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Thursday, October 13, 2011

Are We Having Art Yet? Bill Griffith at BCB Art

Irreverent, absurd, existentialist - Bill Griffith’s Zippy the Pinhead embodies these traits as only a character born out of the San Francisco underground comics scene of the 1970s could. Yet in 2011 he is going stronger than ever, in syndication to about 200 daily newspapers, out in a new book, and now appearing in an inspired exhibition at BCB Art in Hudson.

Titled Are We Having Art Yet? Selected Drawings 1978-2011, the show presents numerous original inked versions of daily strips, several inked originals of a 1990 Zippy calendar, a few pencil renderings of early Zippy covers, and signed inkjet prints of other Zippy material. All the work on the walls is in ink or pencil – i.e. no color – and was, of course, created for reproduction, so it has that special quality of blacks and whites, of hatching and cross-hatching, that gives all graphic art a certain eye-appeal.

But, rather than let the monotony of monochrome get overwhelming, Bruce Bergmann, the gallery’s owner, has placed most of the work along a bright yellow rail, backed by a garish band of the same yellow with a pattern of big, red polka dots. The design scheme is taken from Zip’s costume, but it also imparts a properly carnivalesque atmosphere to the exhibition. Yes, it says, you may be in an art gallery, but you don’t need to take anything too seriously here.

An art calendar drawing by Bill Griffith
As these are comic strips, naturally the show is a hoot; but what makes it really special is that all the strips are specifically art-related. It is certainly a comic fan’s delight – but it is also an art critic’s paradise. Griffith went to art school and attempted a career as a painter before stumbling into comics in 1969, and he loves to send up the posturing of serious artists and pundits. Jokes about Picasso, Giacometti, Pollock and Magritte here coexist with jokes about Ingres, DaVinci, ancient Greece and cave art.

With the irrepressibly idiotic Zippy as his guide, Griffith has no fear, and the results are hilarious.

For most, including myself, Zippy is an acquired taste. His bizarre appearance, politically incorrect moniker and – above all – chronically off-the-wall pronouncements are not going to be for everybody, even those of us who are used to edgy stuff. But he grows on you – his sweetness, his persistence, his inability to grasp basic reality – it all adds up to irresistible charm.

Whether you like the humor or not (and in the case of these strips, it helps to be conflicted about modern art), seen up close in the original, the drawings show that Griffith is no pretender – he’s got the chops to draw anything well, and he’s got the graphic sense to know what to draw and what to leave out. It’s clear, crisp communication.

While much of the work is simplified, and much of the content goes in the direction of one-liners, some of these drawings also have a great deal of complexity built in, and with lengthy perusal will yield new secrets. Mostly, though, it’s about the humor of absurdity and, in this particular selection, the absurdity of the art world. Which works real well for me.

Rating: Highly Recommended

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