Sunday, February 17, 2008

Oh, Crumbs!

So when you're bummed out and a little bit grouchy (see previous post), it usually is NOT a good idea to spend time with someone more whacked out than yourself. I mean, you start off feeling "Man, my problems don't seem TOO bad in comparison", but really, after a while you get into a competition of "Oh yeah? Well my life is MUCH suckier than yours!" Despite this, I went off to the Robert Crumb exhibition at the Frye, which, like most things at the Frye, I recommend to people.

And I have a whole bunch of things in my head as a result, some of them about the art itself (which was a good collection of his work, most of it either directly or indirectly from his underground comics), but a lot about tangential stuff, like the exhibit itself, its sister exhibit at the museum, the museum, its SISTER museum, and inspirations. So this entry is a bit of a jumble of thoughts, but tune in anyway:

- The exhibit consisted of, either directly or indirectly, his comic work (originals, printed copies, expansions, etc...) which was, to be polite - mature in nature. Heck, its pornographic in places, beyond mere smutty and into the disturbing. I'm always wondering how much of it is Crumb working through his own angsts, mocking them, or celebrating them (and as far as I can tell from the works, he's still thinking about that as well).

- One common theme in Crumb's work is suspicion and distrust of dominant culture and mores, and in particular, when the underground culture breaks out into the dominant culture. Does that reflect a change in the culture, or merely the dominant culture strip-mining the genres for the illusion of the new hotness?

- One thing the exhibit sets out to do and does very well is showing that, for his supposed misanthropic nature, Crumb worked best when playing with others - with his brother, with the band of other underground creators in SF, with his wife, with Harvey Pekar, etc ... He's no slouch on his own, but the exhibit makes the point that he plays well in a band (and there's a photo of him playing his band).

- There's a film loop running of some home movie from the SF days showing the other members of the Zap! Comics gang - Spain and Cooper and Gilbert Shelton and Harvey Kurtzman, the last looking like the old man of the bunch but still just a pup. And the scary thing is, it brings back memories of the parties at Zeb Cook's place in Lake Geneva, when I was thin and everyone was oh-so-young and their hair had not turned gray.

- And speaking of feeling one's age, one of the exhibits is a Big Brother and the Holding Company album cover, which has its twin sitting underneath the turntable at the house (note to the young - back in the dawn of time, we these things called "Stereo Systems", and we had to buy VINYL albums, and these albums had COVERS).

- Even making me feel even older - One of the more recent Crumb works was faces painted on wooden spools. I looked at them for five minutes before I realized - when was the last time I saw a wooden spool? Its all plastic now. Hasn't the wooden sewing spool joined the boot stirrup and the typewriter eraser in the department of forgotten artifacts?

- And one more strange thing - you can call on your cell phone for commentary. No, really. They had a number to call that let you menu through the exhibits to get Crumb's comments on the work (Where did "Meatball" come from?). So you have museum exhibit where everyone is encouraged to have their cell phones out. Strange.

- As a result of the subject matter (and stuff like the cell phones), the mob in the museum is different - younger, with a greater number of kilts, top hats, piercings, and other bits of Seattle fringe that have been on the downside for a while. And that's a success for the exhibit - it gets people into it that normally would not show up for, say, "Watercolors of the American West 1889-1895".

-Coupled with this exhibit is another exhibit, "Dreaming the Emerald City", which shows bits of the original Frye and Henry collections. Both the Fryes and the Henrys were early Seattle wealthy, art boosters and collectors, and both went on to found museums (the free Frye and the UofW Henry). And while the Fryes went for more representational and to my mind, popular work, the Henry collection started to stray towards modernism early, and that shows in their descendant institutions.

-I've raved about the Frye a lot on these pages, and may not have given the Henry a fair shake. Its been years since I last went, but at the time, exhibits were closed and it was filled in "installations" as opposed to art - You know, an entire room empty except for a single podium, upon which is placed a piece of plate block glass and a Sweet-Tart, labled "Untitled, 1997". But the presence of the Crumb exhibit is not something I would expect at the Henry - its more accessible.

- Oh, and the crowds are slow moving from piece to piece, since it is a comic book art, and people want to read the comics. That's another question - are you there for the art or the story? And by being in a museum, does that mean you that the story is part of the art? Discuss.

- And one wall is given up to Crumb's own love of old blues music, and following the career of one bluesman from his life up to where he impacts on a group of nerdy white boys (including Crumb). And I look at his identification with the older blues artists, and think about folk identifying with the young (oh-so-young) comic artists in the film. And maybe some kids today identifying with the old gaming gang of ancient TSR.

So as you can see, I had a good day yesterday. Yeah, all these questions DO make it a good day for me, and keep me thinking and on my toes. If you're in Seattle and capable of handling seriously twisted artwork, this is a good show to catch. And its free (though they have a contribution bin on the way out - you should check that out as well).

More later,