National Post Features Seth and his AGO Show!

“Drawn into the high art world” / National Post / Vanessa Farquharson / June 28, 2005

Graphic artist Seth breaks the comics barrier with solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario
 
In its 105 years, the Art Gallery of Ontario has never devoted a show to a cartoonist. That all changes tomorrow as Seth, the graphic novelist from Clinton, Ont., gets his due as part of the Present Tense exhibition series.

The thinking behind the show is simple: The art world is paying attention to comics like never before.

"In the '90s, artists would reference the fashion world or music videos," says curator Ben Portis, who met Seth recently at a book reading. "Now, it's comics. And they're not only relevant in their own right, but are becoming a more typically recognized visual art. It's clear, for the next generation, this is how they think about the world."

Portis, who will interview Seth at the show's official opening on Thursday, says he wanted to feature this art form because, while many genres are becoming more outward and social, the approach of the graphic artist is still very isolated and laborious.

"As well, there's been so much activity in comics recently," he says, "and many of the important figures are Canadian -- Seth, Chester Brown, the publishing empire of Drawn & Quarterly. But whereas many artists have a set mode of working from start to finish, Seth has a lot of twists and turns and makes a lot of adjustments in his career. I think this work signifies him as a supremely confident and self-defined storyteller."

The show will run until mid-October and includes original ink drawings from Seth's ongoing graphic novel series Clyde Fans, as well as a cardboard model of the fictional Northern Ontario town called Dominion, where this series is set.

Also present at Present Tense will be Hush, one of Seth's works that was recently acquired for the AGO's permanent collection and originally appeared on the National Post's Avenue page.

"We wanted to make it clear that this isn't just a grab at a moment," says Portis, "so that's partly why we purchased Hush -- to say this is one we're keeping, this is something important."

Seth, who ducks out of the gallery space when director Matthew Teitelbaum happens to saunter in, is still getting used to the attention. The 42-year-old artist, who lives in Guelph, Ont., with his wife and three cats, is happy to have his work move into more mainstream circles. But at first he was hesitant to collaborate with the higher-ups of high art.

"It's always bothered me that cartoonists are put in the category of packaged design or mass-manufacturing instead of being looked at as real artists," says Seth, whose real name is Gregory Gallant. "And most of the comic artists I know are not crazy about the view the fine art world has of them, and as I pretty much told Ben from the beginning, 'I'm not enthusiastic about this.' Especially if it was going to end up lumping together all these completely different cartoonists and throwing in ironic pop images.

"But then he came back to me a couple months later and suggested the idea of doing a solo show, which of course completely interested me."

As he sits on a bench outside the AGO's back entrance, decked out in his trademark natty suit and fedora, chain-smoking and surely sweltering in the 38C weather, Seth reminisces about his days at the Ontario College of Art and Design. It was then that he discovered the work of Robert Crumb, and eventually came to realize he was less suited to the high-art world than what he calls the high-craft world.

As he sits on a bench outside the AGO's back entrance, decked out in his trademark natty suit and fedora, chain-smoking and surely sweltering in the 38C weather, Seth reminisces about his days at the Ontario College of Art and Design. It was then that he discovered the work of Robert Crumb, and eventually came to realize he was less suited to the high-art world than what he calls the high-craft world.

"Cartooning is based on craft, so I've often had a real problem with contemporary art in that I find a lot of it is really conceptually based," he says. "In the early 20th century you had two areas people were headed in -- one was aesthetics-based and the other was more conceptual -- and the conceptual really won out. But I don't relate so much to the school of just presenting ideas, rather than work that's actually aesthetically beautiful or at least meant to be."

Arguably, the most crafty part of Seth's AGO exhibit is his cardboard construction of Dominion. Although he originally intended to just construct a few buildings in order to flesh out the feel and history of the town, it soon grew into a cut-and-paste project that took over his basement.

"At some point, I realized that I might be more interested in the town than the graphic novel," he says. "It has taken on a life of its own, but it'll eventually materialize into a book."

But what visitors to the exhibit may not realize is that the interiors of all the buildings have some capitalist symbolism going on -- although, this wasn't necessarily intended by the artist.

"I made all the buildings out of old Fed-Ex boxes," says Seth, after being asked about his materials. "When I send my artwork out, it comes back to me through Federal Express, and I realized they have the best cardboard -- it cuts well, keeps a really good shape, doesn't fray on the edges and the unglossy sides take paint well. I suppose if you turned them all inside out, it would be a Fed-Ex town ... I'm not sure I want to think about that for too long."

On Thursday, the artist will speak about his work in terms of its themes of identity, memory and landscape. Although the exhibit focuses on Clyde Fans, he'll be more than willing to answer questions about previous works, such as Palookaville, or his upcoming book, Wimbledon Green.

But will he feel nervous or out of place speaking about his work in the pristine, vaulted-ceilinged AGO rotunda?

"I feel nervous and out of place in every situation I'm in," he says. "You can't help but feel a certain sense of insecurity in a world that's never accepted comics, or taken them seriously.

"But I think now, the interest in cartooning is more genuine. At first, it was very patronizing and there would be stories in the media like 'Batman has grown up.' But the quality of cartoons continues to grow and people are realizing there is an actual group of artists using the comics medium to tell real stories and do something new."


 

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