BY Paul Teasdale in Features | 03 NOV 14
Featured in
Issue 167

What's so funny?

How humour feeds painting

BY Paul Teasdale in Features | 03 NOV 14

Writing in The New York Times in 2010, Roberta Smith observed a new-found optimism in painting. According to her, it had finally shaken off the hangover of the Modernist separation of abstraction and representation. Titled ‘It’s Not Dry Yet’, her brief article succinctly catalogued the history of painting’s anxiety in the face of the Clement Greenberg and Donald Judd-dominated theorizing of the 1960s and ’70s. Charting the cautious, self-conscious return of figuration in the work of Sigmar Polke, David Salle and Julian Schnabel, and noting the long history in which abstraction and representation have found equilibrium – ‘Byzantine mosaics; pre-Columbian and American Indian textiles and ceramics; Japanese screens; Mughal painting; and post-Impressionism’ – Smith concluded that talk of a separation between abstraction and representation in painting is bunkum. ‘With each generation of painters, the authority of Greenberg and Judd pales while the history of the pictorial expands,’ she declared. It seems she was right. Over the past few years, painters have been mixing representation and abstraction in ways that have been increasingly bold. Gone are the nervous irony and apologetic jokes that often seemed to accompany representation and, in their place, is a figuration that is confident and playful, self-aware, expressive – and funny.

What’s changed? Partly, it seems to me, it is the seriousness with which comics are being treated these days. To cite two examples: this year’s spring issue of Critical Inquiry, edited by Hillary Chute and Patrick Jagoda, was dedicated to ‘Comics and Media’, and Artforum’s summer issue was themed around ‘Art and Animation’. In different ways, both publications focused on the rich tradition of comic books in the US and its steady infiltration into other art forms – mostly digital, mainly video. Yet surprisingly, in both issues, the medium a mere side-step away from comic-book drawing – i.e. painting – was skipped over. 

Amelie von Wulffen, Untitled, 2012, watercolour and Indian ink on paper, 28 × 20 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Gió Marconi, Milan, and Galerie Meyer Kainer, Vienna; photograph: Roman März

There are a number of prosaic explanations as to why comics and painting shouldn’t mix and many are due to the art-historical hangover cited by Smith. We’ve been taught to think of comic books as a low art form and painting as a high one. Comics are cheap, mass-produced and serialized; paintings are unique and costly. Comics are crude and crass, whereas paintings are supposedly refined and reticent. But with the digitization of the once print-only comic tradition, an online depository of comic-book images now freely circulates. Even more tellingly, the translation of a comic-book style through animated cartoons has worn down a once fiercely underground art form to a lingua franca. With the simultaneity afforded by online image circulation, the Modernist sequestering of discrete areas of artistic production now seems a quaint historical footnote. Today’s landscape is chronologically flat and stylistically vast. A painting now is no more privileged than any other art form and shares the same rules of engagement – a fact made ever-more obvious by the increasingly hybrid stock of images that cohabit online.

The groundbreaking 1983 exhibition, ‘The Comic Art Show’, co-curated by John Carlin and Sheena Wagstaff at the Whitney Museum in New York, marked the first time that comics were taken seriously by an art institution. That validation was followed seven years later in the same city by MOMA’s divisive 1990 show ‘High and Low: Modern Art and Popular Culture’. A more recent (if disappointingly male-focused) exhibition ‘Masters of American Comics’ took place at the Hammer Museum and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, in 2005, co-curated by Carlin and Brian Walker. In 2010, ‘Rude Britannia: British Comic Art’ was held at Tate Britain and included work from William Hogarth and Aubrey Beardsley to David Shrigley and Sarah Lucas. Robert Crumb’s Book of Genesis Illustrated by R. Crumb (2009) was shown in its entirety last year at the 55th Venice Biennale. The same year, Art Spiegelman had a retrospective at the Museum Ludwig Cologne, featuring his Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel Maus (1991). Crumb, Gary Panter, Spiegelman and Chris Ware are as well regarded in the art world as they are in the world of comics. In addition to the men, Chute reminds us in her 2010 book Graphic Women: Life Narrative and Contemporary Comics that many highly esteemed comic-book or graphic-narrative (the term she prefers to ‘graphic novel’) artists are female. She focuses on six: Lynda Barry, Alison Bechdel, Phoebe Gloeckner, Aline Kominsky-Crumb and Marjane Satrapi.

