Sunday, February 15, 2015

AGO: Art Spiegelman Co-Mix: A Retrospective

My first exposure to the work of Art Spiegelman coincided with my introduction to the graphic novel.  This was fitting since Art's Pulitzer Prize winning masterpiece Maus revolutionized the graphic novel industry and brought it into the mainstream.  Maus chronicles the experiences of Spiegelman's parents Vladek and Anja, who were imprisoned in the Auschwitz concentration camps during the Holocaust.  The Jewish population are depicted as mice (Maus means mouse in German), the Nazis as predatory cats, the French as frogs, the Americans as dogs and the Polish as pigs.  I found that the use of the animated art form and animal allegories desensitized the topic enough to make such a heartbreaking and traumatic tale bearable to digest.

Maus is definitely the highlight of the Art Gallery of Ontario's exhibition "Art Spiegelman Co-Mix: A Retrospective", with a huge section displaying sketches, studies and rare pages from the original manuscripts.  But, as the title denotes, this show is about much more than just Maus.  The show includes samples of Spiegelman's works throughout his career, ranging from his early days designing trading cards, to his roles as cartoonist or editor of various comic strips and magazines in the alternative underground comix movement, to contributing artist for the New Yorker magazine, and illustrator for various books. A play on words on the traditional term "comics", "comix" started as an alternative comic book movement in the 60s.  It typically has darker, adult or social-political themes and images, where the "x" in comix stands for "x-rated".

Examples of Spiegelman's cartoonist works in Underground Comix movement included early comic strips like "Mister Infinity" and "The Viper Vicar of Vice, Villainy and Vickedness". Also on display were sample editions of the two main comics anthologies for which he was editor and contributor–Arcade and Raw.  There were also works by or in collaboration with his wife Françoise Mouly.
Years before working on his opus Maus, Art Spiegelman first used his drawings as an outlet to excise his personal demons.  His series called "Prisoner on the Hell Planet - A Case History" depicted his memories and feelings about the events leading up to and the aftermath of his mother's suicide when he was 20.

Early on in his career, Spiegelman worked on some lighter fare that displayed his wicked sense of humour.  Just out of college in the late 1960s, he became creative consultant for the company Topps, designing a series of trading cards spoofing well-known brands with punny product names and satirical slogans.  Called "Wacky Packages", it included "Rice-A-Phoni"–fake rice that "lasts forever and can be used over and over again", "Gyppy Pop Popcorn"–"No flavour; Pops right in the package and all over the house", "NEVEREADY Batteries"–"Keeps you in the dark", and "BotchTape"–"Stickiest stuff in town".

A few decades later, cashing in on the hype over the Cabbage Patch Doll, Spiegelman created a new set of trading cards called Garbage Pail Kids.  Invoking and then subverting the cute puffy faces of the Cabbage Patch Dolls, his renditions included "Run Down Rhoda", "Frigid Bridget", "Sy Clops" (pun intended), "Leaky Lindsay" and "Phony Lisa" (the Mona Lisa being probably one of the most iconically spoofed images out there).

From 1992 through 2001, Spiegelman's artwork graced the covers of the New Yorker magazine, often embedding subtle social commentary in his satirical drawings.  His most poignant and well-known cover is probably the black on black rendering of the Twin Towers that he offered as a reaction after 9-11.  His wife Françoise Mouly, who was the art editor at the time, was quoted as saying "The only appropriate solution seemed to be to publish no cover image at all—an all-black cover. Then Art suggested adding the outlines of the two towers, black on black ... a perfect image, which conveyed something about the unbearable loss of life, the sudden absence in our skyline, the abrupt tear in the fabric of reality.”
One of my favourite sections of the AGO exhibition revealed Art Spiegelman's influences as an artist.  To explain the debt he owed to Peanuts creator Charles Shulz, Spiegelman created comic "essays", inserting his own iconic mouse into classic Peanuts situations such as typing atop of Snoopy's dog house or waiting at Lucy's analysis booth.  In these essays, Spiegelman notes that "Peanuts was about nothing before Jerry Seinfeld was even born", that Schulz was "more of a philosopher than a journalist", and  "If art that's beloved could bring immortality, the artist like his alter ego would never kick the bucket" (or football, as the case may be).

In the mid 1990s, Spiegelman wrote and illustrated a children's book called "Open Me - I'm a Dog" that encourages its young readers to "pet" it.  He also provided stunning woodcut-like illustrations for a reprint of the classic 1920s narrative poem "Wild Party" by Joseph Moncure March.   This was especially exciting for me to see since I was quite familiar with the 1999 musical "Wild Party" by Andrew Lippa, whose first song was titled and started with the lyrics "Queenie was a Blond ...".  These words were taken verbatim from the beginning of the poem.  We will be watching the musical Wild Party at CanStage in a few weeks.  To prepare for this, I bought a copy of the Art Spiegelman illustrated book and read the text of entire poem.  Spiegelman's drawings really brought the characters of the poem to life.

The AGO exhibit did an excellent job of showing the range and diversity of Art Spiegelman's body of work.  I went in only knowing about Maus, but came out with such a better understanding and admiration of Spielgelman's complete oeuvre.

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