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A Review By: BBC Collective

The following review of the Cult Fiction exhibition by Abi Bliss appeared on the BBC Collective website on 24 May 2007.

The Ninth Art. Roy Lichtenstein has a lot to answer for. The best-known example of the art world’s dalliance with comics, his famous Pop Art images of crashing fighter jets and heartbroken women, exploited the idea of the form as immediate, lowbrow and crassly simplifying the world. In reply, the rippling muscles and elaborately draped cloak of an Alex Ross Superman suggest a strong urge to emphasise that he’s spent as much time studying classical statues as any proper artist.

This unhealthy relationship of condescension and cap-doffing between “fine” art and comics (whose artists traditionally moonlight in the “commercial” sector of graphics and illustration) still exists, but it’s not what you’ll find on the walls at Cult Fiction. The exhibition showcases leading creators such as R Crumb, Posy Simmonds and Killoffer, alongside artists who see beyond brash colour dots and speech bubbles. These artists engage with comics’ unique language and innovations, as well as their balancing of word and image, and their sophisticated approach to narrative and viewpoint. They don’t call it the ninth art in France for nothing.

The angles from which the artists intersect with comics are as varied as the comics themselves. Joe Sacco’s Palestine and Julie Doucet’s New York Diary both grapple with thorny political and emotional issues, and how the artist is always implicated when representing those issues. This echoes across the unsettlingly stiff pencilwork of Olivia Plender’s narratives and Chad McCail’s chilling future visions, pitched between aeroplane safety instructions and Ladybird’s Key Words reading books. The blank expressions and pathetic fates of Jon Pylypchuk’s elongated fabric animals could be a mordant underground strip brought to life, whilst David Shrigley’s doodles and sculptures tap into the one-shot visual humour of newspaper cartoons.

Of course, it’s not a one-way traffic of inspiration. Melinda Gebbie’s voluptuous, transgressive sensuality in Lost Girls (written by Alan Moore) pays its debts as much to Art Nouveau’s sinuous lines as to smutty Tijuana Bibles. And, whilst artists such as Plender produce comics as a way of bypassing gallery walls, many “real” comics revel in their status as art object, carefully printed on quality paper stock in strictly limited runs. Comics and fine art may sometimes inhabit vastly different worlds, but at least these days when they meet they have a little more to say to each other than “Ka-boom!”.


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