Carroll Dunham, Late Trees #2, 2011–12, mixed media on linen, 2.2 × 1.7 m. Courtesy: the artist, Blum and Poe, Los Angeles, Gladstone Gallery, New York, and Gerhardsen Gerner, Berlin

Of course, painting’s flirtation with comics and cartoons started long before the Whitney show. Cartoon imagery has been visible in painting, in various guises, for as long as cartooning has existed. Some historians, such as Martin Barker in his 1989 book Comics: Ideology, Power and the Critics, have cited the Lascaux cave paintings as the Promethean moment for both art in general and the comic tradition of sequential art in particular. The word ‘cartoon’ came from the Italian cartone meaning large sheet of paper, a term that was commonly used from the Renaissance onwards to denote a preparatory drawing for a painting or tapestry, such as the series of 63 tapestry cartoons Francisco de Goya created for the Spanish crown in 1775. Cartooning as we currently know it was birthed in the early 18th century by the satirical political etchings of William Hogarth. Many major artists from the 20th century – including Willem de Kooning, Philip Guston and Roy Lichtenstein – have all, to greater or lesser extents, been influenced by comic figuration. That Pablo Picasso was famously an avid reader of newspaper comics is likewise evident in his drawings. John Wesley’s clean, flat pictures invariably host Disney characters; Takashi Murakami’s Superflat work is filled with manga and artists such as George Condo, John Currin, Carroll Dunham, Erró, Lisa Yuskavage and, more recently, Tala Madani, have all drawn upon cartooning’s use of sexual imagery for political and formal purposes. More scrappy, intuitive comic appropriation can be found in the brilliant paintings of Armen Eloyan, Ansel Krut, Amy Sillman and Rose Wylie, to name just a few more contemporary practitioners.

If comics and cartoons already have a long tradition in art, what might explain their particular relevance to painting now? Two possible reasons: comics are unfettered by painting’s angsty autobiography and unbothered by the tradition of critical reception that painting has had to grapple with. And, importantly, comic stylization – grounded in reduction and caricature – has an easy approachability that painting has often been accused of ignoring. At a time of cross-platform, cross-channel communication the legibility and power of cartoonish figuration follows the same logic as the pictogrammatic emoticons we use to communicate feelings. A reduced but wider-reaching lexicon for depicting social realities and expressing emotion – caricature for melodrama; figuration abstracted to its most universal – has a poignant, current appeal.

Ella Kruglyanskaya, Moustache Beach, 2013, egg tempera on panel, 61 × 81 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Gavin Brown’s Enterprise, New York, and Kendall Koppe, Glasgow

Julien Ceccaldi’s Comics Collection 2010–2013 (2013) documents the episodic adventures of a group of young girlfriends interested in three things: going out, shopping and themselves. In each installment, their positive sass and front is punctured to reveal a legion of confusions and insecurities: ‘Why do I give such terrible advice? / ‘God, why is my friend such a huge bitch?’ In a different style but similarly ‘in-real-life’ register, ‘The Scene Report’, an ongoing series from the Wendy comic by Montreal-based artist Walter Scott, charts the everyday worries, anxieties, fears and tragedies that play out in the life of the main character, Wendy, a wannabe artist trying to figure her way through an industry littered with rejection and regrets, complicated by friends, parties and boys. Amelie von Wulffen presented an autobiographical take on experiences of art-world anxiety, trauma and angst in her graphite-on-paper comic book At the Cool Table (2014), which was published to coincide with her concurrent shows at the Kunstverein Munich and Portikus, Frankfurt, earlier this year. Goya appears as her companion and muse on the voyages through her dream scenarios: watching a young bro-artist reading from his autobiography, surrounded by swooning girls (‘the first chapter is about my awakening as a writer’); turning up at the opening of her own show (that she forgot to install) wearing nothing but an open trench coat; fighting with Goya over the meaning of still-life painting in her studio; visiting her non-artist sister who is somehow participating in Documenta. Von Wulffen’s series of watercolours shown at Alex Zachary, New York, in 2011, and collected in the book This Is How It Happened (2011), take a more cartoony tone, filled with a colourful ensemble cast of anthropomorphic fruit, vegetables and tools in scenes as innocent as ice-cream cones sledding down a mountain to more sinister ones of tomatoes being brutalized by mean-eyed potatoes in a sex dungeon (both Untitled, 2011). For all three artists, language is key: Ceccaldi’s caricatures rely on immersion in the perky patois of a 20-something US girl; Scott uses a similarly simple sucks-to-be-young-in-the-art-world inflection; and Von Wulffen’s charming English/German register uses a narrative form that flies through a constellation of personal and private situations made social.

