Kapow! Beating 'Party' to the punch

By Jessica Dawson
Friday, December 31, 2010; C08

Any art aficionado with a pulse and functioning retinas has come upon something from "Party Crashers: Comic Book Culture Invades the Art World" before. The two-pronged exhibition, half on view at Arlington Arts Center and half at Rosslyn's Artisphere, offers much that we already know - and perhaps have already seen - grouped under an exhibition rubric that's been done nearly to death.

Sorry, people, but 2011 comes Saturday. Today, we round out the year by wallowing in the past.

For us, it's not news when museums and galleries treat comics like members of the art-history family. Artists have been playing with mass-market imagery for decades, and institutions have largely embraced it.

(And if you ask this art historian, comics invaded the art world when French cavemen sketched that wounded guy next to the disemboweled bison, circa 15,000 B.C. You know the one.)

Curators Jeffry Cudlin and Cynthia Connolly understand the history of the genre.

Instead of breaking new ground, Cudlin and Connolly parse the details. At Artisphere, Connolly looks at contemporary artists using the visual tropes and themes of comics. At AAC, Cudlin examines comic book artists who muscled their way into galleries. (The curators consider the shows discrete entities.)

Kudos to Cudlin and Connolly for producing a catalogue to accompany this show. Its essays offer a history of the genre's romance with the art world; a tutorial on the definition of adult comics (including that vital differentiation between comics and comix, the "x" denoting "adults only" as opposed to Mini Page); and some uninspired musings by artist Andrei Molotiu, who's in the show (his work is better than his writing).

Taken together, the two prongs of "Party Crashers" offer up a surfeit of artists (29) and artwork - so much so that the eyes may blur. But both prompt enough aha (and ha-ha) moments to be worth your trouble.

That said, dear reader, we present our New Year's gift to you: A short list of "Party Crashers" highlights.

First place

At Artisphere:

I laughed, I wept. Eric Cheevers's "Las Historias Mas Sexy Del Mundo!," a.k.a. "The Sexiest Stories on Earth!," finds Washington indie-band heroes - Ian Svenonius, Melissa Farris, Stewart Lupton - vamping for the camera in a faux-porn telenovela (it's actually a 15-minute 16mm film). Dubbed in Spanish with running English subtitles, these vignettes show our amateur actors miming cliched lead-ins to sexy situations - a woman visiting her gynecologist and requesting special attention; a voyeur peeping at two women hanging out bored and alone. Not-so-happy-ending alert: Cheevers's camera cuts the moment anything vaguely sexy happens. But everyone looks like they had a blast making this film, and Cheevers got the tone exactly right.

At AAC:

His name is Afrodisiac, and he is one fine brother with a sexy swagger and '70s superhero style. The vision of comic artist Jim Rugg, Afrodisiac is a black superhero aping blaxploitation - a conceit within a conceit.

As Cudlin puts it, "Jim Rugg's Afrodisiac is the equivalent of a Quentin Tarantino movie - it's a white artist's take on contemporary attitudes toward blaxploitation from 30 years ago. It's a copy of a copy of a copy - the urban environment Afrodisiac describes doesn't exist." Some of Rugg's characters will look familiar, though - Richard Nixon appears in a cameo. But one thing you won't see here is any extended narratives; Rugg works in fragments. No plot, please, we're artworks.

A sort-of-close second

At Artisphere:

The best works by D. Billy aren't comics, per se, but photographic interventions with comic overtones. He'll used colored tape to mark out a thought bubble on a metal door and then park a pram next to it, and pretend there's something the baby might want to say . . . in this case, "WAAHHH!" Then he takes a photo of it. Clever, clever stuff.

At AAC:

Look, ma, no images! The abstract comics tucked into the center's basement boggle the brain. They're what Cudlin calls "comics for comics' sake." Your mind searches for images to latch onto, but these formalist exercises trip us up every time. Abstractions are presented panel by panel, suggesting a narrative but always frustrating one. If it weren't for the deadly charms of Afrodisiac, these comics would have topped my list.

And finally

At Artisphere:

Iona Rozeal Brown is one of the District's sharpest artists. She's represented by only one picture, which isn't enough. But even here she rises above most of her compatriots. Add one part Japanese ukiyo-e print, one part hip-hop culture, blend and serve.

At AAC:

Dash Shaw's multi-part video - it's told in short chapters - tells the tale of an android who yearns to be human. It's a classic trope, but it's told in sweeping, idiosyncratic images.

Dawson is a freelance writer.

Party Crashers: Comic Book Culture is on view at Arlington Arts Center, 3550 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Wednesday-Friday 1-7 p.m., Saturday-Sunday noon-5 p.m., 703-248-6800, to Jan. 16. www.arlingtonartscenter.org. Part 2 is on view in the Terrace Gallery at Artisphere, 1101 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Monday-Saturday 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m.-6 p.m., 703-875-1101, to Feb. 13. www.artisphere.com. Holiday hours alert: AAC shutters at 4 p.m. Friday and is closed New Year's Day. Artisphere is closed New Year's Day and Sunday.

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