BY George Pendle in Reviews | 01 SEP 09
Featured in
Issue 125

Basil Wolverton

Gladstone Gallery, New York, USA

BY George Pendle in Reviews | 01 SEP 09

Basil Wolverton, Self-Portrait, 1974, ink on paper, 48x45 cm

After spending a few minutes gazing at Basil Wolverton’s fabulous grotesqueries one is unlikely to ever forget again that the mouth is also a sphincter. Never has the orbicularis oris muscle looked quite so anal as when one of Wolverton’s characters puckers up for a kiss. Not that Wolverton’s art is ever explicit in this regard. Despite the wicked distortions of his drawings they are never obscene. Hands grow out of backsides, ears out of eye sockets, Swiss cheese heads leak out porridge brains, but there is an innocence to the plasticine countenance of his inventions that is closer to the madcap carnage of Looney Tunes than the pedantic sadism of the Chapman brothers. Limbs and organs take on lives of their own so that each body becomes a reef of swarming, independent creatures. As such it is no surprise that his work has often been compared to that of Giuseppe Arcimboldo, whose portrait heads consisted entirely of fruit, vegetables and fish.

Wolverton, whose work was the subject of this wide-ranging show curated by artist Cameron Jamie, is best known for his work on Mad magazine from the 1950s to the 1970s, where he invented and perfected the playfully goofy ‘spaghetti and meatball’ style for which the magazine is famous. Indeed the popularity of Wolverton’s work amongst the largely teen readership of Mad is instantly understandable: with their leaking bodily fluids, stalactite teeth, eyeballs that pop like zits and ungainly legs that occasionally slip off like socks, Wolverton’s characters physically portray the quintessential awkwardness of being an adolescent. Here on the page, pimpled adolescents could laugh at the hormonal plagues that afflicted their body-conscious selves.

And yet plagues of a more serious nature do exist amongst this twisted wonderland of a show. The last room in the gallery is devoted to Wolverton’s apocalyptic drawings for the Biblical book of Revelation (Wolverton, it should be mentioned, was a minister for the Worldwide Church of God). Aeroplanes crash, bodies are bulldozed into mass graves, a tidal wave overwhelms a city. Drawn at the same time as his earliest drawings for Mad, people’s skin continues to melt, eyes continue to pop, boils continue to fester, but it’s no longer funny. In fact it’s terrifying. With their dense cross-hatching and flattened perspective the drawings are instantly identifiable as being by the same artist, but in tone they’re light years away. The madcap joker has become the frenzied prophet.

Try as you might it’s impossible, after seeing the Revelation images, to read darker subtexts into the vermicelli beards, bulging tendons and plastic skin of his Mad caricatures and early comic strips. Indeed the very idea of such drawings being secretly malicious is in itself as bizarre as the pictures themselves. Somehow Wolverton allowed his rabid imagination to work to two distinctly different aims: joyful entertainment and vivid warning.

Wolverton’s influence on the ‘comix’ of the 1960s – particularly the work of Robert Crumb, which could not have existed without him – is immense. As for his own influences it is fitting that this show should be running at the same time as the James Ensor retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, for Wolverton is a legitimate portrayer of the grotesque. However unlike Ensor, or indeed Hieronymus Bosch, the majority of his drawings are not perturbed by political or theological connotations. There is little you can do here but laugh with glee at the unique invention on display. There is no subtext, no deeper meaning, only sheer simple delight. When was the last time you could say that about a show?

George Pendle is a writer based in Washington D.C., USA.