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Cartoons Showcased in Art Exhibit

Institute of Contemporary Art’s ‘Splat, Boom, Pow!’ Thoughtful, Instructive

By Chaitra Chandrasekhar

The Institute of Contemporary Art

“Splat Boom Pow! The Influence of Cartoons in Contemporary Art”

Sept. 17 - Jan. 4

Tues., Wed., Fri., Noon - 5 p.m.; Thurs. Noon - 9 p.m.; Sat. - Sun., 11 a.m. - 5 p.m.

$5 for students and seniors

Free Thursdays after 5 p.m.

The Institute of Contemporary Art opened its latest exhibition, showcasing three generations of contemporary artists who used cartoons in various manifestations to delve into present day issues. Forty artists are featured in the exhibition including Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Mel Ramos, Peter Saul, and Ida Applebroog, among others. On the lower level, along with the main exhibition is the feature of the ICA 2003 artist prize winner Douglas R. Weathersby.

In the title of the exhibition, “Splat, Boom, Pow!” Splat refers to the late 1950s and early 1960s, the beginnings of pop art targeting the consumer-oriented society. Boom reflects the appropriation of symbols and techniques of the mass media (not only the images). Symbols used in this genre include Benday dots (seen predominantly in the work of Lichtenstein), sequential narratives, gestural lines, symbolic use of color, etc. Pow highlights the stress on the influence of personal experiences on contemporary art.

The individual pieces of “Splat, Boom, Pow!” are well selected, providing a wide array of artists and work. The exhibition is like a lesson in art history, giving a taste of artists from the 1950s through today. The underlying genre of cartoons goes a long way in incorporating the theme of all that is being shown.

The works shown reflect some form of the world of comics, be it in their sequential narrative form, fantastic portrayals, jibes at authority or stereotypes, or the influence of mass media in psychology. The role of cartoons and comics in reflecting on changes in society, subtle transformations in the mind of the common man, and larger changes in ideology is reflected in the works displayed. A variety of works with outwardly disconnected themes dot the ICA exhibition. More reflection can reveal the threads of connection.

Among the more famous pieces are the ten screen prints that make up Andy Warhol’s “Myths,” juxtaposed against Lichtenstein’s “Forget It, Forget Me!” Warhol’s dry mockery is contrasted with Lichtenstein’s campy and ironic look at pop art. One interesting exhibit is “Business Barbie” by Liza Lou. Made of wood, wire and beads, this dazzling uber-Barbie is built a little larger-than-life, giving it the sense of guileless irony.

The theme of the glorification of the female form is reflected in some other exhibits. Wonder Woman features in two of the works. Dara Birnbaum’s six-minute video, “Technology/Transformation,” plays on the transformation of the “ordinary” secretary into the superhero. By capturing the core of the Wonder Woman, she reveals the psychology, sexual subtext, and fascination with the fantastic.

Jennifer Zackin’s “Wonder Woman Cosmos” is a compelling piece where she takes a Buddhist symbol of peace and balance, the mandala Kalachakra, and builds it using plastic toy soldiers and policemen surrounding figures of Wonder Woman (slightly oversized). This piece draws on political, religious, traditional elements and takes them into a contemporary perspective. The east village trio of Kenny Scharf, Keith Haring and Jean-Michel Basquiat are showcased with Basquiat’s work on a wood door, Haring’s on a skateboard and Scharf’s fantastic universe representation on canvas. Roger Shimomura’s “Jap’s a Jap” (#2 and #6), Yoshitomo Nara’s “Quiet, Quiet” and Henry Dager’s “The Story of the Vivian Girls” are other compelling exhibits.

Douglas Weathersby is the recipient of the 2003 ICA Artist Prize, given annually to a Boston-area artist for exceptional work. Weathersby combines his work with his business, using it to support his art. Through his enterprise “Environmental Services,” clients hire him to provide services and at the same time making art work in the process. He combines light and shadows and then uses the dirt and dust to make art installations. The one that he has installed at the ICA is a constantly changing one that needs to be redone as it weathers visitors and other vagaries. If you’re lucky, you might catch the artist at work on his exhibit.

All in all, the ICA has hosted a well-conceived look at contemporary art against the premise of comics and cartoons. This trip could be a fun lesson in the history of contemporary art for those unschooled in the field.