Loosely grouped under the same social canopy – fraught relationships, personal anxiety, power dynamics and professional ennui – a number of painters, including Vittorio Brodmann, Sanya Kantarovsky, Ella Kruglyanskaya and Lucy Stein, as well as Von Wulffen, are taking a sidelong approach to comic appropriation, melding painterly abstraction with cartoonish representation. As with Von Wulffen’s work, Brodmann’s paintings depict scenes from a life at once recognizable and strange; sometimes coherent and sometimes anything but. In the Swiss artist’s earlier works, the 1940s cartoon character Droopy appears as a mascot for failure – in life as well as in painting – but, more recently, self-invented characters have crowded his pictures: monstrous anthropomorphic blobs with hooves, bug-eyed moustachioed lurkers and grinning reptilian beings move around and morph into each other. In Brodmann’s recent show at Gregor Staiger in Zurich, it felt like a dumpster truck’s worth of cartoonish imagery had been mangled through a Surrealist subconscious. Brodmann says he is just as influenced by sitcoms as he is by cartoons, by the visual humour of a sudden entrance and door slam. He also told me that he’s interested in the moment when people laugh at a picture before realizing they don’t really get the joke. It’s this insecurity and dislocation that plays out as both intention and method. Seemingly arbitrary faces are scattered across his figures at random, creating a number of competing focal points. Working directly onto canvas rather than from drawings, Brodmann bleeds and sweeps garish colours together in unresolved combinations. In Drooping poorly (2014) an arm becomes a foot while Along the polished floorboards (2014) reverses the situation. In Putting one’s tongue into a cheek (2014) ghostly open-mouthed figures in the background haze into a large nose, mirrored by the snout of an apologetic-looking crocodile in the opposite corner – the title suddenly revealing an extra layer of humour behind the grotesqueness of the imagery. 

Kruglyanskaya doesn’t read comics, which is something of a surprise. Her particular stylistic language seems a compendium of familiar illustrative and comic-book dialects: the small lips, button noses and sharp chins of mid-20th-century fashion drawings, to the Crumb or Erró-evoking buxom, curvilinear bodies of the women she depicts. Drawn from imagination rather than life models, and citing references such as Pieter Bruegel the Elder, Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, her works focus on the body and portraiture as much as on implied narratives.

Vittorio Brodmann, Not based on a backbone, 2014, oil on canvas, 30 × 35 cm. Courtesy: the artist and Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich

For Kruglyanskaya, as for cartoonists and illustrators, figuration is arrived at through a method of reduction: characters – mostly women, often in pairs – are cropped so tightly that their fleshy bodies fill the frame. They become the ground for cartoonish faces painted onto their clothing: the sly-looking guy in Moustache Beach (2013) or the screaming mouth in Zip It (2014). Comic-book themes as well as styles emerge: girl-on-girl power relationships play out in dramatic clinches – the sassy figure throwing shade in Crossed Out (in green) (2013) or the pairs of women that, almost exclusively, featured in the canvases shown at her solo show at Studio Voltaire in London earlier this year, titled ‘How to Work Together’. Men, if depicted at all, are reduced to mere clothing illustrations, predatory shadowy figures or, more amusingly, in The Heist (2013), a horizontally-hoisted statue or an about-to-be-disposed-of corpse. Echoing graphic-design motifs, Kruglyanskaya’s canvases function as pages, closing off context by treating the figures as cut-outs. These appear associatively as trompe l’oeil pages, as with the painted drawing within a painting in Bather on Yellow (2013), included in her solo show at Kendall Koppe in Glasgow last year. Her bright palette and loose, fast brushstrokes replicate the colour range and felt-tip scribblings common to posters.

