Comics and art – James talks to Rian Hughes about Image Duplicator
When I first saw ‘Whamm’ by Robert Lichtenstein as a child, and I suspect it was in London, somewhere like Athena, I wanted to know what comic it was from, and I could never get my head around the explanation that it was not a comic but art.
It looked like something from ‘Battle’; it was after all a P51 Mustang. Yet this was no comic.
I have always been uncomfortable with the concept that Lichtenstein was an artist of huge regard as I came to learn that actually, he had copied art from comics, modified them, altering things subtly, but was not in any way original.
I always wondered if I was being too precious, a fanboy driven to gatekeeping my interest in an overzealous and ultimately irrational way.
(the original and dynamic comics art Lichtenstein would appropriate without permission or credit, art by Irv Novick)
Now, please let me be clear. ‘All American Men of War 89’ is a really nice comic. It is not an outstanding classic, but the artwork by Irv Novick is accurate, cleanly done and contains movement and action, as you might desire from any war comic. It also portrays a P-86 Sabre, a plane that could hold its own against a Mig-15, unlike the Mustang, which although it saw service in Korea would not have taken on the Soviet-built plane.
The Lichtenstein retrospective which is currently saturating London in advertising I feel is in many ways a vainglorious self-vindication of the Tate’s own existence. Their 1966 purchase of ‘Whaam’ secured Lichtenstein place as a ‘modern artist’ and it is no surprise that they are keen to celebrate, well, their own creation.
Regular folk could not be trusted to decide what is art.
It is therefore incredibly exciting to hear, that Rian Hughes (‘Yesterday’s Tomorrows’, ‘Cult-Ure’, and ‘Lifestyle Illustration of the 60s’) has initiated an art show entitled ‘Image Duplicator’ to be held at Orbital Comics on Neal St, Leicester Square, London, from May 16th to the 31st, coinciding with the end of the Tate’s Lichtenstein show.
Here is the official word;
While the public is intimately familiar with his work, what they may be unaware of is that many of his images were directly “appropriated” from comic artists like Irv Novick, Russ Heath, Jack Kirby, John Romita and Joe Kubert, who received no fee or credit.
Is this an act of brilliant recontextualisation? The elevation of commercial “low” art to “high” art? Art world snobbery? Artistic licence? Gallery shortsightedness? Cultural annexation? Or something else entirely? This show brings together real comic-book artists and other “commercial artists” – illustrators, designers, cartoonists – to ask these kinds of questions and share their views, via their work. Each artist was asked to “re-reappropriate” one of the comic images Lichtenstein used: to go back to the source material and twist it into something interesting and original, and in the process to comment on the act of appropriation.
Money raised from selling prints and originals will be donated to the Hero Initiative, which helps down-on-their-luck comic book veterans: www.heroinitiative.org.
Take Back the Art!
Take back the Art. My goodness, this is the type of clairvoyance that is needed, and indeed reminds me of the clarity that Tom Wolfe applied to his consideration of abstract modern art in his work ‘The Painted Word’.
I caught up with Rian Hughes about this exhibition which has captured the imagination, and asked how is preparation going?
RH: Busy. We’re producing a catalogue, which I’m designing (and will be available on the night and via the FB page) and that’s taking all my time. Mark Blamire is outputting the museum-quality prints, and Jason is sending out press releases.
I asked what pieces excited him:
RH: I think, rather than any one specific piece, what has excited me is the broad range of responses – some are quite literal; some go off in more esoteric, graphic and conceptual directions.
I wondered about how Rian felt about the misappropriation as it were of work:
RH: I think Dave Gibbons sums it up very well in his introduction to the catalogue.
I call the assumption that making something BIG makes it Art Lichtenstein’s Law.
(Lichtenstein’s Law graphic by Rian Hughes)
But the more I delve into this, the more I reserve special contempt for the gallerists and dealers who promote this cultural annexation – who are happy to display the results of this kind of copying in places like the Tate, our cathedrals of culture. as pinnacles of artistic excellence that deserve to be lionised. The real losers in this arrangement are the public, for many of whom Lichtenstein’s name is synonymous with comics and represents all that comics in essence are.
Lichtenstein himself put fewer claims on the worth of his work than some of the later artjournos do, as contemporary reports such as this strip by Beetle Bailey artist Mort Walker, tend to show. It’s an interesting read (and you can find it on the personal blog our very own European Correspondent, Wim Lockefeer here).
This “appropriation” of “low” art by “high” art is still with us, as the Sotheby’s sale blurb for Turner-nominee Glen Brown’s copy of sf artist Chris Foss’ “Icebergs in Space” shows. The arrogance displayed in the Sotheby’s text is breathtaking. In this case, the original? Around £2000. The copy? £4m.
For a recently-sold Lichtenstein, the original was picked up for $431, while the copy sold for £43m.
Think about that disparity. There is something very wrong when a copy, in Lichtenstein’s case done without credit or permission of the artist he copied, is valued at so much more than the original that inspired it.
I think that here’s the crux of the matter – that the worth attributed to Lichtenstein’s mechanical lifeless copy – in monetary terms, and possibly in artistic terms as well – is one-hundred thousand times more.
I think what we have are two parallel systems. On the one hand, we have artists producing work for money and to deadlines, artists who are often very talented, humble and happy to be doing something they love.
