Review: Chris Ware at Carl Hammer

Whitehot Magazine, May 2008

Chris Ware at Carl Hammer Gallery

Chris Ware, Rusty Brown — Chalky White; Life so Far. 28″ x 20″ 2002. Detail.

Chris Ware has developed a following for his cartoons that seems based on his ability to take the Beat-comics angst of Art Spiegelman and the endearingly vacuous expressions of Little Orphan Annie and recast them into spare, if vividly coloured, geometrical drawings that appeal to contemporary ennui. His current show at Carl Hammer Gallery strips the pixel applique off this work and reduces it to fairly architectural blue-pencil and ink structures on bristol (and under glass). In such a display, the blue-line underpinnings vibrate and breathe, the inked sections reveal the strength of Ware’s hand, and, in the in-betweens, the artist bares himself.

The show is cashing in on Ware’s artwork as such, turning production drawings into gallery pieces. It begs the buying community to place its trust in Ware’s continued rise or enduring cache. Notably, Bill Watterson’s collection of pencil-and-ink drawings, together with their coloured-in counterparts, made up Calvin and Hobbes: Sunday Pages 1985–1995, published as the catalogue for an exhibition at the Ohio State University’s Cartoon Research Library. Ware’s exhibit, his tenth solo show and second at Hammer, continues to position him within the borders of the art world, if not necessarily the annals of cartoon history. Only time will tell whether his drawings will take a place along with Disney or Chuck Jones cels, and whether they are to be properly regarded as works of art or as collectors’ items. In the meantime, there is a lot to be gleaned from these comic-strip skeletons on display.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Room 2. (McSweeney’s.) 29″ x 20″ 2003. Detail.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Room 1. (McSweeney’s.) 29″ x 20″ 2003. Detail.

Ware colours his ink drawings digitally, imparting a precision of colour and tone. Without these visual and thematic enticements to the work, we are left with the story of an emotionally undulating draftsman possessed of a steady hand and amiable cartoon style. The stories are pomo-emo graphic novel bread and butter: characters bravely assert their individualities in the face of crushing anomie, often making the struggle plain only in their own imaginations. They mull the ironic taste of seasoning deep depression with grains of hope. They bare all this in long, journal-style narrative text blocks, or suffering silently in time-lapse panel arrangements.

But enough on content. The real story in this exhibition are the blue lines humming along under the threads and masses of black ink. There is a particular emotional content to the extreme care and visible revisions revealed by the penciling. Lines run through panels unexpectedly, phantom objects linger close to the bristol, angles are drawn and redrawn. Given the emotional density of the narrative, evidence of such attention animates the drawings in a way that polished digital cannot. It is easy to imagine Ware hovering at his drafting board, lavishing over his drawings as an obsessive child paws a worn stuffed animal for comfort.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Abortion 2. 29″ x 20″ 2007. Detail.

And then, he turns and winks at you. A judicious application of white ink would easily have erased the litany of scrawled blue notes in the margins of these works. Instead, Ware has left them; tantalizingly, it is often unclear whether they are bits of cartoon character thought or jots to himself. Some of the scribbles are obviously simple notes, as many of them are actual phone numbers. I tried calling almost all of them, standing right there in the gallery. In a way, it was heartening to know that Chris Ware had called Earthlink Tech Support at some time while working on a particular board. Or that he at one point had a connection with a Chicago’s Prosser Academy high school, room 203.

It is hard to believe that an artist would leave such details on a work-in-progress installed for display. Perhaps this is a digital-age response to the unceasing flow of produced images; you want authentic? Read right here about how my cat suffered a stroke after I finished this panel and was put to sleep. This could be the visual analog to the trend of including studio demo tracks as bonus material on record album releases.

Chris Ware, Building Stories — Day (Dinner.) 20″ x 25″ 2007. Detail.

Chris Ware, Building Stories – Rich part 2 (original drawing)
Ink and blue pencil on bristol board,
20 x 29 inches, 2004, Detail

In his blue-pencil closed-circuit conversation with himself, Chris Ware notes in the margins: “SYMPATHY! Avoid being histrionic with gestures.” “I can’t believe I [himself? a character? both?] ever had any pretensions of being a writer.” And the enigmatic “the power of”.

In the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you can view, framed in glass, the first page of Dr. Hunter S. Thompson’s manuscript from Fear and Loathing In Las Vegas, complete with his own blue-pencil revisions. Ware’s exhibit at Carl Hammer Gallery reads like a non-linear version of this, with the artist’s life pressed in a collapsed scaffold of blue and black. As a biographical document, it is stunning.

Published in Whitehot Magazine.