Until recently, cartoon forms such as comic strips and hand-drawn animation seemed to be culturally and individually démodé. Suddenly, the reverse is true. What does the return of the repressed caricatural scrawl represent: a wish-fulfillment for cosy Golden Age nostalgia or for the imaginary freedom of infantile oblivion? The 30-odd small watercolour cartoons by Jonas Lipps, arranged with deliberate casualness in the German artist’s untitled exhibition at the project space LISZT, were neither naïve nor innocent. Instead, they spoke to childhood cheekiness, sublimated libidos and the institutional containment of rebellious adolescence, seen through the comical filter of the cartoon. These striking, idiosyncratic and stylistically variegated scenes on paper (all untitled, 2015) carried through a consistent tension: the fantastical, grotesque and often bizarre psychodrama of themes, pitted against the inherent categorical restrictions of stock comic types, for which institutions (here, schools, hospitals, ID cards, retirement homes) stand as ciphers. Hence the fraught, though wholly enjoyable, friction of Lipps’s fantastical subjects: Oedipal trios, the dream-haze of childhood memory, flirtations at co-ed dances, shoes-cum-phalluses and a dolphin suckling from the teat of a smiling human.
Emblematic was a work depicting a row of students at desks in a classroom. The first pupil’s thought bubble contains an ejaculating penis; the second, a Swastika; the third, a flower; the last, the words: ‘I love Zarlando!’ – a play on Zalando, the Berlin-based online retailer of shoes and clothing. The equation of dream-drives with online shopping would have come off as obvious if Lipps’s scenes were not so humorously depicted. Absurdism combined with a remarkable and highly proficient stylistic fluidity from small work to small work leant levity to Lipps’s familiarly psychoanalytic dream-topology.
The motif of shoe-shopping – equated, serially, with the miscreant’s graffito and with the Freudian phallus – was reiterated in other cartoons: the hairy lines of a pencil-drawn woman sitting, dreaming of ballet shoes; two dancing figures in a club high-fiving one another while thanking ‘Zarlando’. If the oneiric shoe-shopping motif suggests the intertwining of capitalism and libido, and an interference between the real and the imagined, then Lipps uses a quieter second motif to soften the first: institutional and governmental forms of representation, such as school IDs, insurance cards and bank cards, pasted variously on the walls (amid an oversize paper construction of a wallet filled with ID cards). This theme of conformist or standardizing identity-documentation seemed to point to two subtexts in Lipps’s exhibition: first, a reluctant comment on the stylistic signatures expected of artists; and, second, the sense that, today, once-stable forms of self-identification (represented, for one, by the health and student ID cards depicted in some works) have begun to seem nearly anachronistic, as ‘identity’ becomes customized, privatized, ‘shareable’ and sellable.
Still, to read too much into Lipps’s cartoons might desiccate their liveliness. These works oscillated from lush, colourful eeriness reminiscent of the animations in the film La Planète sauvage (Fantastic Planet, 1973) to Saul Steinberg’s line-drawn comic crispness, as in a work depicting a woman (singing? screaming?) perched on the prow of a boat called ‘Aida’, which could easily have contained a New Yorker caption. Lipps likewise leant a faux-historicism to the works – yellowed with ‘age’ – by using found GDR-era paper, giving his drawings a distinct late-1970s feel. Can we detect here a sub-plot about artistic stylization? Was the artist’s decision to use historical paper and media, and slightly retrograde themes, a comment on the inevitable aging of styles – a reading reinforced by the postcard addressed to ‘Andas Altersheim’ (a play on the words ‘to the old person’s home’)? There’s an obliqueness and near-inscrutability to some of Lipps’s cartoons, a vagueness that is unexpected and often pleasurable, but which, as an exhibition, would have even more to gain from a less performative, less deliberate equivocation of style and theme.