Sculpture and Comic Art #5: Comic Dreams/Nightmare Sculpture by Kirstie Gregory

21 Oct

His weak spot was sexism. Like just about every 1960s icon (with the possible exception of John Lennon), he thought of women as ‘chicks’, second-class citizens whose function was the entertainment of men (ideally in a sexual sense). To say he was slow to recognise the aims of Women’s Liberation would be an understatement. [1]

Roger Sabin

I should state from the beginning of this posting that I have not been able to ascertain exactly how much Crumb worked on the sculptures I am discussing. Alexander Wood of Wildwood Serigraphs, who runs the official Robert Crumb website, told me:

Crumb worked on that with a sculptor. I think the piece you’re referring to is the Devil Girl piece, and that was constructed with plywood, wood, some wire and epoxy. There may also be bondo (a putty used for auto-body repair). Crumb worked on it (sanded) the sculpture a little, but mostly directed the project, especially the final touches, which had to be perfect for him. He [was] most active when painting it.[2]

The sculptures in question are certainly not unapproved pastiches of which he is not aware – and it seems he has had a significant hand in the production of at least some of them. I will be discussing them with this in mind.

Terry Zwigoff’s film Crumb (1994) begins with a slow scan of a selection of 3D works of Crumb characters in the artist’s home, beginning with an unhurried shot running over a (painted wooden?) sculpture of a woman’s semi-naked body, her head thrown back in ecstasy/anguish, a contemporary reinvention of Bernini’s Ecstasy of St Teresa. Of tough material, with rough surface, horrible facial expression, vastly exaggerated buttocks and breasts, the figure is semi-submissive by way of her uncomfortable contortion, the pose both acrobatic and pornographic. The figure is typical Crumb – his cartoons are full of his fantasy women swiftly, expertly, intuitively sketched: solid build, strong arms, stronger legs, large breasts, larger buttocks.[3] In his comics these women are often fleetingly and improbably sexually dominated by a man or men, often violently, emerging from an imagination utterly uninhibited, the pen an outlet for the artist’s darkest sexual imaginings.

Crumb inflates the female form and breaks it down (often literally) in order to underline his eccentric interests and odd observations such as affinities of the human body’s structure with furniture, missiles, balloons – he is alarmingly cavalier about dispensing with the head. These techniques, though disturbing from one perspective, are also often humorous and strangely compelling – the sculptures are by contrast simplistic and dull. I am reminded of a later scene in Zwigoff’s film wherein Crumb is having a conversation with an ex-girlfriend. She tells him that all the time they were in a relationship she thought his odd sexual ‘hang-ups’ were a pretence, a mistake Crumb finds humorous in its erroneousness. But though the artist may be self-aware regarding his sexual preferences unfortunately this self-knowledge does not extend to being able to judge sculpture. Later in the film we see Crumb attending a private view of an exhibition of his own work, with the gallery displaying his comics on the walls and a handful of large sculptures on the floor. One of these is an over-life-size woman with the head of a menacing bird (again a recurring character), which looks a bit like his current wife. I’ve always found the concept of ‘sexy animals’ quite off-putting in the gamut of sexual perversions, so Crumb was always going to be difficult for me, especially when one cannot flick through to another topic – his comic stories are usually quite ‘quick’, relatively short – it’s very easy to move between topics. Interspersed with scenes from the exhibition opening Zwigoff cuts to comment from art historian and critic Robert Hughes, who compares Crumb to Breughel and Goya, and gallerist Martin Muller, who suggests Daumier; I cannot but assume they are conveniently erasing these sculptures from his oeuvre.

