Sculpture and Comic Art #3: Comic Appropriation in Modern and Contemporary Art by Kirstie Gregory

25 Jul

Its ostensibly ‘innocent’ form allows for the dissemination and articulation of difficult ideas in an accessible manner, providing a platform for political and social commentary as well as a vehicle for escapism, introspection and deviance. The comic book’s appeal to contemporary artists is rooted in this visual language and its potential for pictorial storytelling [1]

The appropriation of comic figuration and manipulation of the same by modern and contemporary sculptors is extremely common. Mickey Mouse makes numerous appearances, Takashi Murakami surely wouldn’t exist as an artist (or would be an extremely different one) without the influence of Manga imagery, Pinocchio has been taken out of his Disney-style fairytale by both Maurizio Cattelan and Paul McCarthy, and use has been made of the small scale figurine made popular by the comic book industry by artists as diverse as Jake and Dinos Chapman and Thomas Schütte. One of the most interesting artists to use comic themes, and one whose work is most difficult to categorise, is LA based artist Mike Kelley. Kelley has made installation art work based on the fictional city of Kandor carried round in a bottle by Superman, as well as using his partially complete set of the adult comic Sex to Sexty in his Missing Time Color Exercises (1998) – part-Mondrian, part Ellsworth Kelly, part personal response/rebuke to art school colour exercises. Mickey Mouse is better known through the medium of film than the comic strip, but animation, the process of telling a sequential visual narrative through (originally) hand-inked ‘cells’, is arguably the conjoined twin of the printed comic strip and the concept of the cartoon character is synonymous in the modern Western mind with Mickey Mouse. Mickey Mouse Weekly was also the first British comic based on American characters (first published in 1936 it ran for over 10 years).[2] In the latter half of the twentieth century two artists on either side of the Atlantic used this iconic image in very different ways…

For me perhaps the most unexpected appearance of Mickey Mouse is in British sculptor Michael Sandle’s A Twentieth Century Memorial, (1971-78). Sandle is a sculptor apparently not concerned with fitting in with contemporary artistic trends – this disarming figurative sculpture is not something one can imagine anyone else making – its appearance has the jarring effect of combining familiar, easily recognisable forms to make up an alarming whole. The sculpture has a wooden, circular base, with a 570cm diameter. On this are placed cast bronze elements 140cm at their highest.[3] It is an imposing structure. Three large (human scale? unfortunately I have not seen this work first-hand) bronze mouse heads are placed around the wooden circle, one on a cushion, but the main structure comprises a large human skeleton, with a mouse’s head, ‘manning’ a machine gun.

Marco Livingstone describes the conception of the sculpture as follows:

A Twentieth Century Memorial was initially conceived as an indictment of the United States and of the war that it was than waging in Vietnam. Mickey Mouse was chosen as a symbol for America, not as a lovable cartoon character but in the slang sense of simple-minded and inconsequential. In the course of researching and making the sculpture, Sandle not only witnessed the departure of the Americans from Vietnam, but became aware of the historical background of the war and Britain’s role in it. It no longer seemed tenable to single out just the United States, so he changed the title as part of an upgrading of the sculpture as a monument to general stupidity and futility.[4]

Sandle went on to use the head of Mickey Mouse in further sculptures in particular reference to Joseph Goebbels as an exemplar not only for the horrors of war but also for his mastery of propaganda; Sandle saw the manipulated Mickey Mouse head as an accurate symbol for what was becoming a global industry of manipulation and military power.

Across the Atlantic Claes Oldenburg, a Swedish born sculptor who moved to the US at an early age, was developing a very different work with an interesting synchronicity. Oldenburg’s Mouse Museum was a long time in the planning, but the artist was given the opportunity to realise his idea at Documenta 5 in 1972.[5] Oldenburg’s interest in consumer collectibles had developed over a long period, coinciding with an interest in the display of both art objects and mass-produced ‘shop window’objects. Oldenburg was himself an avid collector and the objects which he placed inside the Mouse Museum were a mix of his own small-scale works, objects altered in some way by the artist, and items simply found or purchased -‘unaltered’ objects. Oldenburg was interested in objects both for their nostalgic and their formal qualities, of which the Mickey Mouse head itself is a perfect example. Oldenburg’s artistic collaborator and wife Coosje van Bruggen describes the design of the museum:

The design … is derived from a correspondence between a basic geometric form and a practical object whose form has been determined by its function. The resulting images are easily translated into architectural constructions … The form of the Mouse Museum is based on Oldenburg’s Geometric Mouse, a combination of the early film camera and a stereotypical cartoon mouse.[6]

At a similar time Oldenburg was working on The Ray Gun Wing building – a work with the same museological conceit as the Mouse Museum and a similar comic-book history within its most basic figuration. The Ray Gun was very much one of the chief weapons of choice for comic book heroes of the artist’s childhood; both the Mouse Museum and The Ray Gun Wing are heavily indebted to comic forms and the emotional content which becomes embedded within those forms.

