Thursday, May 20, 2010

Margaret Harrison's Bodies

The Bodies are Back by Margaret Harrison
Intersection for the Arts, San Francisco. February 10-April 16, 2010
I'm catching up here on recent shows that I've found really interesting. This review and a couple of the other recent reviews I've posted will be published in hard copy in the Fall 2010 issue of the IJOCA. In this case, I've interviewed Margaret Harrison and gallery director Kevin Chen about this art, and plan to write a more extensive article in the future.
In The Bodies are Back, an exhibition that closed recently at Intersection for the Arts, British artist Margaret Harrison returned to a body of work that she had abandoned in a firestorm of controversy in 1971. Recognized as a pioneer of feminist art, her work tackles complex gender issues in a unique and often humorous way, reconfiguring well-known comics characters, art world icons and objects of consumer consumption to point out the arbitrary nature of the gender roles society assigns to us. In her use of color and line, the influences of 1970’s comic books are clear in her work. While she studied at the Royal Academy of Art (London) in the late 1960’s, a time full of turmoil in reaction to the Vietnam War, she was fascinated by the work of Eric Stanton, intrigued by the sexual freedom seen in underground comix, and surrounded by pop art in every direction.

When she launched her first solo show at London’s Motif Gallery in 1971 she incorporated all of these inspirations and made them her own. She included a gender challenged version of Captain America, a series of nudes represented as products, and two pieces commenting on Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. After one day, the London police shut down the show for indecency, eventually offering the explanation that people didn’t find the nude women offensive, but Hugh Hefner in a corset and stockings was too much. Harrison heard through the grapevine that the Playboy organization was actually involved, and by an odd coincidence, the Hefner drawing could not be found when the gallery re-opened. Stunned by the controversy, Harrison moved on other work, and left this theme alone for years.

In the 1990’s she returned to this topic. The exhibition at Intersection combined new work with pieces from the 1971 show, ringed around the gallery more or less chronologically, allowing visitors to see how this body of work evolved over time. The infamous Hugh Hefner piece (He's Only A Bunny Boy, But He's Quite Nice Really 1971, 2010 on the left), recreated for the show, started things off on a satirical note. Looking at it now, with the corset, erect nipples, strategically placed bunny head and pipe, it’s hard to imagine this drawing causing a big scandal. In 1971, Harrison included a painting of Captain America (Captain America 1, 1971) in high-heels with strap on breasts to comment on machismo and the US involvement in Vietnam. Captain America 2 (1997, at top of post) continues to question cultural assumptions of gender, as the star spangled Avenger looks like he is springing into action after raiding Marilyn Monroe’s closet.

What's That Long Red Limp Wrinkly Thing You're Pulling On (2009, on the left) is part of a new series of paintings that depict comics characters or other pop culture icons interacting with other well known works of art. In this painting, Lady Deathstrike contemplates de Kooning’s Woman and Bicycle (1952-3) while Captain America crouches at her feet. She holds a red cape, wrapped around his neck, much like a leash. When I asked her about this painting, Harrison told me that she chose Lady Deathstrike not because she is a villain, but because she is a strong, driven female character, and that the de Kooning isn’t meant to be representation of a painting so much as that it is meant to be a reflection of cultural attitude or expectations. Generally, de Kooning’s women are pretty fierce looking and this one has always seemed to me to be the most welcoming piece in the series. If we take the de Kooning at face value, a nice (very tall) lady out for a bike ride on a summer day, what do we find when we contrast her with the dominating Lady Deathstrike? What’s up with the cape/leash? How is the Captain America character reflected in the de Kooning? It’s definitely a painting to ponder. And Harrison herself prefers to maintain the mystery of it. It’s a show that left me with much to think about, and I may never look at Captain America the same way again.

Previous posts (includes video & reviews) here & here.  I presented on this topic at the 2010 PCA/ACA national conference in San Antonio. An in depth article was published in the International Journal of Comic Art in 2011 (Censorship and Superbodies: the Creative Odyssey of Margaret Harrison also on JSTOR). We plan to write a biographical book on her life and work. Please click her name under labels in the sidebar to see more recent posts.

