Daniel Clowes’ career trajectory has had a weird sort of herky-jerky-ness to it. When he started out making comics in the 1980’s, his narratives were amorphous and meandering, at times borrowing from the Surreal, with paranoid/delusional plotlines and violent, and sexually perverse, graphic imagery. This was married to his early drawings which were highly restrained; in the press walk through of his current exhibition, “Modern Cartoonist: the Art of Daniel Clowes,” on view at The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, he mentioned, while clenching an imaginary pen in his hand which stabbed the air in front him, that he would scratch out each line, gouging away at a panel until it came together.
In contrast, as time went on, his narratives tightened up (in the sense that they assumed traditional beginning, middle and end story arcs), and his drafting abilities also matured. Interestingly, this led to a loosening up of sorts, as he began incorporating more French curves and blacker blacks for example, and an overall confidence set in and began buoying this new dynamism.
Daniel Clowes, Eightball 18 Cover-1, 1996; Courtesy of the artist’s blog.
This show is the first major museum exhibition of his work, and is an expanded and enhanced version of the original show, which opened at the Oakland Museum of California last summer, and which will travel, in a reduced form, to the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus next year.
“Modern Cartoonist” is a must-see for fans of Clowes, since it features over 130 works of his, with an emphasis placed on originals, be they drawings, comics or graphic novels. Since the majority of these are still held by the artist himself, it’s a really unique opportunity to see an exhaustive catalog of his top shelf stuff, something that, once these pieces hit the open market, may not come around again.
Clowes is the type of artist that, even if you don’t count yourself as a fan, you’ll be surprised by how much of his work you recognize; over the past thirty years or so, he’s produced everything from comics, cartoons and illustrations, to CD covers, music videos, New Yorker covers, and major Hollywood films, such as Ghost World and Art School Confidential. These two series were originally featured in Clowes’ long-running series Eightball, which has served as the main platform throughout the years to house the majority of his work. Initially, Art School Confidential was a four-page strip featured in Eightball # 7, and many of the works in the publication were later extracted and re-printed as stand-alone graphic novels, as is the case with Ghost World.
Oddly enough, “Modern Cartoonist” reminded me of Eightball in the sense that it tries to contain the entire Clowes-ian universe, past and present. The exhibition design is over-determined in the best possible museum way—lots of scrolling reproductions of Clowes’ work trim the rooms (what the curator referred to as a “comic freize”); kiosks meant to mimic “ateliers” housing layers of sliding works to skim through, and upon entering, a large, angled screen confronts viewers with a flashy but puzzling series of morphing portraits.
Installation image; courtesy of Daniel Clowes blog.
There are ample places to sit down and thumb through comics and they range from brushed steel benches to plush, tufted cubes, but in an almost literal comic panel format, they parcel off, bifurcate and annex areas of the show, concealing and obfuscating more then they invite or reveal. Likewise, the oppressive slate gray color palette and crisp, antiseptic arrangement of works on view mimic the tightly wound precision of Clowes’ own drawings, really driving home the dizzyingly laborious nature of their creation and the hours upon hours Clowes must have clocked producing this veritable lifetime of work.
On a slightly lighter note, the show is bookended by two enormous wall-works created by incising into what looks like linoleum. Featuring images of Chicago as Clowes recalls it from the 1970’s when he was growing up here, the tableaux are full of little nudges and winks, like the Chicago Blackhawks logo off in one corner. But what struck me were the silhouetted figures, often framed by windows set within buildings, which automatically bring to mind the signature style of Chicago Imagist, Roger Brown.
In that respect, Clowes becomes a victim of his own success; his exacting precision and deft drafting skills make the exhibition feel muted. Back in 2006, when the MCA mounted a Chris Ware exhibition, the show pulsed with a kind of open-secret energy, since Ware’s original drawings pulled back the curtain on his creative process a bit, revealing erasures and blue pencil sketches that allowed you to see how a drawing developed and changed over time. Clowes’ work on the other hand—both his text and images—seem to spring Cronos-like from his head fully formed. The original drawings are stunning, and worth seeing up close and in person, but they are so fastidiously perfect that they feel closed off. The few instances of alterations to original drawings are done in the most discreet and meticulous fashion—inking new lettering, Exact-o-ing around it, and rubber cementing it over the original, eradicating any mistakes or former iterations, rather then illuminating the artists working process or giving a glimpse of works in progress.
For those of you in Chicago, be sure and check out the bustling itinerary of auxiliary programming the museum has lined up in conjunction with the show; in addition to the usual artist talk and curator’s tour, there’s a one-day-only comic fest that will feature a pop-up shop by Quimby’s, animated shorts screened by Eyeworks, on-site works made by Trubble Club, a performance by Manual Cinema, in addition to a panel discussion, workshops and DJ sets.
—Thea Liberty Nichols
(Image on top: Daniel Clowes, Narration of Daniel Clowes' illustration of Chicago in 1978 done from memory as told to Chicago Magazine , July 2013; © Daniel Clowes.)