Comics in gallery exhibitions

Matt and I have been in any number of gallery exhibitions, and we’ve got the routine down now; picking pages, signing contracts, getting insurance papers, arranging shipping…it’s a lot of rigamrole. And every time we do it, we question the underlying idea of hanging original comics pages in a gallery, at all.

Of course, I love to see gallery shows of comics, but I’m a cartoonist. I’m not encountering the work for the first time (usually), and I’m looking at it with a professional’s eye: I look at the original size versus the print size, get up close to observe the traces of penciling  and corrections (or lack of such…damn you, Jaime Hernandez!), figure out what I can about the inking tools and techniques, and simply admire the drawing and lettering as it appears in that new context. It’s great. I learn a lot. But I never read the comics in that context.

There are plenty of arguments to be made about the original page versus the printed work. Is the original really “comics” or is it more like a manuscript page or an etching plate, and not comics until its reproduced? But these discussions are fairly abstract and academic. Almost no one would argue that one can’t sit down and read a stack of original comics pages and pretty much get what the artist intends.

But the “sit down and read part” is essential. Comics are a narrative medium, akin to prose, film, and video, not to painting and illustration. Comics are made to be read. When you put up a grid of 16 pages on a wall, some too high to see clearly (and certainly not comfortably), you thwart the basic nature of comics. When you excerpt five random pages out of a 250-page story (probably because they’re the ones with nice big illustration-ey splash panels), you make it impossible to really experience the work.

I have this discussion with my students each time I teach the junior thesis class at SVA. They’re required to compete to show their 16-page junior theses in an exhibition, and they rail against it as not representing what comics are all about, while of course if they make it into the show, they’re justifiably thrilled and proud. I’m on the fence. It’s not that I think that gallery shows hurt comics, quite the contrary. They may make some converts in unlikely places, and it can be really magnificent to see a room full of original comics art and realize (again) that they’re not just text pages but that each one is an individual, highly complex drawing. And even if you adhere to the comics art = manuscript page theory, who wouldn’t want to see original manuscript pages, especially if they’re hand-written, by favorite writers?

I posted some information about the Ink Plots show at the SVA gallery a month or so ago, but didn’t get images from the gallery itself to update with until a day before they closed the show. Which is too bad. They did a very nice job bridging the gap: many many lovely pages, and even more original comics in a large and comfortable reading room nook complete with green-shaded library desk lamps. This may be the best solution available: Make sure that reading is suggested and made as attractive a possibility as can be.

Mostly, I just don’t think about it too much. If a gallery or museum is interested in showing comics, I want to support that impulse, and usually will participate in a show. Anyway, it’s hard to say no—you love my work and want to show it to the world? Gee, thanks! But sometimes I wonder if we’re doing a disservice to the art form in not insisting on some other manner of presenting the work that more clearly addresses its basic narrative nature.

Difference of Opinion: a piece Matt and I installed at PS122 in 2004 to try to speak to this problem. We redrew comics panels very large, without dialogue, and then composed them on the wall to suggest various possible narratives. Calvin Reid wrote a great essay about it that touched on some of these issues.


2 Comments to Comics in gallery exhibitions

  • by Marlon Deason

    On November 12, 2010 at 7:25 pm

    I find original comic and cartoon art to be endlessly fascinating. I agree that I am looking mostly at the technical aspects and for signs of the artist’s hand and I’m not really trying to follow the story.

    Cartooning is falling victim to the same blight that has happened to literature. It is possible to view the scroll of Jack Keroauc’s stream of consciousness novel and compare how this original became the final typeset and printed book. But most authors use a word processor to write prose today. We lose the gift of seeing any editing, deleted passages or author’s notes.

    The same thing is starting to happen in comics; no original art, just photoshop files.

  • by jahhdog

    On November 22, 2010 at 3:41 pm

    It’s true. One page of a 16 page comic isn’t giving you anything of the total experience!

    Do you cut a cell of a movie (oh yeah digital now) or post a still from a film to represent said film? Would the director of the movie expect you to get any of the total experience from the film in one or two stills? Would I expect you to get the experience of my 16 page comic from just 2 pages?

    Face it. Showing pages is promotion,it isn’t the artistic experience…


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