MoCCA Arts Festival

Review

of an Exhibition

by Becky Houran

Published on April 10, 2013

  • Description:

    Although I had heard of the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, I had no particular inclination to visit it until I happened to pass by the MoCCA Arts Festival this past Sunday. Overcome with curiosity, I paid the reasonable fee of $15 and entered the cavernous main hall of what appeared to be an old ammunitions building down in the Flatiron district. The first thought that came to me as a gazed down several aisles of tables was, “Am I at some kind of convention? Is this really part of a museum?” In confusion I turned to my purchased expo guide and found the mission statements given by MoCCA and the collaborating Society of Illustrators.

    “To promote the understanding and appreciation of comic and cartoon art along with the artistic, cultural, and historical impact of what is the world’s most popular art form.”

    ~ MoCCA
    “To promote the art of illustration, to appreciate its history and evolving nature through exhibition, lectures and education,
    and to contribute the service of its members to the welfare of the community at large.”
    ~ Society of Illustrators

    Upon reading these statements I realized that this was more than just a convention of writers, comics, and illustrators; it was a living, breathing exhibition of art forms that are deeply rooted in our society. Cartoons have documented the political, social and global changes throughout our history and they continue to be a main tool of social commentary today. This festival gives visitors the opportunity to interact directly with the artists they usually view from afar, allowing for dialogue to happen not just between the works and the audience, but also between the artist and the audience.

    I worked my way through the expo much as I would through any museum: I started at one side of the room and worked my way up and down the rows of tables. It was like a museum shop, art studio, discussion table and gallery all combined into one. I would approach a table to first view the work, often never having heard of the artist, then I would pick up and handle the items on display, flipping the through pages and turning objects over in my hands. If I felt the desire to I could even engage with the artist.

    One such instance was at the booth of a fairly well known artist in the online community, Noelle Stevenson. We was able to pick up and examine original drawings and examine them, and speak directly with Ms. Stevenson about her work, asking her about her motivations as an artist. In an average museum experience, only the artist’s work is on display: it cannot be touched, and any questions I have can only be answered by speaking with a docent or by doing my own research. Rarely can I ask the artist herself.

    Another new opportunity that this form of exhibition provides is the chance to become a real patron of the arts, beyond paying the usual museum fees. I was able to choose art that I felt a dialogic and aesthetic connection with and become a supporter of the artist. I was overcome with fascination when I spotted large, intricate copies of several Shakespearean plays, and immediately struck up a conversation with their illustrator, Kevin Stanton. He specialized in hand-cut paper work, and his illustrations were stunningly delicate. This was, according to him, his first big project, and he seemed confident in his work, but unsure where it would take him. However, by the end of our conversation, I, along with several in my group, had purchased the entirety of his stock, and our interest in his work drew attention from other visitors as well. This was an entirely new experience for me, too not only support someone financially, but to also have the ability to share his work with others and promote him.

    A gallery accompanied the art show with works from the collections of both the Society and MoCCA, displaying some of the driving forces behind the comic and illustration tradition. The gallery was simple – it was set up toward the back of the enormous room, enclosed by fabric walls and lit gently with plain overhead lamps. There was one long hallway with alcoves along each side. There was no main label provided, no real explanation of a ‘big idea,’ only the occasional text describing a panel and a brief biography of each featured artist. I was thrown off initially by the lack of an outlined goal, but then I remembered the missions of each institution; to share and explore the impact that illustration and cartoons had on art, culture and society. The pieces where carefully chosen to represent the different periods of history as depicted through these artists. The range was huge, with intense pieces by Miriam Katin to the hysterical works of Arnold Roth. By travelling through this small gallery I was able to place the works of the guest artists at the show in context with the famous artists of the past. Like the panels in the gallery, the festival was full of people commenting and being influenced by the societies of our world. There were a few particular artists that stood out to me. As I mentioned, Miriam Katin’s work is of a heavy nature. A survivor of the Holocaust, Katin retells the story of her and her mother’s escape from Budapest in her recent graphic novel, “We Are on Our Own” (2006). This was displayed nearby several examples of Ken Bald’s work, most prominently illustrations from his 1960s comic “Dr. Kildare,” also focused on the 1940s WWII and its social aftermath. The choice of the curators to feature so many pieces about and influenced by WWII reinforced the idea that times of great social upheaval were, and are, driving forces in the evolution of cartoon and comic art. Of course, a comic is also a traditional conveyor of humor (as the genre title suggests) and the gallery did not fail to provide laughs. Arnold Roth, whose work has frequently graced the cover of The New Yorker, is a famous illustrator known for his satire. On display is a 1978 single panel work titled “Leonardo Da Vinci.” It features Da Vinci, seated at his easel, holding tryouts for his famous “Vitruvian Man.” The nude men who line up to strike the famous outstretched pose display everything but the perfect proportions described by the ancient architect Vitruvius. The simple absurdity, difficult to portray in writing, was enough to make me chuckle aloud. The gallery reminded me of the power comics and illustrations have over the viewers’ emotions. Works like Nora Krug’s “Adolf’s Aberration” can make my jaw tighten and body tense, and Dik Browne’s “Hagar the Horrible” can bring a smile to my face as I remember reading the funny pages every day as a grew up.

    There was nothing opulent or elaborate about the expo, but there did not need to be. The old building had a starkness that did not distract from the artwork and people within it. Simplicity allowed the art to be the main focus. As I walked away from the building I felt that I had gained a greater understanding of the cultural and historic influence of these artists, and also a greater appreciation for the contributions of young illustrators, writers and cartoonists to culture.

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