T-Star Profiles Seth for His AGO Show

“Comic creators gaining credibility” / The Toronto Star / Murray Whyte / June 25, 2005

The AGO exhibition is a “new experience” for comic artist Gregory Gallant, a.k.a. Seth.Small step for cartoonist, giant leap for cartoon-kind
AGO buys work of graphic novelist

For the better part of 25 years, Gregory Gallant — the real-world name of the cartoonist otherwise known as Seth — has been filling sketchbooks at a near-alarming rate, working out the delicately bleak figures and streetscapes of his widely celebrated graphic novels, such as It's a Good Life, if You Don't Weaken, or his current magnum opus, Clyde Fans.

At least two of them, well-used and chock full, will be on display Wednesday at the Art Gallery of Ontario, when the museum opens Gallant's first-yet solo museum exhibition.

"I'd like people to be able to flip through them, but they'll probably be behind glass," he says, at home in Guelph, chuckling at the novelty. "I'm excited about the show, but I'm not the type of artist that ever worked for a gallery exhibition. It's kind of a new experience for me."

And not just for him. The hallowed halls of an art museum, generally reserved for the canonized giants of the art world, are not the natural habitat of the lowly cartoonist whose place in the history of art has largely been as a low-grade footnote.

But the past decade has seen an ongoing — and well-documented — swell of support for the artistic credibility of the medium, and its most sophisticated practitioners.

Seth has been among a small crew of comic creators, such as Chris Ware and Toronto's Chester Brown, who have helped deliver the medium from its junk-culture purgatory.

Ware has shown at the Whitney Biennale, among others, and legendary comic radical Robert Crumb was a cornerstone of the most recent Carnegie International, a major semi-annual contemporary art exhibition in Pittsburgh. The Museum of Contemporary Art in Los Angeles this year will show `Masters of American Comics,' honouring such seminal creators as George Herriman (who did Krazy Kat), Will Eisner and Charles Schulz. It's an apparent search for provenance in a medium that has, up until very recently, been largely seen as disposable.

The experience is a new one for the AGO as well. One of the largest collecting institutions in the country, the gallery's vast breadth of works ranges from old masters to contemporary stars to the largest collection in Canada of the Group of Seven.

Now that collection includes its first work by a cartoonist. The piece, Seth's Hush, will show alongside show several sequences from Clyde Fans, among other works, one of which is a series of cartoon-ish architectural models of the book's fictional, time-frozen town of Dominion.

Hush, from 1999, is a quietly elegiac drift, panel by panel, across the country's forgotten, post-industrial corners: small towns and grain elevators, broken down farms and abandoned playgrounds. Rendered in a stark black and white, bereft of human figures, it concludes on a dark panel flecked with snow: "In these places and others like them ... time is standing still."

It was a unique piece, curator Ben Portis says, an impressionistic, unpeopled narrative contained on one page (it was commissioned for the National Post in 1999). Portis made a case to his superiors to bring Seth into the permanent collection.

"This comic-art renaissance is an undeniable force today, and many of the leading figures are Canadian," he says. "There was a sense this needed to be addressed, and it needed to be addressed quickly."

It's no less than a reconsideration of the medium itself, Portis argued in a letter making a case for the acquisition.

"To be sure, this is being proposed as a work of art and not an example of material culture," Portis wrote. "This is an important acquisition for the Art Gallery of Ontario as it recognizes for the first time one of the most creative spheres of contemporary artistic endeavour as fully achieved and does so on the comics' own terms."

It was also a nod to the breadth of influence that the medium has had on a growing new generation of artists who aspire not to pulpy, throwaway funny books, Portis says, but rather the realm of serious art — young artists such as Winnipeg's Marcel Dzama, whose darkly whimsical drawings of cartoon-like figures in bizarre and occasional terrifying situations have been collected by museums worldwide.

The comic's rise to respectability has also run alongside a renaissance in drawing in the fine-art world, so much so that after decades on the fringes, it's moved back to the centre of contemporary-art discourse.

"For artists younger than 30, the comic-art sensibility is part of their visual language," Portis says.

Seth takes it all in with cheery circumspection, and not a little incredulity.

"It's certainly not something I would have predicted years ago. Times have changed," he says. "I've always felt the art world was off in its own corner. They're very self-important, and they certainly kept us out. But I don't think we ever felt any great sense of entitlement that we deserved to be in anyway. We came from pretty low origins."

Certainly, over the decades, the vast reams of pulpy, four-colour comics, spanning the gamut from westerns to romance to superheroes to fantasy to adventure, have far more often become garage-sale fodder than revered museum pieces.

By the '60s, though, a subversive element had crept into the medium. Artists like Crumb took the comic form and infused it with a radical perspective and more-than-occasionally lurid depictions. It spawned a generation of comic-book artists bursting to subvert the form's juvenile conventions, and underground comics were born.

In 1991, Art Spiegelman created Maus, a comic-book retelling of his parents' experiences in Nazi-era Poland, and at Auschwitz, drawn with cartoon mice as the jews, and the Nazis as cats. It won the Pulitzer Prize.

Since then, a host of sophisticated creators have plied the medium's graphic narrative possibilities, with affecting results. Slowly, the form emerged as something worth serious literary consideration. The sanctified space of an art museum, it would seem, was the final step — though not the goal, Seth says.

"The origins of underground cartooning have been pretty anti-establishment anyway. So there wasn't a great cry to get into the museums," he says.

That he and his peers are through the door, and destined, it would seem, to stay there, is a shock, but not an unwelcome one.

"When I was an art student in Toronto in 1980, going to the Ontario College of Art, I remember that experience of going to the AGO when you're 19 years old. It's definitely a big thrill, 20 years later, to actually be there," he says.

It's not a thrill Seth intends to get used to, however. "The comic is such a basic thing, really. It's just words and pictures, put together. People have been doing it since the dawn of time," he says. "The medium's low pretensions keep you from getting too full of yourself."

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