Sunday, April 29, 2012

UH MFA Thesis Exhibition part 1: Comic Con!

by Robert Boyd

Nighthawks at the Last Supper--a comic convention inside an art exhibit

The 2012 UH MFA thesis show included, as always, a variety of artists working in a variety of media. One perennial problem with this is that some kinds of art are not particularly conducive to being exhibited in a gallery. Because of the Blaffer Gallery's renovations, the thesis show this year is at Diverse Works, which I think is a smaller space, which made the exhibition challenges even greater.

Ted Closson manning his table

But new MFA Ted Closson threw a huge wrench in the works by deciding to hold an alternative comics convention on opening night within the space of the MFA Thesis exhibit. He called it Nighthawks at the Last Supper and invited a variety of cartoonist/self-publishers from Houston and other Texas locations to set up tables and hawk their wares. Closson himself is a cartoonist of high ambition. He's working on a graphic novel called The Lorica. His MFA was in service of his comics work, which is a little bizarre given that UH doesn't have a program for this.

Tedd Closson, The Lorica issue 2 cover, self-published comic

Since his work consists of comics pages that are, after all, meant to be read, how does he display them in a gallery? This is especially true given that his works are composed at least partially electronically, and the finished pages exist as computer files. Over the years, comics artists have developed a variety of display strategies to deal with this issue. But Closson ignored all that and decided to create a performance instead.

Another view of Nighthawks at the Last Supper

Specifically, he created a relational performance. I know all you au courant art lovers know that relational art is the most modern iteration of performance. But for comics fans who might have wandered over, let me explain. Relational art is performance that has nothing to do with shamanic practices, with shock, with endurance, or with theater. Relational aesthetics, according to the coiner of the term Nicolas Bourriard, is "a set of artistic practices which take as their theoretical and practical point of departure the whole of human relations and their social context, rather than an independent and private space." Perhaps the most prominent artist working in this mode is Rirkrit Tiravanija, and his best-known works have involved cooking meals in galleries where anyone could come in and help themselves. (I happen to like this kind of performance a lot, which is why I included Jorge Galvan's El Dinersito in Pan y Circos last year.)

Deon Robinson's table

You can see where I'm going here. In the world of comics, the comics convention is historically the most important way for comics creators, dealers, and readers to interact socially. It's so important that it has evolved into several types of conventions, ranging from big corporate commercial conventions like San Diego Comic-Con to a variety of small-scale festivals aimed at small presses and self-publishers, like MOCCA Fest, which is going on this weekend in New York. Closson has created his own self-publisher comics festival within the context of the gallery. And within this space, gallery goers had the opportunity to act like comics fans--perusing the tables, chatting with the artists, buying comics, etc. It was an audacious use of Diverse Works. My feeling was that it was a success for both the comics artists who came and set up tables and for the gallery visitors.

More of the crowd at Nighthawks at the Last Supper, including Bill Davenport in pink and white

Now I could probably write about the collapsing of high and low art, or the fraught relationship between comics art and contemporary fine art. But these issues, while interesting, seem pretty secondary to the relational performance here. Except for the location, the performance was more-or-less identical to a "real" comics convention. When you eat Tiravanija's curry or Jorge Galvan's tacos, you are not "performing" in the sense of acting--you are eating actual yummy food. Likewise, when you peruse and buy comics at Nighthawks at the Last Supper, an actual interaction is taking place.

So how did I participate in this performance? I bought comics, natch. Here's what I got.

Various artists, Houston Zinefest 2012 Compilation

Jarrod Perez, Screw Comics number 2, 2010, comic book

Jarrod Perez, center