Sculpture and Comic Art #2: Chris Ware: Cabinets, Cardboard and Joseph Cornell by Kirstie Gregory

28 Jun

The first connection I made between the work of Chris Ware and the field of sculpture was probably the simplest, or most literal. In one of the saddest extended stories in a book full of extended, pitiful episodes, the young Jimmy Corrigan almost makes friends with a cheerful Italian boy, pays a visits to his house, and meets his father, “who seemed so kindly, thoughtful and gentle… In short, unlike any grown-up I’d ever met before”. [1] Jimmy is enchanted by the family, particularly the father and his iron-toy workshop, and entranced by a previously undiscovered skill – he learns to fashion a miniature horse from beeswax – before being ignominiously removed from the house by his grim and joyless father. Despite this, Jimmy waits hopefully for his new friend to bring him the finished sculpted toy, imagining he can use it to impress and ‘win’ a girl he admires. The horse turns out to be tragic, a lumpish half-a-horse, much to the amusement of the other boys, and (as Ware twists the dagger into his hero’s heart), the adored female object of his affections. The pathetic non-sculpture is over the course of a few pages a symbol of friendship, a talisman of hope, the creative spirit incarnate, an amulet which wards off harsh reality, and ultimately, a broken dream – certainly a powerful narrative device.

Chris Ware’s body of work is a gift to the subject of comics and sculpture. I have not read any direct quotation from Ware regarding the influence of Joseph Cornell on his 3-D work, but I cannot imagine this is an original comparison. There are both formal and thematic connections, a notable drive for experimentation, as well as a marked interest and influence back and forth between popular culture and fine art, the junk shop and the art object, the toy shop and the vitrine. The example of Cornell’s work which perhaps has the strongest affinity with one of Ware’s is Untitled (Medici Slot Machine), 1942. I have no knowledge that Ware has seen this work, but it would sit very well alongside his Acme Book Dispenser, 1990. In addition, both small assemblages could be effectively evoked by the poetic manner in which Cornell describes the relationship between his boxes and their ‘penny arcade’ inspirations:

One might assemble, assort, and arrange into a cabinet – the contraption kind of the amusement resorts with endless ingenuity of effect, worked by coin and plunger, or brightly coloured pinballs – travelling inclined runways – starting in motion compartment after compartment with a symphony of mechanical magic of sight and sound borrowed from the motion picture art – into childhood – into fantasy – through the streets of New York – through tropical skies. [2]

Another interesting connection was brought to my attention in the same exhibition catalogue essay by Carter Ratcliff, with the author’s observation that “each of Cornell’s works is joined by its image-chains to other works”, resulting, writes Ratcliff, from the artist’s “obsessive desire for series.” [3] Of course the necessity for thinking and working in series is not specific to Ware among comic artists, rather it indicates a broader connection between Cornell, sequential art, framing devices and also, more tangentially perhaps, a link to issues of collecting and the collectible. This commitment to sequence and series is most strongly represented in Cornell’s ‘grid-boxes’ – works whose integral structure is a ‘grid’ of smaller boxes within the main framing mechanism, these internal grids, or panels, are sometimes left blank, sometimes carefully display a tiny object – truly a ‘missing link’ between comics and sculpture.

To turn from form to function, although I am wary of comparing Ware’s work with the majority of kinetic sculpture, as regards both appearance and intention, there is one Paul McCarthy kinetic installation, Bavarian Kick, 1986-1993, which has something of both the tin-toy appearance and unsettling weirdness of Ware’s Quimbies the Mouse, 1993, and Sparky the Singing Cat, 1990. All three works’ central protagonists are distinctly odd and unashamedly cartoonish, both in appearance and action, as if the maker is trying to solve the impossible puzzles of art and life by dispensing with pretensions and sophistication and adopting a haphazard Frankenstein approach. Curator Katia Schurl’s catalogue text summarises McCarthy’s wider concerns, “often it is the effect of taboos and clichés that McCarthy exploits, e.g. to expose the American Dream as hypocrisy or denigrate supposed middle-class values such as family or respect for authority.” [4] Ware does not quite ‘expose’ or ‘denigrate’, but with characters such as Jimmy Corrigan, Rusty Brown and Big Tex he certainly questions the facades and mores which people and families construct, the wisdom of elders and the essential fragilities of social connections. I would otherwise shy away from further connections with kinetic art as a genre – Ware’s moveable sculptures have far more in common with hand-crafted children’s toys, and would be more at home in an eccentric toy-shop than a white-cube art gallery.

