In a recent interview for an Oakland Museum of California publication, Daniel Clowes explained an element of attraction to his chosen media: “Comics are the one visual narrative medium that you have absolute control over…That’s very satisfying.” For the exhibition Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes, the artist has relinquished control over his original drawings to the astute eye of guest curator Susan Miller and Senior Curator of Art René de Guzman. The result is a revealing visit into the mesmerizing and time-consuming medium of hand-drawn cartooning.
Granted privileged access to Clowes’ working methods, visitors to the exhibition will see over 100 drawings and gouache pieces as they have never been seen before. Copious small details — pencil marks, erasures, individual brushstrokes, and cut out pieces of paper augmenting text and facial expressions — never appear on the printed page. As Miller pointed out, the gallery mimics the artist’s studio. Visitors get to experience the drawings, and the effort that went into making them just right, as only the artist has.
Clowes’ list of accomplishments is an impressive one, expanding beyond the world of comics to include an Academy Award nomination for screenwriting, numerous New Yorker covers, and now a mid-career survey set to travel to the MCA Chicago, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Wexner Center for the Arts. To top it all off, Abrams just published The Art of Daniel Clowes, a hefty hardcover full of beautiful images, a revealing interview, and insightful essays on the man and his work.
Selections from each of Clowes’ comics, commissioned pieces, and graphic novels are represented in Modern Cartoonist, demonstrating the true range of the artist’s output. Specific drawings were chosen by Clowes himself, depending on what he liked best. Beginning in the mid-80s with his first published comic, Lloyd Lllewellyn, the exhibition then offers examples of Eightball, in which the stories “Like a Velvet Glove Cast in Iron,” “Ghostworld,” “David Boring,” “Ice Haven,” and “The Death-Ray” were all serialized. All these were subsequently published in book form as complete narratives.
Clowes has long depicted a variety of weirdos and outcasts, pathetic and maligned individuals who, through the patience of his renderings, become sympathetic characters. In his most recent book, the title character Wilson is one of the most despicable of the lot. Each page documents a single vignette in Wilson’s life. More often than not, the balding middle-aged man harangues a hapless victim with his abrasive and politically incorrect opinions. Whether based on a real person or not, the fact that Wilson lives in Oakland (where Clowes also lives) makes him, if not relatable, at least identifiable, especially to a Bay Area audience.
The exhibition design borrows much from Clowes’ drawings. Close to the ceiling, sequences from different stories wrap around the walls, enlarged and rendered in a soft gray, the comics acting as thought bubbles above the gallery-goers’ heads. Original drawings are presented behind plexi, mounted to the walls or on angled surfaces that mimic drawing tables. Two free-standing structures appear as if extruded from the streetscapes in Clowes’ work. Both allow for a minimal amount of interaction, with hinged or sliding panels supporting even more drawings. Relief-cuts drawn by Clowes grace the exteriors of the structures, producing the strange sensation of being in a comic while viewing the show.
Many of Clowes’ stories revolve around a central mystery or journey of self-discovery. Technology, or the lack thereof, figures largely as a result. Clowes’ characters are consistently analog, either because they inhabit a world uncluttered by cell phones and laptops, or because they are self-proclaimed Luddites (like Wilson). This element is reflected in the exhibition as whole, as it forces you to examine a tangible collection of sketches and drawings, ideas that have come into being after countless hours of reworking, all by hand.
Representing 26 years of Clowes’ life work, Modern Cartoonist is a special treat for preexisting fans. For those new to the strange, funny, and always relevant stories, it will likely be frustrating to glimpse only short segments of the larger narratives. I imagine this introduction will inspire many more to join the legions of fans in Clowes’ corner, all eager for the immersive, one-on-one experience that brings art straight from his studio to the publication in their hands.