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POWerful Images

Comic book characters reign in this CAM exhibit

Roger Shimomura pulls out all the stops for an in-your-face painting series that addresses racial stereotypes. Shimomura inserts a Japanese caricature with yellow flesh, buck teeth, squinty eyes and thick black round glasses into animated scenes with '40s-style imagery. He looks not unlike Mickey Rooney as the upstairs neighbor in Breakfast at Tiffany's, made up in the Asian equivalent of blackface. In Jap's a Jap #2 (2000), an image derived from a Breakfast at Tiffany's scene, the character dances with abandon among smiling girls. Frat Rats (2000) shows Shimomura's character helping carry a coed on his shoulders surrounded by a bunch of grinning all-American Archie and Jughead types. Reggie even seems to be lurking in the background. The racist caricature sticks out like a sore thumb, even beside the other cartoons. What's that guy doing among all those Americans? Shimomura's pointed exaggeration parallels the alienation of Asian-Americans in American culture.

Comic-influenced imagery is put to use for the personal in the work of Trenton Doyle Hancock and Henry Darger. Hancock's character "The Mound" is a black-and-white-striped lumpy form that he uses as a kind of alter ego. Eight small works forming the For a Floor of Flora series (2002) are shown framed, hanging against a background of Hancock's own springlike floral wallpaper.

The colors of the piece are bright, clear and lovely, but the static, blobby mounds sprout unsettling things: a lumpy brainlike form with tiny anxious yellow eyes, a head with an ominous orange glare that looks like Dr. Zaius from Planet of the Apes, and the head of a blond girl with the vacant stare of the lobotomized. Look closer and an eyeball hangs out of one of the beautifully drawn flowers that surround the mound. White spaces among the colored flowers of the wallpaper suddenly become severed hands and forearms with cartoonish bone joints sticking out from the neatly sliced flesh. Hancock seeds his drawings with psychological unease.

Roger Shimomura addresses racial stereotypes in Jap's a Jap #2.
Contemporary Arts Museum
Roger Shimomura addresses racial stereotypes in Jap's a Jap #2.

Details

Through June 29; 713-284-8250
Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose

But while Hancock may draw on the lurking disquiet of the unconscious, Darger uses cartoon narratives to lay bare the truly, deeply and unsettlingly strange contents of his mind. The self-taught Darger is often grouped into the category of outsider artist, but this "reclusive and religious man" was an outsider in more ways than one. His drawings have pastel storybook colors and images culled from paper dolls, cartoons and other popular sources. His more-than-a-little-obsessive 15,000-page narrative is epically titled The Story of the Vivian Girls, in what is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Gandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion (1957-67). The initial appearance is of some Dick, Jane and Sally story, until you look closer and realize that Jane is half-naked and has a dick. In Darger's really, really unsettling world, transsexual children go on a violent odyssey. Darger's work is fascinating because of his elaborate, overwhelming and truly bizarre narrative. But it leaves you with an uncomfortable, creepy feeling as well.

The exhibition is divided into three sections, wittily using the "Splat," "Boom" and "Pow" straight out of a Batman fight scene. "Splat: Squashing the Force Field of Pop Icons" contains work that transforms existing pop images. "Boom: Exploding the Language of Art Through Alien Technology" incorporates work that uses the formal trappings or techniques associated with comics. While "Pow: Slammin' into Mt. Mythomania and Spewing Alter Egos and New Superheroes" features work in which artists have used a comics sensibility to create their own icons and narratives.

But not all of the works fit neatly into their categories. Additionally, because of the logistics of installation, some objects are stranded in other sections. Grouping objects by anime influences, say, or superhero imagery may have been a more superficial approach but could have made things more visually cohesive. There are a lot of interesting pieces in the show, but things get a little confusing.

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