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Comic insights

Briony Downes

Many Ord, Undergrowth (detail), 2003 Many Ord, Undergrowth (detail), 2003
From original sketches and hand-coloured cells to printed publications and animation, The Dark Woods brings together works from emerging and established comic artists from around Australia. These have been hand-picked by curators Sarah Howell and Leigh Rigozzi from the recent Supernova comics convention, the National Young Writers’ Festival and the Braddock Coalition’s City Lights show.

As its fairytale title suggests, The Dark Woods is a foray into relatively uncharted territory. While there have been a number of notable exhibitions showcasing comic art over the last decade (ACE Australian Comic Exhibition, Cut’n’Paste and Comic Book Lifestyle), exhibitions in contemporary art spaces are few and far between. In an effort to expose this artform to new audiences and exploit the versatility of the medium, the curators chose the sleek space of Hobart’s Carnegie Gallery. “As a comics creator, preaching to the converted didn’t feel so challenging”, Howell admits. And as Rigozzi asserts: “comics are conceptually interesting enough to hold their own in a contemporary visual art context.” Rejecting the common misconception of comics as strictly “pulpy kiddy fare”, Howell and Rigozzi have chosen artists who explore emotionally challenging themes. Alienation, depression and economic disadvantage form the exhibition’s core. Most works reflect the journey of the loner and each pictorial narrative, be it autobiographical or fictional, is fleshed out with extra detail in the accompanying catalogue. With an essay on the zine scene by Edward Colless, this newsprint style publication is an essential addition to the exhibition and an inspiration for any comics fan.

The youthful audacity of The Dark Woods lends the show an intoxicating energy. Simon James’ Country Flux (2003) tucks its strange, blotchy tale of mutated sexual desire into a snug corner next to a series of water colour panels by Michael Hawkins whose double chinned, long-necked waifs go through their lonely existence in the midst of a world that looks as though it might melt away at any second.

In comics, place can become a major character. Painstaking effort can be put into reproducing the exact slogan on a poster hanging in the doorway of an obscure shop in order to make a certain street easily recognisable. Mandy Ord embraces this technique with skill. Printed to an impressive billboard size is a panel from one of the best works in the exhibition, the strikingly individual Undergrowth (2003). Ord’s thick black lines echo the contrasting surfaces of a woodcut. The images follow the meanderings of a Cyclopean protagonist literally entering dark woods. Undergrowth is a unique portrayal of the urban jungle and isolation in the midst of a crowd. Thematically similar are Ord’s equally intriguing animated shorts Suit Yourself (2002) and Perfectly Alright (2002).

Breaking up the empty floor space are several cases displaying self-published comics. Tim Danko’s print-making is easily spotted in the diminutively sized Francois (2002). The delicately rendered pages of his books are enticing in their patterned complexity. It is a shame we can’t get a closer look, although the artist does have a large-scale printed work on the wall and a smaller edition in the catalogue.

Some of the more ambitious artists made the most of the white washed walls and spread their images like Vegemite on toast from ceiling to floor. Kieran Mangan painted his Restoration directly onto the gallery wall: a balding man deep in thought is oblivious to the chunky beetle whirring above him. This abstract vision forms the foundation of Mangan’s nightmarish and overtly surreal plot. Here past, present and future exist on the same layout. Time as we know it has dissolved.

Comics are a poignant blend of literature and fine art and can be hard hitting. The power of comics and their weightier siblings, graphic novels, is steadily growing as is their place in contemporary art. Art Spiegelman’s Maus, a haunting account of his father’s imprisonment in a Nazi concentration camp, won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize and is still highly regarded in literary circles. The acclaimed movies Ghostworld (Terry Zwigoff, 2000) and American Splendor (Shari Springer Berman and Robert Pulcini, 2003) were originally presented in comic book form by Daniel Clowes and Harvey Pekar respectively. Comics theoretician and guru Scott McCloud sees the art form continuing to build on its notoriety: “If comics’ spectacularly varied past is any indication, comics’ future will be virtually impossible to predict using the standards of the present.” (Understanding Comics, HarperPerennial, New York, 1994).

The Dark Woods is a worthy, if small, affirmation of the Australian comics scene. It is not hard to believe Edward Colless’ claim that comics “may well be part of an exciting new mutation of literacy.”

The Dark Woods, various artists, Carnegie Gallery, Hobart, Feb 12-March 14; Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, Boorugal, May 28-July 11; Port Pirie Regional Art Gallery, Port Pirie, Aug 8-Sept 19; New Land Gallery, Port Adelaide, Sept 29-Nov 14; Fountain Gallery, Port Augusta, Nov 18-Dec 19; Millicent Art Gallery, Millicent, Jan 3-Feb 6, 2005

RealTime issue #60 April-May 2004 pg. 34

© Briony Downes; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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