On the other, we have appropriators who take that material as freely available clip-art and surround it by the white space of the gallery, a space that bestows contemplation and value. Following “Lichtenstein’s Law”, remaking it large also seems to help, but then playing a record loud on a good sound system also helps.
These acts are not acts of creation, they’re acts of curation.
(above: Dave Gibbons Image Duplicator take on Irv Novick’s original; below Salgood Sam’s very contemporary interpretation of Norvick’s panel, art by and (c) Gibbons and Sam respectively, after Norvick’s original, click for the larger pics)
A musician wouldn’t get away with it – a cover version is still a cover version, however much you rework it, and royalties and permissions are due.
This only works if the galleries don’t know, or worse, don’t care, where your source material comes from. In music, there are champions of obscure and overlooked musicians, often humble creators who themselves made no great claims for their work but that subsequent generations have found to be of great value and celebrated and even, yes, appropriated.
But there is a crucial difference – no music journalist worth their back stage pass would buy into this high-low divide. Music is music.
The Amen Break is a case in point – a brief drum solo performed in 1969 by Gregory Cylvester “G. C.” Coleman in the song “Amen, Brother” performed by the 1960s funk and soul outfit The Winstons. It gained fame from the 1980s onwards when four bars (5.2 seconds) sampled from the drum-solo (or imitations thereof) became very widely used as sampled drum loops in breakbeat, hip hop, breakbeat hardcore, hardcore techno and jungle and drum and bass. The Amen Break was used extensively in early hiphop and sample-based music, and became the basis for drum-and-bass and jungle music—”a six-second clip that spawned several entire subcultures”.
And so art is art. The only criteria of real importance is whether it’s good or not.
And for my money, every artist Lichtenstein swiped from was better than him – better by all the criteria which count, and by which art should be judged – technical, emotive, creative – except one: He produced his work for the gallery system. And the gallery system still sees itself as the arbiter of taste, the bestower of art-historical cultural importance.
And Lichtenstein was awful at hair.
It is quite wonderful to hear an artist of Rian Hughes’s calibre explaining his thoughts on this. In a way, there is a line being drawn. Comic artists recreating a version of a cover or distinctive piece of art is not at all uncommon and they frequently note ‘after’ on the piece to indicate not just the original source but their respect for that artist. Action Comics number one has had many versions, for many characters.
Perhaps part of the line being drawn here is how for no really good reason, powerful art people, curators, buyers, journalists have distorted the value of art.
(Above: Sho Murase after Tony Abruzzo for the Image Duplicator exhibition, below: Mitch O’Connell after unknown comic artist, art by and (c) Murase and O’Connell respectively, click for larger images)
Hughes again on his own piece for the exhibition: There’s lots of talk about the “transformative power of art”, and how Lichtenstein and modern appropriators like Glenn Brown (Turner nominee who enlarges and repaints work by SF artist Chris Foss and others) use this mystical power to turn base materials into high art. And dollars. I imagine the artist in his studio preparing a panel from life, and working a real transformation on his models to turn them into the idealised Brad and Zsa Zsa of romance comic cliché.
When I closely examined the work of Tony Abruzzo and others of his generation it forcefully brought home to me how gifted they actually were. With an absolute economy of line, Tony idealised reality, making women beautiful and men hunky. I think that’s actually one of the core attributes of cartooning/illustrating that I admire – this simplifying down to the essentials, removing the extraneous, seeing the ideal in the everyday.
By contrast, Lichtenstein’s unfeeling and inexpressive mechanically-traced linework divests the image of its finesse, beauty and lightness of touch. He actually moves the characters in the opposite direction.
This is going to be a brilliant exhibition. Jason Atomic’s image ‘After Carl Barks’, Hughes’s own ‘After Tony Abruzzo’, Gibbons’s ‘Whatt! After Irv Novick’ and Salgood Sam’s image also ‘After Irv Novick’ are all incredible.
But it does more than that. With certain authority, elegance and thought, serious comics professionals have pointed out the disparaging perception that Lichtenstein has brought to comics, and in a way, I feel, given the regular comic reader a voice.
(Above: Rian Hughes after unknown designers, by and (c) Hughes, click for the larger image)
Some other suggested reading on the whole high-low art/Lichtenstein-comics art topic:
David Barsalou, deconstructing Lichtenstein, listing and showing the original next to the High Art Copy. It is unnerving.
Paul Gravett discusses similar issues in his excellent article ‘The Principality of Lichtenstein’: From ‘WHAAM!’ to ‘WHAAT?‘ and looks at artists such as Icelandic artist Erró, real name Gudmundur Gudmundsson who has blatantly plagiarized Brian Bolland’s work, and reports on how Bolland feels on the matter. ]
Padraig O’Mealoid also spoke about the exhibition on Comics Beat.
FPI would like to thank James for the article, Rian for taking time to share some of his thoughts and to all the artists involved for allowing us to repost some of their artwork from the exhibition on here. The Image Duplicator exhibition runs at Orbital from 16th to 31st of May, check Orbital’s events page for more information. The debate over ‘high’ art appropriating from pop culture such as comics with no credit, permission or fee has been going on for decades – feel free to give you tuppence worth in the comments!