Unlike the unstable Surrealism of a Brodmann or a Kruglyanskaya punchline, Kantarovsky’s paintings seem to move at a different clip. For his 2012 show ‘Dear Dilletante’ at Tanya Leighton in Berlin, petite bourgeoisie scenes, rendered in a muted blue-grey palette, added to the silent-movie-era elegance of a set of ornate sculptures: a well-heeled man walking through a wall, only his feet visible (A Situation, 2012), an umbrella balanced in a baroquely curved hand (A Missplaced Name, 2012). A series of waspish men in elegant poses – putting on a coat (The Other One Never Waits, 2012), throwing open shutters (A Joke That’s Hard to Understand, 2012), clicking long fingers to summon his cat (Untitled, 2012) – were punctuated by ghostly abstract canvases. If this show demonstrated Kantarovsky’s skill in restrained period-piece immersion, then his exhibition ‘Allergies’ at Casey Kaplan in New York this summer saw freer associations. Painted in garish colours using oils, watercolours and pastels (influenced by a Natalia Goncharova show in Moscow that the artist had seen, as well as the Agitplakat posters which were mass-produced in the Soviet Union during the period of de-Stalinization), animistic imagery and a range of cartoonishly simplified faces appeared, complicating his usually elegant scenes. Kantarovsky recently told me that he likes images that look initially familiar but then aren’t – that hold something back and then demand something more. Hybrid traditions and styles, reflecting his Russian then US upbringing, bump up against each other in When Things Don’t Work Out (2014): a wisp-slim girl in a man’s shirt leans back against a bedroom wall while a clownish little imp peers up at her from under the blankets of the bed. If Kantarovsky’s impulse is to stylize, his default mode has a certain 19th-century, literary, New Yorker-esque charm. And charm is key. As with the stand-up comic, charm carries the humour, and humour, however interpreted, is the glue for Kantarovsky’s images: a nod and a wink to the vanity of painting but an expression of confidence and optimism in its existence.

Lucy Stein, O!, 2013, oil and oil stick on canvas, 90 × 90 cm. Courtesy: the artist, Galerie Gregor Staiger, Zurich, and Gimpel Fils, London  

Stein works in a similarly disarming comic mode that conceals a darker key. Blending a Surrealist approach to line, the London-based artist’s paintings reformat art-historical symbolism, religious iconography and sexual innuendo into readable gags. Take the slip-wearing girl in her painting Well Dressing (2013), ceremoniously dipping her forearms into a font-like basin that also forms the underpants of a torsoless male. Legs curl out from the left and right edges of the canvas, framed under the heraldic banner of two comically extended penises. In another painting, O! (2013), also included in her exhibition at Galerie Gregor Staiger in 2013, the female figure takes backstage, looking on mournfully (scornfully?) as a reclining egg-headed male plays with the drooping pot plant between his legs. In Utopian Tubes (2013) it’s the regalia that dominates, two displaying swans oversee a woman comforting her faceless, bare-legged friend; two button-like faces hover in the centre of the picture grinning down facetiously.

 As with the recognizability of Ceccaldi’s head-in-hands girlfriends (reprised on the inside-cover page of his comic ‘Silence Equals Death’ in his new book Less Than Dust, 2014) or the hollow-eyed anger of Scott’s Wendy, clichéd signals of melancholy and despair are productive. Taking the familiar Jesus-face-in-toast/coffee foam/cloud meme for her recent show at Piper Keys gallery in London, Stein used potatoes to print a host of shadowy oval marks over abstracted, noisy backgrounds. Her aim, she said, was for people to see a face in each one, though each person’s private associations would, of course, be different. According to Henri Bergson, laughter is always the laughter of the group – a social gesture. Perhaps this idea points to where the joining of comics and paintings, abstraction and representation, becomes interesting: in that happy, confusing social moment of recognizing the joke, but not yet realizing what’s so funny.

Paul Teasdale is editor of He is based in London.