Everything in excess: the expressive possibilities of extreme imagery are explored in the works selected by Robert Storr for "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque," the latest SITE Santa Fe Biennial
Art in America, Nov, 2004 by Charles Dee Mitchell
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The other strong nod to popular culture is the inclusion of work by two authors of graphic novels, Charles Burns and Gary Panter. Since comics became graphic novels, the field has exploded, and I count myself among those for whom it may be too late to catch up. But Barns and Panter both make a good case for treating the field with serious attention. Panter is showing panels from a new work, Jimbo in Purgatory. Jimbo is an ongoing character for Panter, and here he acts out a parody of the second book of Dante's The Divine Comedy, encountering along the way Virgil, Raquel Welch, Tiny Tim, a beauty pageant of dog-faced women and, as they say, a cast of thousands. The drawing style is painstakingly precise, and every page comes with a decorative border of grotesqueries. On a single sheet, characters may speak dialogue drawn from Dante, Milton, Dryden, John Skelton and Ambrose Bierce, all footnoted. Panter's work is exhausting and too much to take in while standing in a gallery. But the book has been published this fall.
Burns has a dark graphic style that suggests film noir, and the images from his Black Hole, a 10-year project that has stretched into 12 volumes, tell of small-town stoners who contract a mysterious body-deforming disease. As fragmentary presentations, this work from both Burns and Panter whets the appetite for a fuller course of new graphic novels.
The old hand at this, and someone much better adapted to museum and gallery presentation, is R. Crumb, who with a recent string of exhibitions seems ready to step into the role of Established American Master. While staying true to his roots, he has come a long way from Mr. Natural, and the cumulative effect of 40 years' worth of drawings is a grand tour of the American unconscious. And if it is not a pretty sight, it remains an invigorating meditation on mortality. In Dying Is Easy ... (2003), one of Crumb's grizzled characters lies on the bed of what in a Crumb drawing you always assume is a cheap lintel room. His passing is depicted by the spirit that rises from the body and pokes its head through a rippled surface hovering where the ceiling should be. For Crumb, the spirit is no airy essence, and this frail thing remains attached to its body by what looks like stringy gobs of rubber cement. For the man, there is no bright light at the end of the tunnel, and he muses, "There's gotta be something more than this."
There are 53 artists in the biennial. I have mentioned only about one-third of them, many among the younger contingent. But works by Jasper Johns, Louise Bourgeois, Susan Rothenburg, Bruce Nauman, Sigmar Polke and others functioned for me more as a background and context for what else was on view.
When I first walked through "Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque," it struck me that it did not feel like a biennial. Then I realized why. Storr's exhibition starts with a clearly defined historical concept and explores its contemporary manifestations with considerable rigor. Its predecessor, Hickey's "Beau Monde," proposed something similar, but with an expansive theme that allowed for wide-ranging presentations. Storr's theme is unwaveringly specific, and you are never allowed to go off point.
(1.) David Ferry (trans.), The Epistles of Horace, New York, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001, pp. 151-52.
"Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque," the fifth SITE Santa Fe Biennial, is on view through Jan. 9, 2005. It is accompanied by a 175-page illustrated catalogue by curator Robert Storr.
Charles Dee Mitchell is a critic based in Dallas.
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