An artist who has appropriated familiar comic characters very differently, over a lengthier time period, is LA based artist Paul McCarthy. Appropriated figures include numerous Disney images, the Olive Oyl character from the Popeye comic strip, the mascot/cover star of Mad magazine Alfred E Neuman, as well as recurrently, the caricatured image created by rubber masks of among others, George Bush and Osama Bin Laden. It is difficult to say how much it matters in McCarthy’s work exactly who the comic character is. Sometimes, as in the performance/video work Pinocchio Pipenose Householddilemma (1994) in which the father figure apparently turns on his son, it adds a level of meaning. In other instances, as in the Olive Oyl performances of the early 1980s, all this individual seems to add to the associations of the cartoon is that her name fits as a pleasing literal pun for the olive oil generously, nauseatingly and frequently used by McCarthy.

Ralph Rugoff explains this use of masks (which extends to more generalised caricature in McCarthy’s oeuvre) as follows:

McCarthy’s use of masks invoked a stereotyped identity, submerging his individuality in the anonymity of mass production and mass culture … it also endowed McCarthy’s appearance with an uncanny hybrid character, part human and part cartoon.[7]

In an early forerunner to Mike Kelley’s unmediated appropriation of the comic in Missing Time Color Piece, very early in his career McCarthy made work by simply scribbling his signature over Playboy cartoons. McCarthy’s subversive tendencies are very subtle here – perhaps by casually autographing the cartoons he is underlining the casual acceptance of moral slippage and misogyny in US society, perhaps he is poking fun at comic artists who judge their slight work so valuable a prominent signature is necessary. The political and sociological meanings behind these works run deep both in terms of the artist’s personal history and the multiple layers of meaning in the art. McCarthy himself is quite clear about his motivations, “I am interested in the appropriation of the aesthetic of Disneyland and purposefully abstracting and distorting the images. As early as the late 1970s, I was interested in Disney and fascism, children and conditioning, authority and patriarchy – a natural, unnatural mix.”[8]

The approach of Pierre Huyghe and Phillipe Parreno to the cartoon, or rather in this instance Anime figure, is very different from all of the above, in that they appear to be more interested in removing their character from original context than hanging onto associations. In their 1999 project, No Ghost Just a Shell, Huyghe and Parreno purchased the copyright to a figure from a Japanese design agency which specialised in developing figures for the manga industry. The figure bought, ‘Annlee’ was a very simply developed model, and therefore very cheap. The artists thought of Annlee as a sign, rather than a person, a sign whose history was prolonged by this purchase, as the cheap nature of the character meant it would have had a very limited life in the manga world (no special powers, no particular strengths built in by the design agency). The project title refers to Masamune Shirow’s manga classic, Ghost in the Shell, which explores the possibilities of infiltrating human minds and hijacking identity.[9]

A press release produced to accompany the final exhibition in the project describes the duo’s next step as follows:

The original computer file, the first version of ‘Annlee’, was digitally reduced by Pierre Huyghe and Philippe Parreno to the form of an almond-eyed, empty artificial being. This was made accessible from then onwards as part of an exhibition project that has extended in time and space.[10]

Following video installation exhibitions in Paris, Huyghe and Parreno commissioned other artists to make work which comprised paintings, posters, books, film works and sculptures. Issues of ownership, production, presentation, authorship, identity, and narrative were explored in the ensuing Annlee art works. The issue of copyright was a major concern for the artists, who following a final group exhibition of all the Annlee works in Zürich, organised for the sign’s copyright to be legally transferred back to it, preventing any future work using the individual/image.

These are just a handful of examples of comic appropriation. One could go back further in history, or widen the group of artists extensively to encompass many both better and lesser known than the few touched on above, and just as examples are profuse so too are motivations and meanings.

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] – Emma Mahoney, “An Introduction to Cult Fiction”, Cult Fiction, exhibition catalogue, Hayward publishing, 2007, p.11.

[2] – Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art, Phaidon Press Limited, 1996, p.33.

[3] – Michael Sandle, Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1988, p.92.

[4] – Marco Livingstone, “History in the Present Tense”, Michael Sandle, Whitechapel Art Gallery exhibition catalogue, 1988, p. 9.

[5] – Coosje van Bruggen, Claes Oldenburg: Mouse Museum/Ray Gun Wing, Museum Ludwig, Cologne, 1979, p.69.

[6] – Ibid, p. 3.

[7] – In Iwona Blazwick, Head Shop, Shop Head: Works 1966-2006, Steidl, 2008, p.26.

[8] – Chrissie Iles, Central Symmetrical Rotation Movement, exhibition catalogue, Whitney Museum of American Art, 2008, p.62.

[9] – Tate website –, accessed 21 July 2011

[10] – Text taken from the kunsthalle zurich press release on accessed 21 July 2011

Comics Forum 2011 is supported by Thought Bubble, the University of Chichester, the Henry Moore Institute, Dr Mel Gibson, Routledge, Intellect and Molakoe Graphic Design.


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