There’s more than a touch of melancholy on display at Electric Works this month; something I would argue is in keeping with the overall influence of comix (á la Art Spiegelman) on Paul Madonna and Ian Huebert. Spiegelman used the word ‘comix’ because he wanted to stress that his creations were not just humorous illustrations, but a new narrative technique: a ‘comix-ture’ of words and images that relied on the tension between what was being said and what was being illustrated.
I doubt that Speigelman was the first graphic artist to whom this occurred, but he managed to combine this insight with the idea that comix could broach material just as serious as any other novel, and arguably reinvented the comic book in America. He also introduced notes of irony, self-consciousness and melancholy that still permeate the genre, and it’s this tone that marries Madonna’s Album 01: In Which Era Will You Get Stuck? exhibition with Huebert’s Drawing from the Plains.
Madonna’s drawings are supporting documents to a limited-edition book, also called Album 01, published jointly by Electric Works and the Paul Madonna Studio, and I think the show feels a little rough around the edges for this reason. The book is more coherent than the gallery installation — for example, it includes most of the stages that Madonna’s drawings underwent, providing a larger frame of reference for the artist’s ideas. “Balsa Planes 1 – 5,” which is currently my favorite piece, went through four iterations before it became the drawing that hangs on the gallery wall.
“Balsa Planes 5” (2009), Paul Madonna, image courtesy Electric Works
While the final image is evocative on its own, when you see the entire five-panel series of wooden gliders and their paper plane counterparts playing out an ambiguous scene that could be a battle (or not), “Balsa Planes 1 – 5” becomes a meaningful synecdoche for the tension present in the rest of Album 01.
Despite the playful colors and the fact that many of Madonna’s images involve toys, my overall read is of a narrator continually under attack.
“Creature” (2009), Paul Madonna, image courtesy Electric Works
Attacked by what, I’m not exactly sure — memories, expectations, and nostalgia are my best guesses, and I think the role that commodities play here is interesting — but it’s a curiously indirect and persistent threat, one that shows up in the form of broken toy parts or bad dreams, at least until the final page of the book, when the narrator is accidentally poisoned by a cupcake that contains a dose of medicine for the family dog — mildly poisoned, that is, nothing fatal. A gentle melancholy. A familiar threat.
Ian Huebert’s is the stronger installation, which makes sense given that there is no book involved, and nothing meant to bundle the concept of the work other than the room in which it sits. Huebert is meticulous — you can tell by his rendering style — and I was impressed by the number of different media and techniques he put together, from hand-drawn, multi-panel serials to a re-appropriated table.
“FASPA” (2009), Ian Huebert, photograph by Danielle Sommer
If comix is the art of juxtaposition, or the art of the interval, then Huebert moves this juxtaposition out of the realm of solely text and image and into the multi-modal conversation of contemporary art, where many of his peers are also attempting to harness the same interval.
Huebert’s images are, as the title suggests, ‘from the plains:’ big, sturdy women and teenagers, endlessly flat horizons, haystacks, corn and gun cartridges. He’s from Nebraska, but anyone who has clocked time in this country’s agricultural centers will recognize his landscape, and not just formally, but emotionally. There’s a bleak strip called “Freezer King” that I can’t get out of my mind: a woman stripping corn of its kernels and immediately putting them on ice, in Ziploc bags labeled “July.”
“Freezer King” (2009), Ian Huebert, photograph by Danielle Sommer
My parents used to do this with the pulp from the persimmons that they harvested off our tree down in the South Bay; in our world, it was a way of making a season’s flavor last just a little bit longer, of storing a favorite experience with the expectation that it could be brought out at another time. In Huebert’s world, the gesture takes on a special kind of bittersweetness, of a summer (and perhaps a way of life) put on ice.
Paul Madonna’s Album 01: In What Era Will You Get Stuck? and Ian Huebert’s Drawing from the Plains are on view at Electric Works until January 9, 2010.
Electric Works will be hosting a book signing for Paul Madonna on December 19, 2009.