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From the comic strip to the canvas: cartoon characters in contemporary art

No doubt Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein thought they were doing something wholly original when they started using comics in their work in the early '60s. But when the two artists, who didn't know each other, happened to both bring their paintings to the Leo Castelli Gallery in New York, the gallery director was astonished at the similarities in their work.

"As it turns out, this was happening across the country," says Valerie Cassel, curator of the exhibit "Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art" at the Contemporary Arts Museum. Cassel theorizes that since comics were a window into American attitudes, artists seized upon them as a way to critique society. Whatever the reason, it was clear that a new movement was born.

Lichtenstein and Warhol were painting enlarged versions of images from comic books and cartoon shorts. "Splat Boom Pow!" includes Warhol's Mickey Mouse and Lichtenstein's blown-up comic box Forget It! Forget Me! -- paintings that, like other pop art works that borrowed from consumer culture, weren't applauded by everyone.

Pow!erful: Renee Cox's Lost in Space.
Courtesy of the Contemporary Arts Museum
Pow!erful: Renee Cox's Lost in Space.

"Many critics felt that it wasn't original to take imagery that had existed in society and bring it inside the sacred space of high art," says Cassel. "There was a tremendous amount of criticism that the work was vacuous, and that it showed what you could see on a billboard or in a front yard or in the mail. Why should it be considered fine art because it was placed on canvas and shown in a gallery?"

Fine art or not, works with cartoon figures were cropping up everywhere. Americans vs. Japanese, by former University of Texas art professor Peter Saul, shows how artists used cartoon figures out of context to make political commentary. In the work, sweet little Donald Duck is outfitted with a helmet and enthusiastically fighting in a war. "You see the image in a context of a war-loving soldier," says Cassel, "which is the opposite context from what he'd normally been seen in...He did it at a time when we were on the precipice of war in Vietnam, which had a very interesting connotation."

Some of the exhibit's more recent works use the same technique. David Sandlin's 1995 painting Sin-occhi portrays the beloved Pinocchio as a sinister figure with a disturbing erection. But, of course, these days it's become more common for artists to create their own characters. Renee Cox's Lost in Space features the African-American superheroine Rajé. Dressed in knee-high boots and a Pan-African-flag-inspired outfit, Rajé floats in the air above a bald white guy in a suit, his hands up in submission. Artists like Cox "create their own cartoons, their own iconography altogether," says Cassel. "They're using the language of cartoons because people can easily read them."

It's not surprising that the "Splat Boom Pow!" artists are a varied lot. "The exhibition...is very culturally diverse, which is something that I love about it," says Cassel. "There's literally something for everyone."

Free. A collection of films and videos influenced by cartoons, curated by Cassel and Andrea Grover, screens at 8 p.m. Saturday, May 10, and 3 p.m. Sunday, May 11, at the Aurora Picture Show, 800 Aurora. For information, call 713-868-2101. $5.

 
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