Margaret's Tate Page (1970's work) | Margaret's latest work including Northern Art Prize winner The Last Gaze.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Graduate Fellows Show at Marin Headlands

2009/2010 Graduate Fellows Exhibition, Headlands Center for the Arts, Building 944, May 9 - June 6, 2010

Congrats to SFSU Alum Tyson Washburn on his great work in the Graduate Fellows show at the Headlands Center (this is his Headlands Activation, Ink Jet, 2010 on the left). His detailed and lovely black and white landscape photos evocatively capture the feeling of the ruins of this long abandoned military installation returning to nature.

Also in the show are fellow SFSU Alum Michael Namkung, Andrew Witrak, representing Mills Collage, who created what looked like a mattress out of hundreds of paper cocktail umbrellas (loved it!), Michael Arcega (Stanford), Patrick Gillespie (California College of the Arts), Vera Kachouh (San Francisco Art Institute), Aaron Maietta (UC Berkeley) and Joshua Short (UC Davis).

Last Gasp 40th Anniversary Show

Last Gasp 40th Anniversary Art Show: a Who’s Who of Lowbrow Art,111 Minna Gallery, San Francisco. April 1 – May 2, 2010

Although this show has closed, it was such an amazing event that I just have to post about it. The Last Gasp 40th Anniversary Art Show assembled a top-drawer lineup of artists to celebrate this milestone with a party and gallery show. Last Gasp was founded in 1970 by Ron Turner. Last Gasp’s first publication, Slow Death Funnies #1 came out on the first “Earth Day,” April 15, 1970, and has continued through the decades to publish a vast array of art, comics and alternative literature. The show included original art by Gary Baseman, Tim Biskup Glenn Barr, Mark Bode (this is his Self on the left) Robert Crumb, Richard Corben, Guy Colwell, Ron English, Tony Fitzpatrick, Christopher Felver, Camille Rose Garcia, Justin Green, Bill Griffith, Rick Griffin, Ed Hardy, Frank Kozik, Joe Ledbetter, Carol Lay, Adrian Lee, Michael Manning, Chris Mars, Scott Musgrove, Junko Mizuno, Liz McGrath, Laurenn McCubbin, Mitch O’Connell, Annie Owens, The Pizz, Mark Ryden, Michael Rosen, Trina Robbins, Spain Rodriguez, Dori Seda, Winston Smith, Eric White, Robert Williams, Attaboy, Aye Jay, and others.

The 111 Minna Gallery is a large (recently expanded) space encompassing what used to be two large high-ceilinged retail spaces in downtown San Francisco. This popular gallery space is also a nightclub and bar, so people going to see this show could view it in style. The opening night party was so packed with artists, local celebrities and assorted weirdos that it has started to slip into local legend, or as Jon Longhi said in his review for NBC Bay Area, “The event was one of the most impressive gatherings of artists I've ever seen. It's a good thing there wasn't a terrorist attack because a bomb going off in that room could have wiped out alternative culture as we know it.” Here are more photos and commentary on the opening on the blog of artist Isabel Samaras.

Immediately on entering the space, the visitor was greeted by a tribute wall to Ron Turner that included many vintage photos, a large print of Robert Williams’ surrealist piece In the Pavilion of the Red Clown and R. Crumb’s painting Leaving Home. Throughout the exhibition, the walls of the gallery were not only packed with framed artwork, but the upper walls above the art were covered with large banners printed with the covers of books Last Gasp has published over the last 40 years. It’s a show that might have felt claustrophobic in a traditional gallery space, but it worked in a large urban nightclub with high ceilings. I have heard complaints about the lighting in this space in past shows, but the gallery seemed to have made a special effort here, as every piece seemed to be carefully lit to its best advantage.

Although the show generally seemed to focus more on paintings than comic art drawings, one standout was a series of Zippy splash pages by Bill Griffith, including a time travel story, and Zippy’s first meeting with aliens. I found myself staring in fascination at an incredibly detailed collage by Winston Smith, reconstructing Velazques’ Las Meninas (1656) as an advertisement selling the young princess as a commodity. Another striking piece was a large painting by Mark Bode (Self, 2010) in which he shows his cartoon alter ego in tears, used as some sort of Matrix-like living battery. Rick Griffin’s 1989 drawing Art and Death (on the left) also seemed to be a self-portrait, as it portrayed a biker dude in shades defending himself with pen and ink as a skeleton stands at his shoulder, playing the violin. While viewing it, I couldn’t help thinking of how haunted Griffin looked whenever I would see him in the late 1980’s, and how this drawing evoked a feeling of eerie loneliness.

