pictures in each grid are put into sequence and looped, so that the organic forms rush cheerfully over and past each other, again and again. In juxtaposition with the animation, the still drawings in the adjacent room suddenly look like comics, showing motion from panel to panel. Likewise the animation comes to register, perhaps, as a series of still gallery images. The gallery isn’t elevating the comic, nor is the comic invigorating the gallery; both are simply sliding around each other, like the figures in the animation.
The use of comics in the rest of the show is subtler, but for that reason all the more striking. Again, much of the gallery is given over to abstract ceramic objects on pedestals. These objects are insistently doubled: a flat hand pointing to a lump is paired with a bent, expressive hand mirroring the arc of a leaf form; two U shapes sit near two hands with two conical hat things. After viewing the animation, it’s difficult to see these objects as a mere exercise in juxtaposition; they start to feel like a sequence—the flat hand turning to the side, the lump becoming a plant thing, that little wiry lump near that facelike object pulled defensively in, as if to say “Harrumph.”
Nor does the sequence stop there. The abstractions along the wall, according to the gallery notes, are a response to the ceramics, so the figures on the pedestals are again doubled in the (sometimes themselves doubled) almost figurative drawings. As in The Negotiation, a piece consisting of two animations cycling on facing walls, each image volleys over to its neighbor, creating a call-and-response of gently mutating blobs and squiggles. Carré hasn’t put comic books in a gallery; she’s turned the gallery into a comic book, where every image, 2-D or 3-D, leads into and out of every other.
Though it’s easy to miss them, there are actual comics in the gallery too; a number of Carré’s books sit casually on a table, available for reading. One of my favorites is an accordion-style zine called Kingdom. It shows a preening, well-dressed guy boasting about how big his territory is. But as the book unfolds, the panel border becomes thicker and more elaborate, until the guy is squeezed almost to nothing, a mere design element. You could read this progression as ominous—about comics being swallowed by fine art, perhaps. Or you could see it as a kind of validation, the stupid himbo getting his just deserts, turned, despite himself, into something of value. No doubt Carré is playing with both narratives, but that play isn’t nervous or vindictive; it’s fun. In this show, comics and the gallery don’t have to hate each other. The first turns into the second; run the accordion backward and the second turns into the first. Comics and art are the same figure, facing this way one moment and that way the next, spinning around and around in a flickering dance.