Wednesday, July 14, 2021

Homologous Cartoons

Robert Boyd

In the 19th century, mathematicians invented a new branch of mathematics, topology, the mathematics of shapes. They turned ways of thinking about shapes into a kind of algebra. One of the most important concepts in topology is "homology". Without getting into the technical aspects (which I can't claim to understand), if a shape has a certain characteristic, as long as it maintains that characteristic, that shape can be extremely deformed but remain homologous. A famous example is that a donut shape (known as a torus) is homologous to a teacup, in that they are both shapes with one hole. 

Another homologous shape to a torus is a drinking straw. 

I thought about homology when I saw Russell Etchen's exhibit, About Six Thousand Five Hundred Rocks, About One Thousand Five Hundred People, and Some Clover, at Bill Arning Exhibition. Etchen, who lives in Los Angeles, was a well-known figure in the Houston scene for several years, belonging to the drawing club Sketch Klubb (I'm not sure they were ever organized enough to be a "collective"), operating the great alternative bookstore Domy, and designing publications for artist Mark Flood. I first met Etchen when I moved back to Houston and worked for ADVision, the long-defunct anime company. He was a designer on their slick magazine, Newtype. In 2016, Etchen painted a mural on the north exterior wall of Lawndale Art Center consisting of hundreds of grey, cartoony rocks with white google eyes. His current exhibit seems to be a direct descendant of this earlier project. 

Russell Etchen, some faces surrounded by rocks

The show consists of drawings of faces and rocks (with eyes). Some are drawn on paper, some are painted in the wall of the gallery, and a bunch are printed in a zine titled About 3400 People

So where does homology come in? What Etchen shows is that if you have a certain consistent elements in a face, it can be almost endlessly warped and still be recognizable. This is especially apparent in the the zine. 

For example, the faces on the right-hand page reproduced above all read as the same face, even though the have drastically different shapes. The Beatles-esque haircut, the little round sunglasses, the triangle nose, the open mouth with top teeth showing, and three red dimples are repeated in every face, and it is the repetitions of these elements that work on us to make all the faces the same. Every page of his zine works the same way. Despite their obvious variety, we recognize all faces on each page as the same.

This exercise demonstrates a truth about cartooning--that it is inherently different from naturalistic drawing. A cartoon character, in order to be recognizable, has to maintain certain design elements, but beyond that, the cartoonist can do just about anything. This is easy to see when you look at how popular cartoon characters have changed over time, yet remained instantly recognizable.

Charles Schulz, Charlie Brown though the years

If you are Charles Schulz, as long as you draw a figure with a round head, a tuft of hair, and a zig-zag stripe on his shirt, he is always Charlie Brown. It doesn't matter how shaky Schulz's lines got toward the end of his life.

Etchen's exercise of drawing faces this way is a perfect example of the power of cartooning. I don't know if he intended this or not, but to me, this is one of the best demonstrations of the difference between cartooning and drawing I've ever seen. I've mentioned in earlier blog posts that a lot of contemporary artists make use of characters that they go back to over and over again. For example, Trenton Doyle Hancock and JooYoung Choi. This requires that they develop homologous characteristics so that we can always recognize the characters. 

Etchen's exhibit is up through the end of August, and you can buy his 'zine there for $6 (cheap!).

1 comment:

  1. Saw this show today and could have stared for hours comparing pattern structures. Thank you for your description and visual examples to distinguish between homology and topology.