Is it just me or does so much of the art being produced today seem to be using, recalling, incorporating animation and cartoons? For example the works of Jordan Wolfson, Mathias Poledna, Jamian Juliao-Villani, Francisco Cordero-Ocuguera, Julien Ceccaldi, David Rappenau, Ian Chang, and Parker Ito, just to name a few. It is obviously not just me because ‘animation’ was even given large swathes of input in Art Forum’s summer issue but that included and aside, let’s take another gander at this.
I’ve been poking with this idea for a while but it was after I saw the Chuck Jones exhibition at the Museum of the Moving Image that it felt pressing. For those who are unfamiliar with Chuck Jones, he was an animator for Warner Brothers in the peak of its cartoon reign. He reinforced the iconic lines and personalities of Bugs and Daffy as well as created the characters Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner. His work was thoroughly stamped into my childhood brain because I religiously watched Looney Toons c. 1988 on Nickelodeon and still find myself smiling through any of Jones’ pieces. Anyways, so after seeing this exhibition I felt a deep warmth. Some of this was certainly based on memory/childhood things, but some was also based on seeing such dynamic interplays of color, music and the drawn line. This made me wonder why Jones’ work immediately evokes while most of what I see in contemporary galleries barely flickers my attention.
Thinking about this made me think about the state of art, which frankly is as dull and mute as the surfaces artists are continuing to make. But then I thought, wait… the art world isn’t JUST the “Zombie Formalism” that Walter Robinson coined and Jerry Saltz inflects upon and it’s not JUST the sterile “Post Internet” new aesthetics that has garnered actual careers and theorizing. There is something else going on and that going on is in the noodles and doodles of artists in the forms of cartoons, comics, image plopping and animation.
The tools and processes of artists using cartoons/animation in their work depends of course on the artists’ objectives as well as the artists’ production budgets. What is very beautiful within this though is that a minor or simple use of characters, or the creation of them, has equal impact if it is successfully incorporated as intended. What does that mean? That means that using Snow White in a re-animated high budget animatronic etc., possesses the same conceptual wealth of an applied sticker or drawing on this or that cheap thing. Snow White is a loaded symbol, one that has evolved and will continue to. Staking a certain claim by re-representing her or her image borrows and elicits the same source triggers.
Why is this happening so often and why now? One reason may be that many of these original sources are from dead or dying mediums. Comic books, Saturday morning cartoons, hand drawn anything. This produces nostalgia, which possesses deep and reactive things like memories, emotions, and the distance of time. You see this happening in the movie industry with their re-creation of possibly every popular comic and childhood book possible. That industry has been ridiculous in its degree of saturation but the same impulse is there. That impulse happens to be directed and reactive to males and specifically to males that are in their transitional 20-something soon to be 30-something and that matters greatly in why, how, and to what degree it pervades in the movies and art.
Another reason that animation/cartoons are possibly being more used is that it adds some levity to this whole art thing. In a small degree it is a punk gesture even if it is masterfully produced. These characters are slight nods to graffiti and are like piercings, stickers, tattoos etc. that youths apply to themselves and to other surfaces to express identity with a sub-culture while excluding the normative. The normative in this case is fine art’s dogmas of sign, symbol, and codes that since the advent of Modernism have been very self-serious in content, expression and even in its subversion of the aforementioned. It’s like a middle finger to art dialogue but it is doing much more because they use graphics that are collectively shared via childhood and or childish forms.
Lastly, they may be doing it as a form of branding. Not dissimilar to the above nature of badging oneself but this is acting as a signature. The repeated use of a character(s) is a very good way to sign a work. It can then become symbolic of the artist as a brand. It is a powerful thing to create a mascot for oneself because it brings the production of the art practice into a whole new light very quickly and very comprehensively. Koons, Warhol, and even Beuys have some trimmings of symbology that is distinctly linked to them but there is yet to be a truly branded artist to a complete degree. I am not saying this is the goal of artists using this new tool set but it seems a likely place to find the first or leading examples of this amongst those who use this heavily.
I find all of this, the use of animation, cartoons and their surrounding aesthetic cousins to be very interesting and very easy to look at. It is not a trend per se, many for a while have used this in some way or another, but this most recent cropping feels different. I can’t put my finger on it directly but I think that maybe what makes it so successful is its humor. For a bit, a year or so ago, there was all this hoopla (myself included) about the rise of stand-up comedy in art and specifically in performance art. Stand-up comedy was a beacon to loosen up and react to the heaviness that pervades performance art. I think that the whole stand-up comedy thing is a bit over though and that animation/cartoon use is the new subversive in chilling the art world out. Nothing lasts but hopefully there is more work being produced in this vain. More contributions by lady artists and a general increase of the goofy, zany, and irreverent in storytelling will only make art and looking at more compelling and god forbid, fun.