Saturday, March 30, 2013

Comics at the Emergency Room

Robert Boyd

I mentioned in my last post that Comics: Works from the Collection of Robert Boyd is still on view at the Emergency Room gallery at Rice. I hope readers will indulge me as I publish a few installation shots.

The Emergency Room has a very cool neon sign. It's called "The Emergency Room" because it is all about showing solo work and installations by emerging artists in the Houston area.

So what are a bunch of old comics pages doing there? Some of these artists could indeed be thought of as "emerging," but about half of them are dead. All the pieces come from my personal collection, so Chris Sperandio suggested the way to think of it was as art from an emerging collector.

That's flattering, I guess, but feels a little weird. All I did was to acquire this work. It's not that big a deal. Instead, I think that we keep the idea of "emerging" when we think about comics as an emerging art form. That's an arguable notion for an art that has been around since the early 19th century, but it is emerging into the consciousness of the art world. There are a few artists who have gallery representation and whose work is showed by museums. But within the art world, there is little institutional support for comics. As far as I know, the MFAH (and its many counterparts around the nation) are not buying up pages of comics art.

So what, one might ask? Comics is way outside the mission of a museum like the MFAH. Sure, but consider that the MFAH collects furniture and jewelry and decorative objects and films many other items that some might suggest are not capital "A" Art. (The retired longtime director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art--and former director of the MFAH--Philippe de Montebello said that the Met shows "every category of art in every medium from every part of the world during every epoch of recorded time.") The same is true with other museums all over the country. So from where I sit, this is still a blind spot for art institutions in the United States. (And sorry if I'm picking on you, MFAH. You know I love you.)

Anyway, it has been a personal mission of mine to bring the art world and the comics world closer together in whatever small way I can. That began with Misfit Lit at the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle in 1992 (whence it traveled to LACE and several other venues). It continued with Walpurgis Afternoon (a two-person show featuring work by Marc Bell and Jim Woodring) in 2011 at Lawndale.

art by Peter Bagge

So with this show, I am again storming the castle wall of the art world armed with a peashooter. But eventually an army of critics, artists and curators each with her own peashooter will shoot enough peas to crack that wall. And maybe then we'll cease having shows like Splat Boom Pow! The Influenceof Comics in Contemporary Art (2003) at the CAMH, shows that honor comics by featuring one actual comics artist out of the 40 artists whose work was included.

clockwise from the top left: Jim Woodring, David Collier, Skip Wiliamson, Alison Bechdel, Alison Bechdel, Skip Williamson, Dylan Horrocks, David Lasky

But mostly it was a chance to show off a little bit of my collection and have some bragging rights. It's up through April 11. I'd be honored if readers of this blog would come see it.

clockwise from the top left: Gilbert Hernandez, Harry Tuthill, Harold Gray, Jaime Hernandez

The gallery is on what most people would call the second floor of Sewell Hall (but because they start counting floors from a sub-basement, it's officially on the fourth floor). The hours are Thursday, 5-7:00 p.m., Saturday, 11-3:00 p.m. and by appointment.

art by Walt Kelly



  1. Since I invited you to be a part of the Emergency Room, I thought I'd take a few minutes to add my comments to your post. I do have some experience with comics as art. Since 1995, my partner, Simon Grennan, and I have been making comic books as art works for museums and art centers in the US, UK and Europe (Most notably, we made a book called "Modern Masters," that was co-published by DC Comics and the Museum of Modern Art in 2002.)

    The seeds for these efforts were planted by Kurt Varnedo's "High and Low" show in 1990. In this show, Varnedo presented comics as the source for high art without examining the value of comics as things in themselves. Ironically, it was a former Rice professor and one of your old teachers, Thomas McEvilley, who famously called Varnedo on the carpet for taking a similar ahistorical approach to the indigenous arts of Africa, the Americas et al. I was aghast that comics were pushed into this role as 'source' for acceptable, modern art, unworthy of scrutiny or examination as things with their own history. This appalling and backwards attitude towards the form persists. To my knowledge, McEvilley never stepped up to defend comics in a similar manner. In fact, I was at a lecture at Princeton University in 1999 where critic Rosalind Krauss called comics an irredeemable art form. (As a side note, I never could stomach those October folks. As much as I wanted to like their Marxist critiques, they ultimately served their own power-building agendas, writing about art and artists who would further their own career goals, saying or doing whatever would slide them up the ladder of academia and art world power building. They have a practiced alacrity for throwing things under the bus.)

    Your modesty aside, I *do* see your participating in the Emergency Room as an emerging curator/collector as having value to our students at Rice, and in Houston in general. Curator, as a profession, isn't really an emerging field in Houston. Submerging is probably a more apt description. Whatever curation happens here is a byproduct of the need to package or organize a certain amount of existing stock into harmonious display strategies. The number of thoughtful organizations of materials that spring out of a specific idea or series of ideas, can be counted on the fingers of one hand. My efforts to find someone who aspires to work with ideas, as opposed to someone pumping the last few gallons out of a dry well were met with near failure. In meeting you, and discussing your experience with, and passion for comics lined up perfectly with my own interests. Our students were given an experience with a collector who also applies a knowledgeable and watchful intelligence to the objects beyond the norm for this town, and for the medium of comics.

    The show is down now, probably only witnessed by less than one-hundred people during its run. However, the value of the show, both as comics as things of their own value, and as a suitable medium that can support a larger intellectual thesis will have a continued impact. I know that you studied with McEviley, and although I never met the man, I think he'd be proud of you. With this show, in your own modest way, you're doing what he did. Namely, expanding the field of thought to include that which has previously been trampled under foot. It was a terrific show, a great effort, and we're happy to have had the opportunity to present it.
    --Christopher Sperandio (sperandio at

  2. Thanks, Chris. The High & Low show was truly 'Primitivism' part 2. McEvilley didn't write a major criticism of it, but by that time he was editor of Contemporanea, a slick, short-lived art magazine. So he assigned two critics the tasks of eviscerating it. (One was Dore Ashton, I recall.)I was living in Seattle at the time and we were all quite excited by the show (Robert Crumb in MOMA? About time!), and when we got the catalog, I eagerly took it home and read it. Aside from being riddled with errors of scholarship, it was condescending in just the way you mention. So I wrote a nasty review of the catalog in which I questioned their hierarchy and made a plea for art that was neither in the "big box" (museums) or the little box ("TV") but that was in the grimy plain between--grassroots art: zines, alternative comics, cassette trading, film clubs, etc.

    I still feel that way. Not that I hate the big box and the little box (I spent some quality time yesterday in a big box looking at beautiful Forrest Bess paintings, and plan to spend some intimate moments with the little box tonight watching Mad Men); but I feel like there are lots of very worthwhile aspects of culture that those two boxes don't contain and barely acknowledge.