Designated as both an art and platform for political satire, cartoons are an invariably flexible medium. Whether still, animated, abstract or figural, the language of cartoons is ever changing; constantly developing new ways to explore its own imagined world, and the real world beyond. Over the course of this ARTUNER series, we have explored the development of the cartoon; tracing its history from its inception with the work of William Hogarth, evolution into animation, and its role in the parallel movement of abstract animation. In this final instalment to the series, we will examine the role of the cartoons in contemporary art. Specifically, we will discuss the manifestation of cartoons within the context of ARTUNER’s new exhibition, Beyond the Cartoon, in New York City open until October 22nd.
Beginning with Pop Art in the 1960’s, artists have employed the iconography of comics and cartoons to point out, and advance, their own political, social, racial, and cultural agendas. Notable for the ease by which they are appropriated, reproduced, and customised, cartoons are the perfect medium through which to express oneself as their veneer of childishness makes the artist’s intended message easier to digest and more immediately affecting. As can be seen in Andy Holden’s film ‘Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape II’, the medium of cartoons possesses the unique ability to vacillate between fictional anarchy and real-world consumerism.
Concerned with society’s relationship to the past and how we make sense of ourselves, Holden’s film depicts the animated artist walking through empty cartoon backgrounds whilst speaking about subjects such as critical theory and conspiracy theory. This dual-screen essayistic composition combines numerous clips from classic cartoons with images from CERN, extracts from Stephen Hawkins, Greek philosophy, speculations on the 2008 financial crisis, musings on the potentially animate nature of all matter, and the role of the artist in this post-human landscape. A fluid collage of primary and secondary source materials, Holden’s composition echoes the innate nature of contemporary cartoons to be betwixt and between fiction and reality. Residing in the liminal space between childhood blithe and the plagues of contemporary culture, cartoons are characterised by their ability to elicit the hardships of everyday life whilst maintaining an air of juvenile wonder for the world around them. This sentiment is echoed in the works of Rhys Coren who employs the symbols intrinsic to his childhood cartoon icons to create his visual expressions.
In his work ‘Up All Night (If You Weren’t Afraid of Flying, We Could Leave the Ground)’ Coren depicts a large, glittery cloud-like form with the technique of painted marquetry. Soft, round, edges flowing over each other to create the simplistic outline of a natural subject, the painting is reminiscent of the animated clouds found in cartoons or comics. Subtly sentimental, Coren’s compositions catapult beyond the humanistic tendencies of traditional cartoons and engage with a different type of abstract cartoonist expression, a stylistic tendency common to the abstractly animated expressions of artists like Oskar Fischinger. As demonstrated by both these artists, the vernacular of cartoons is not always literal. Indeed, it can be availed as a springboard for abstraction, not to withdraw from reality, but to engage with it more critically.
To be sure, the manifestation of cartoons in contemporary art is not always anthropomorphic. As can be seen in the works of Stephen Felton, the term ‘cartoon’ is applied very loosely. Characterised by minimalist compositions that explore ideas of narrative and personal documentary, Felton’s works are only “cartoons” insofar as they borrow the simplification techniques of cartoonists to document the politic of the every day. To be sure, like cartoons Felton’s technique does not aim to trivialise the emotions and atmospheres he records, but rather to chronicle the quotidian on canvas in a fictionalised manner. This technique can also be seen in ‘Worst Comes To Worst, Ma People Come First’ a painting by Paulo Nimer Pjota.
White background populated by small, graphite-looking portraits, Pjota’s composition highlights the clichés of figurative painting and intertwines them with everyday symbols such as the vernacular constructions of the ghettoes and popular iconography, like cartoons. Similar to Felton’s work, Pjota’s is about the ordinary. More than this, it is about a place’s own cultural formation and public catharses. As can be seen in this painting, he employs the notions of cartoons as a tool through which to address the handling of icons and the role they have played throughout history under the guise of power relationships. Indeed, his work acutely demonstrates the fine line cartoon iconography can walk between fiction and reality; symbol and metaphor; definition and interpretation; connotation and denotation. It is upon this precarious border where, not only Pjota’s work, but also Rachel Maclean’s work, lies.
