Comic abstraction

The artists ambushing art with laughs, black line by black line, from London to the MoMA

Arts+Culture No Way!
Daniel K Sparkes

In London, Galleries Goldstein, an artist-run gallery housed until the end of last year at Goodhood, on Hoxton’s Coronet Street, has been one of the propagators of a new era in Comic Abstraction. Russell Maurice, founder and artist, put out a show that attempted to define the parameters of this new wave, consolidated with a simultaneous publication, in 2011. “Asbestos Curtain” was a showcase of fresh artists working in the same vein, coming from a different background to the institutional artists included first major show dedicated to Comic Abstraction at MoMa in 2007.

The show at MoMA was somewhat of a critical flop, in terms of characterizing what Comic Abstraction was, or could be. Artists were linked by a spurious chain of political purpose, with little connection that could be perceived by the eye. But with this group of emerging artists – predominantly coming out of London and Paris, and working in installation, paint, pencil on paper, animation and photomontage - there is a solid aesthetic connection. Loose, buoyant, and often exaggerated lines, nostalgic, bubble-ish shapes, creatures and caricatures residing in landscapes of fantasy and fable – they provide a palpable, real life vision for the concept “there’s an abstract narrative that links many of the artists and works together” explains Maurice, who produces work in this vein himself, alongside collaborators and peers such as Lucas Dillon, Petro, and Murray O’Grady.

That narrative can also be traced through graffiti and street art – these not artists who necessarily define themselves as such, but who are drawn to those kinds of practice for its irreverent quality, and for its flexible nature of working without limits of form, space and scale. There is an aesthetic heritage learnt from graffiti too, with many of the pioneers of the genre also having a ‘nom de rue’; “it makes sense, seeing how much the sensibility of graffiti is rooted in cartoons, with wobble lines, and 'window reflections’.” 

Comic Abstraction uses the language of caricature and fun, but when you look for the recognizable character in the image, it dissolves into a maze of squishy shapes and flabby lines. Take the recent series Ken Sortais (aka Cony) produced for his Prince of Darkness show in 2012. Taken one way, the works are innocuous, colourful, abstract shapes. Turn back and they lurch, grimace and menace, Disney turned evil. Sortais is one of the finest examples of new Comic Abstraction, pushing it to new directions with an infectious energy. His black and white ink on paper drawings, presented last month at Galleries Goldstein’s’ “Old Boot: Further Adventures in Comic Abstraction” show in East London, are clearly indebted to the 1930s animations of Van Beuren and Max Fleischer, creators of classics like Koko the Clown.

Where Cony provides the characters, Horfe draws the visionary universes they inhabit. Often working closely with Cony, the French duo having just returned from a month bombing the streets of Japan, both are also core members of PAL (Peace and Love) crew, a Paris-based collective. PAL founding father Gorey together with Cony and Horfe (and also featuring Tomek, Esso, Skub, Mosa and Saeyo) opened their US debut in New York last week, organized by Klughaus - also a formerly bricks and mortar turned itinerant gallery.

What you get from Comic Abstraction is that the humour of comics and animation is something contained intrinsically, captured in their form and in their motion, or by an incongruous interruption, the sudden appearance of something unexpected. Daniel K. Sparkes, (also, Mudwig), an artist based in London who has exhibited recurrently alongside Maurice, Dillon, Horfe, Cony et Al, talks of reversing the approach of comic artists: they are unanimating the animate, which in Sparkes’ work translates to replacing faces with hamburgers, puffing cigarettes and sink holes and symbols of trashy consumerism. 

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