One contemporary sculptor’s work with interesting connections is that of Rebecca Warren, a nominee for the 2006 Turner Prize, whose Croccioni (2000) and Helmut Crumb (1998) for example were made with an explicit awareness of Crumb’s female forms. Warren’s work however is not sexy – a pair of disembodied legs made of reinforced clay balanced on two plinths, for instance, appears to say more about the act of creation, and discovery through process. She is certainly concerned with the sexualised female shape, but in this messy clay medium she brings her figures far closer than Crumb to reality, fleshes them out, shows the peculiarity of a fetish for a single part of the female body. The comic is a medium of narrative, wherein one can explain, add depth, satire or somewhat balance a skewed initial view with an extended story and intelligent observation. All this potential is lost in Crumb sculpture, his skills and these benefits do not translate. Crumb seems incompetent to capture any depth one would think might emerge in the third dimension. The loss of words contributes – although much of the artist’s graphic work stands alone. I believe it is the wider narrative which is the chief blow to quality. If narrative is not usually physically an aspect of sculpture it is very often a strong invisible presence, something sculptors are very attuned to. Crumb seems not to be. By contrast, Chris Ware’s three-dimensional model-making skills are impressive, thoughtful and innovative. Similarly Seth’s models are delicate, subtle and atmospheric. Compared to the sculptural work of these two primarily comics artists Crumb seems to be satisfied to exhibit unfortunate misshapen lumps and nudge them by sleight of hand into the fine art world. Perhaps it’s all a big joke.

Crumb describes his first sexual experience being with a pair of his mother’s cowboy boots, alongside early sexual attractions to Bugs Bunny, and Sheena Queen of the Jungle.[4] Sex and comix and comics are inextricably linked, and the medium suits the subject. It is though more unsettling to be faced in 3D with one’s unwholesome 2D fascinations. It is not that sexual desire is not a valid subject for art, but sculptors with talent bring something more to their work – be it morality, amorality, beauty, complexity, even a tendency to push boundaries which Crumb displays in his comics, but not through these sculptures. Also perhaps worth noting, the female characters in Crumb’s cartoons are usually accompanied by pathetic or oddball male counterparts – but by themselves in the gallery space the objectification of the figures is magnified. Asked in an interview by fellow artist Steve Bell to define the purposes of satire Crumb answers, ‘to give us all relief from these taboos and these nervous tensions where things can’t be talked about. So humour and satire are a safety valve for releasing these nervous tensions’.[5] One gets the impression that for Crumb his pornographic characters are as much of a release and a compulsion as the elements of humour and satire. His sculptures stray from subversive humour to simply subversion (perversion?). In Zwigoff’s documentary Crumb displays these sculptures amongst comic collectible figurines. Perhaps this is how he thinks of his work – rather as super-sized versions of collectibles than genuine fine art contenders – a humorous mish-mash of the blow-up sex doll, the Surrealist mannequin and the Barbie doll. Paul Gravett sums up this tendency with a succinctness tempered by an awareness of Crumb’s genius for drawing:

With self-deprecating honesty, he shows how his conflicted feelings about women grew out of his teenage years, spent in lonely, horny, frustration, lusting after girls who ignored him. By the age of 20, he had not even kissed a girl. His hedonistic spree turned into a sort of twisted revenge.[6]

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.

You can read previous editions of Sculpture and Comic Art in the Comics Forum Website Archive.

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

[1] – Roger Sabin, Comics, Comix & Graphic Novels: A History of Comic Art, Phaidon: London, 1996, p. 95. Later in this paragraph however Sabin notes that ‘Later in his career, Crumb would have second thoughts, and create some of the most rounded female characters in comics [. . .]’ p.103.

[2] – Email from Alexander Wood to Kirstie Gregory, dated 06/09/11.

[3] – These women are a constant in Crumb’s work. For this article I was particularly refering to Robert Crumb, The Complete Crumb Comics Vol. 7, Fantagraphic Books: Seattle, 1991.

[4] – Terry Zwigoff, Crumb, 1994.

[5] – Robert Crumb interviewed by Steven Bell 18 March 2005, Guardian website, accessed 14 August 2011.

[6] – Paul Gravett, Graphic Novels to Change Your Life, Aurum: London, 2005, p.172.


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