A final sculptural piece which I would like to refer to is Ware’s Potato Man’s House, 1989. This construction (and the natural framing device provided by the house structure) seems particularly attractive to comics artists – perhaps as it can both develop a narrative and reveal multiple viewpoints at once – two others who have used the house as the fundamentals of a sculpture are Canadian Seth, and his models for his fictional city, and London based comic artist Karrie Fransman, whose Behind the Mirror model featured in the 2010 exhibition at London Print Studio, That’s Novel: Lifting Comics from the Page. Daniel Raeburn has drawn attention to Art Spiegelman’s observation that:

‘story’ descended from the mediaeval Latin ‘historia’, which meant ‘picture’ as well as the horizontal division of a building. Latin users derived this conflation from the mediaeval practice of placing a picture in each window of a building, especially in churches. A storey was literally a row of coloured pictures. [5]

 As well as unique sculptural works, Ware has produced, or been involved in the production of, some highly desirable collectibles. He does however display disgust and cynicism for this side of the comics ‘industry’ through his character Rusty Brown – the epitome of the worst kind of collector, immoral and pathetic, and a clever warning to any potential Ware fanatics. Rusty is succinctly summed up by writer Andrew Arnold as “a nasty collector of pop-culture detritus.” [6] Rusty routinely cheats his only friend out of memorabilia and has apparently ruined his own life through this single-minded addiction to plastic pretend people. Curiously, and again in common with Cornell, Ware is himself a committed collector, however, not of box-fresh memorabilia, and perhaps this is the important point. In an interview with Beth Nissen, Ware apparently passionately declares:

I collect old sheet music, old instruments – especially banjos, phonographic cylinders, old comic strips, toys. And old photo albums – I find them in thrift shops and junk shops, and I think to myself, Why would anyone do that? Throw something this fantastic away? [7]

Both Ware and Cornell, judging from the latter’s similar recollections of solo forages around the thrift shops of New York, are actually collectors of what most people would throw away, and if not throw away, then certainly not revere; they see new possibilities and beauty in commercially worthless items, whereas Rusty Brown and his ilk elevate the materially (and spiritually) cheaply produced to skyscraper prices.

One cannot but notice in the appearance of Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (in its graphic novel format), Ware’s awareness of the book as moveable, portable object – it must be manipulated in order to be read, as well as, and this is regular habit of Ware’s, containing more than one cut-out model which the reader could potentially cut-out and keep. As well as being conscious of comic book as object, and as potential co-producer of cut-out object, Ware is confident and well-practised in manipulating traditional publishing techniques, in his own words he describes how “you can look at a comic as you would look at a structure that you could turn around in your mind and see all sides of at once,” [8] as well as describing comics as “a map of the fourth dimension”. [9] He is remarkably aware of the potency and potential of space and time passing, temporal space – putting oneself in space, a story receiving space, imagery in limited space – concerns perhaps most evocatively brought into focus in the following observation, again from Raeburn:

Ware appended to his first novel a corrigendum in which he noted that the four or five hours it takes to read his first book is the same amount of time that he ever spent with his father. The book itself, he concluded, encloses the same quantity of physical matter as the urn holding his father’s ashes. [10]

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.

[1] – Chris Ware, Jimmy Corrigan: the Smartest Kid on Earth, Pantheon Books, 2000.

[2] – Carter Ratcliff, “Joseph Cornell: Mechanic of the Ineffable”, in Kynaston Shine (ed), Joseph Cornell, The museum of Modern Art, New York, 1980, p.46.

[3] – Ibid, pp. 47-48.

[4] – Katia Schurl in Moving Parts: Forms of the Kinetic, Peter Pakesch and Guido Magnaguagno (eds), Verlag der Buchhandlung, Walter König, Cologne, 2004, p.68.

[5] – Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware, Laurence King Publishing Limited, 2007, p. 26.

[6] – Andrew Arnold, “The Depressing Joy of Chris Ware”,, 27 November 2001 [,9565,185722,00.html]. Accessed June 24 2011.

[7] – Beth Nissen, “Transcript: An Interview with Chris Ware”,, 3 October 2000. []. Accessed June 24 2011.

[8] – Daniel Raeburn, Chris Ware, p.25.

[9] – Ibid, p. 21.

[10] – Ibid, p.15.


3 responses to “Sculpture and Comic Art #2: Chris Ware: Cabinets, Cardboard and Joseph Cornell by Kirstie Gregory

  1. Corey

    2011/06/28 at 11:10

    Since the Art Institute of Chicago owns almost 40 Cornell boxes, and since Chris Ware was a student there, I’d say it’s more than likely that he is very familiar with Cornell’s work.


    • Benjamin

      2011/07/15 at 21:00

      Daniel Raeburn’s 2004 Yale UP monograph, _Chris Ware_, indicates that Ware “reveres” Cornell and includes a picture of the shadowbox Ware has built loosely based on JC’s example. DR also devoted an issue of his fanzine, _The Imp_, to Ware in 1999, featuring a two-column side-note on Cornell. There he notes that “Ware has fashioned in his living room a shrine of sorts to honor Joseph Cornell”–“a wooden bookcase filled with books about Cornell, aging photographs, and Cornell-inspired pieces given Chris by fellow admirers . . . arranged so that they touch each other, just so, almost as carefully as Cornell arranged the ephemera with which he composed his own, three-dimensional collages.”



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