The Henry Moore Institute is a world-recognised centre for the study of sculpture in the heart of Leeds. An award-winning exhibitions venue, research centre, library and sculpture archive, the Institute hosts a year-round programme of exhibitions, conferences and lectures, as well as developing research and publications, to expand the understanding and scholarship of historical and contemporary sculpture. The Institute is part of The Henry Moore Foundation, which was set up by Moore in 1977 to encourage appreciation of the visual arts, especially sculpture.
The ‘Sculpture & Comic Art’ Call for Papers and conference, part of the wider Comics Forum 3 day event, has been developed by the Henry Moore Institute’s Research Programme. The Research Programme is central to the activities of the Institute, aiming to encourage research into sculpture both within its walls and without, acting as a hub to develop a network of people with a particular interest in sculpture.
As historical and theoretical interest in comic art continues to grow, the Institute plans to explore the relationship between sculpture and comic art, looking at how formal and thematic concerns migrate, and have migrated across the last hundred years or so, between these practices. By using the phrase ‘comic art’ we mean to be inclusive of cartoons, comics, comix and graphic novels, and although examples of very early sequential visual art such as Trajan’s Column and the Bayeaux Tapestry are of interest, our focus is more linked to developments and connections which have emerged since the late nineteenth century, perhaps beginning around the time of Rodolphe Töpffer (1799-1846), an artist synonymous with the beginnings of modern comics.
Comic figuration is a regular influence on much modern and contemporary sculpture – allowing the body to be reinvented and restaged in new and fantastical ways beyond anatomical norms, and allowing sculptors to use a visual shorthand embracing exaggerated silhouettes, strange dramatic perspectives and subtle to exaggerated caricature. In addition to caricature, and its sort-of opposite, the ‘simplified reality’ style explained succinctly by Scott McCloud in Understanding Comics, comic art has also perhaps given sculptors and installation artists (such as Tom Friedman and Jake and Dinos Chapman) inspiration and ‘licence’ to push the boundaries of their work into the grotesque and ultra-violent.
By the same token we can also find the direct appropriation of comic and cartoon characters (often animals or superheroes) in recent installational practices, including those of Paul McCarthy, Maurizio Cattelan, Mark Dion and Thomas Schütte. This is always a choice by the artist heavy with significance, however intentions and outcomes are massively various, with contemporary artists Philippe Parreno and Pierre Huyghe highlighting issues of ownership and identity in their collaborative project ‘No Ghost Just a Shell’, for which an anonymous Manga character was bought from a Japanese design agency and given a new ‘life’, or Claes Oldenburg in the 1960s turning the shape of Mickey Mouse’s head into a Mouse Museum, literally elevating comic figuration into the realm of high art, as well as commenting on consumer culture and the allure of the collectible.
Such co-options are, in turn, echoed in sculpture’s intriguing place in many comics and graphic novels, where it is often given special powers and dynamic plot-determining roles within the visual sequential narratives constructed. From Tintin and Asterix to Jason Lutes’ Berlin: City of Stones, and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis, the sculptural object is frequently employed as a potent or poignant visual device to heighten tension, turn the plot or embody a character’s emotions. Sculpture has also been caricatured within comic art since the earliest cartoon strips and tensions between high and low art emphasised.
The role of narrative (sculptural and sequential) is significant, within and between the ‘gutter’ and the gallery – the way we move through a story or installation, book or gallery, the choices the reader or viewer makes, or thinks they make, and the creative manipulations of writers, illustrators, sculptors and curators. Also tied into this are issues of spatial boundaries and the links and significance when creators from both genres break with convention and lead their audiences down new narrative paths. Comic writers and artists who have worked with unusual narrative and spatial techniques must be plentiful, and examples which spring to mind initially include Chris Ware’s disturbing, disjointed narrative in Jimmy Corrigan, the Smartest Kid on Earth and what Paul Gravett describes as “the quaking panel borders” in Raymond Briggs’ When the Wind Blows, representing “the impact of the bomb”.
Finally, as sculptors have turned to comic art, so artists who began their practice in two dimensions (such as Robert Crumb, Paul McDevitt, David Shrigley and Chris Ware) have turned to three-dimensions. What does examining this shift and the works produced tell us about the links/lacunae between the mediums and the reasons and choices behind these different forms? This move from 2D to 3D is also relevant to issues of the power and popularity of the small-scale figurine, and the collectible’s standing as a three-dimensional demonstration of characters originally articulated in two dimensions, whether on the page or in animated film. The attraction of the figurine is applicable to both the comic and the sculptural spheres as is the wider subject of collecting.
In future blog entries I hope to focus more closely on some of these subjects – but please note these ‘categories’ are not exclusive and we very much welcome papers which approach the relationship between sculpture and comic art from different perspectives.
Kirstie Gregory is the co-convenor of Sculpture and Comic Art, taking place at Leeds Art Gallery on the 16th of November as part of Comics Forum 2011.
 – Gravett, Paul, Graphic Novels: Stories to Change Your Life, London: Aurum Press Limited, 2005. p.149.