In her film ‘Over the Rainbow’, Maclean weaves together elaborate costumes, green screen technology, and appropriated audio from fairy tales, video games, and horror movie genres to create a subtly dark fantastical alter world exploring the diverse symbolic uses of the rainbow. Inspired by the Technicolour universe of children’s television, Maclean catapults the notion of a cartoon utopia into a real world atmosphere wherein furry monsters, faceless clones, and grotesque pop divas exploit the idyllic symbol of the rainbow in an effort to reveal the sinister doctrine underlying pure, innocent aesthetic.
Whether a natural phenomenon, television character, image in psychedelic art, or a symbol of gay pride, this film aims to reconfigure the traditionally wholesome connotation of the rainbow. Moving effortlessly from one plush dreamscape to the next, characters are in a constant state of transformation, changing voices and personalities at will. In effect, the diverse characters populating Maclean’s cinematic expression reflect the capacity of cartoons to be outlandishly flamboyant caricatures of their humanistic counterparts. Spirited and insubordinate, her cartoon-like characters are like object lessons, animated regulations, comically re-enacting a world of impoverished experience and violence. Indeed, what emerges from her salacious cotton-candy “utopia” is an obvious allusion to cartoon’s original satirical purpose and an astute attempt to blur the lines between “high” and “low” art; a sentiment inherent to the Pop art movement and the works of Jeff Keen.
Similar to Maclean, the cinematic expressions of Jeff Keen present a flickering, psychedelic universe whose fusion of reality and fantasy help to redefine our conceptions of traditional cinema. True to his methodology, his film ‘Rayday Film’ is a frenzied collage of saturated colour, combining cropped clips of moving and still images and overlying them with surrealist sketches and figurative newspaper clippings. Jumbled together in a sequence of rapid-fire stop motion animation, these multi-medic clips are nauseatingly intertwined with bizarre video footage. Permeated by an overwhelming visual aesthetic, the film, as its title suggests, alludes to the way in which comic books are deftly able to play out fantastical and nonsensical productions of invention and effacement, life and death. More than this, the film aims to express the seriousness of the Second World War—a constant point of reference in not only the ‘Rayday Film’, but also throughout Keen’s cinematic repertoire.
Title taken from the magazine ‘Amazing Rayday’ which he published in 1962, this film is a spastic display of his infamous assemblages. Indeed, Keen’s ‘Rayday Film’, like his magazine, reflects his interest in exploring the fringe world of cartoon comic books. Indeed, he found this niche sphere fascinating due to its idea of a graphical world outside the realm of ‘high’ art. This exploration of the position cartoons occupy between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art can also be seen in ‘Black Stork’ by Rose Wylie.
Divided into two panels, this painting is populated by three delicate birds. Two fly near a mountain, another stands in the foreground. Painted with an acutely loose gesticulation, Wylie’s painting demonstrates the elegant rawness inherent to her style. Behind this stringy black stork grow neon green bushes and, next to it, a diamond-like mountain stretches towards the wispy blue sky populated by soft, marshmallow white clouds. Often working from memory, Wylie distils her subjects into concise observations, using text to give added emphasis. Indeed, much like the technique employed in cartoon comics wherein simplistic illustrations are captioned by text, Wylie too uses text to further explain the volatile and outrageous figures inhabiting her fantastical pictorial worlds. Adamant in the fact that her creations are not cartoons, Wylie’s works possess an exhilarating sense of anarchy; manic and frenzied caricatures of Wylie’s own imaginative perception of reality.
As exhibited in this collection of works in Beyond the Cartoon, the role of the cartoon in contemporary art is complex and hard to define. Like everything in history, the cartoon is constantly evolving, re-defining and re-inventing itself. Becoming ever greater and diverse, the cartoon in contemporary art is both a tool and a style; a concrete idea and a philosophical concept; an expression of political defiance and nostalgic symbol of childhood innocence; effectively, both a compliment and an insult. Essentially, a medium, which began as a form of political satire, has expanded and evolved to be as diverse and complex as the people it informs.