Seeing this large and eclectic mix of lowbrow, highbrow and just plain odd artwork, I marveled at the different forms of expression on display, and was very grateful to Last Gasp for making it possible. The 111 Minna web site still has many images from the show available on-line at .

Monday, May 17, 2010

Korean Comics: A Society Through Small Frames

Korean Comics: A Society Through Small Frames, curated by the Korea Society at the San Francisco Public Library (March 13-June 13, 2010)

This exhibition, hung in the library’s large Jewett Gallery (lower level), displayed 83 framed works by twenty-one Korean cartoonists (based in both North and South) to give library patrons insight into contemporary Korean culture. The works shown were all printed pages or reproductions published since the mid-1950’s (no original drawings). I didn’t view the lack of original artwork as any sort of handicap, and felt that seeing the printed pages lent a sense of immediacy to the show. The works explored a wide range of topics including social commentary, historical dramas, fantasies of personal empowerment, action stories, fairy tales, feminist characters and political propaganda. The example on the left is a panel from the newspaper strip Kobau by Kim Seong Hwan.There were many media represented such as newspaper comic strips, political cartoons, children’s magazines, comic books and compilation novels. Throughout the exhibition, reproductions of the panels with English translation were available (and greatly appreciated).

On entering the gallery, one immediately encounters a large cover drawing from Chumŏk Taejang (Fist Boss, published 1958-1994) created by Kim Won Bin (b. 1935, China), depicting a young girl energetically brandishing a huge Popeye-like fist, ponytail and school girl skirt swinging. Possessed of supernatural mental and physical abilities, Kim Won Bin’s young characters were iconic symbols of personal empowerment. Also on display were some panels from the epic serial Four Daughters of Armian (1986-1995) by Shin il-Sook (b. 1962, Korea) whose stories challenged the tradition of preferential treatment of sons and discrimination against daughters. I found it interesting that many of her key characters are drawn as Western style blondes, which she explains as “a way for female readers to indulge their voyeurism.” Also borrowing from the Western style was Park Bong Seong (b. 1949, Korea), whose action adventure works include such titles as Two Year Old Emperor (1983) and A Man Called God (1995-2000). In these stories average people become strong and influential though success in business or government and have James Bond-like adventures.

In contrast to these South Korean stories of personal exploration and power, The Great General Mighty Wing (1990’s), by Cho Pyŏng-Kwon (story) and Lim Wal-Yong (art) is a story of personal sacrifice for the greater good written and published with the encouragement and resources of the North Korean government. In this lavishly illustrated (cover illustration on the left), full color comic series an army of anthropomorphic Socialist bees protect “The Garden of One Thousand Flowers.” The title character became iconic within N. Korea in the 1990’s as a symbol of loyalty to the government and their brand of communism.

Also included in the exhibition were Park Ki Jeong, Kim Seong Huan, Kim Yong Hwan, Shin Mu Su, Kil Chang Deok, Yoon Sweng Un, Kim Soo Jung, Kim Tai-Kwon, Hwang Mina, Kim Hyeong Bae, Park Soo Kong, and others. I was please to see that the library had available a handout with an extensive bibliography highlighting the Korean graphic novels, manga, comic books and other comics reference works in their ever-growing collection. Concurrently, the library also had a comics themed film series Beyond Superheroes (screening Ghost World, Persepolis, Chasing Amy and Dick Tracy) and an exhibition entitled Coloring Outside the Lines: Black Cartoonists as Social Commentator, curated by Kheven LaGrone, who recently produced SFPL’s well received Morrie Turner retrospective. This show featured original drawings by Darrin Bell, Stephen Bentley, Cory Thomas, Jerry Craft, Keith Knight, Morrie Turner, Nate Creekmore, Brumsic Brandon Jr., Barbara Brandon-Croft and Makeda Rashidi.