The Globe & Mail Features Seth at the AGO!

“Cartoons treated as fine art” / The Globe & Mail / Kate Taylor / July 6, 2005

I was witness to an unusual appearance at the Art Gallery of Ontario last week: The Canadian cartoonist Seth was speaking about his work. The AGO is currently showing some of the original drawings for Seth's continuing graphic novel Clyde Fans, and his appearance was unexpected for a couple of reasons: This marks the first time the AGO has devoted a solo show to a comic-book artist and . . . Seth was dressed as though the Second World War had never happened.

The dedicated urban sophisticates who had come to the gallery on the eve of a warm long weekend were casually dressed in cargo pants, shorts, T-shirts, sundresses and sandals, but Seth himself was wearing a brown suit, dark red tie, well-polished Oxfords, round glasses with heavy frames and a Homburg hat. He could have walked off the set of a 1930s movie. The crowd asked him questions about the painstaking process of creating a comic, and he gave generous answers about work in the basement studio of his house in Guelph, Ont., and the influence of early 20th-century illustration on his style. But I just wanted to know about his clothes: "Do you dress that way in the basement?"

He explained that when he was younger -- he's now 42 -- he was obsessed with the past and actively tried to live in the 1930s. "If I bought an extension cord, it had to be a vintage extension cord," he said. He even went so far as to consider pasting enlarged photographs of old cityscapes over his windows to enhance the notion.

Today, he's more relaxed -- "This suit is probably from the eighties," he said -- but the habit of retro dressing has stuck with him. He would never think of plunking a baseball cap on his head.

It is, of course, primarily the look of the past that attracts Seth. And it is that look that distinguishes his cartooning, as his highly precise yet purposefully simplified drawings of crumbling cities and lonely souls conjure up a world that time has bypassed. He realized that it was not simply Art Deco, to take one example, that attracted him, but Art Deco overlaid with layers of grime and dust: It was both the style of the past and the patina of age that he found attractive.
That melancholy sense of decay permeates both the look of his cartoons and the stories he tells -- for, as Seth pointed out, the art of cartooning is as much about storytelling as it is about drawing.

Clyde Fans tells the mournful tale of two brothers struggling to sell fans in the age of air conditioning. It was inspired by a small business of that name on Toronto's King Street East and is published in Seth's occasional comic book Palooka-Ville before the chapters are assembled into longer books. In the pages included in the AGO show, the introverted Simon Matchcard looks after his increasingly senile old mother and makes a futile sales trip to the Northern Ontario city of Dominion.

Dominion is a place filled with low-rise buildings, small storefronts and such relics of the 20th century as the Canadian Toboggan Co. and the Jack Frost Dairy Bar. It's a fictional city with fictional businesses, but exists so powerfully in Seth's imagination that he has given it three-dimensional reality in a series of cardboard maquettes, which are included in the AGO show.

The other element on display is Hush, a cartoon panel that speaks even more emphatically of Seth's brand of sorrowful nostalgia. Originally created for the National Post, it depicts a series of abandoned pleasure palaces -- a shuttered tourist camp near Algonquin Park, an old drive-in somewhere on the Prairies with "a rusted-out kiddy carousel that no child has touched since 1973," and a racetrack in Quebec "where the horses stopped running 21 years ago."

"In these places and others like them, time is standing still," it concludes.

The AGO recently purchased Hush for its collection of contemporary art and curator Ben Portis describes it as an acquisition that fits within the history of Canadian art that the gallery is assembling, arguing it shares with the work of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven a nostalgic connection with the Canadian landscape.

A major retrospective organized with the National Gallery of Canada in 2002-2003 stressed how Thomson was recording a northern landscape that logging and tourism had changed and Portis compares that to Seth's concern with the remnants of human activity.

The gallery does have a tradition of acquiring and exhibiting cartooning, through its prints and drawings department. Seth is the first comic-book artist to be given a solo show, but the gallery has also exhibited the work of the Toronto political cartoonist Duncan Macpherson and of the avant-garde illustrator and novelist Martin Vaughn-James. The AGO is especially recognized for its collection of work by the Czech-German illustrator Walter Trier. The acquisition of Hush, however, marks the first time it is placing a cartoon outside of that graphic-art context, simply letting it stand shoulder-to-shoulder with fine art.

"It immediately confers a seriousness on it that you don't necessarily get in the real world," Seth said. "It gives all cartooning a legitimacy." But he also pointed out that the large drawings hanging on the AGO walls are not actually his real art. They are but one step in the process toward his final creation, the printed comic.

The irony is rather delicious: The art gallery may deign to recognize the comic but it cannot truly collect this art form. Thankfully, more of the real thing is on the way -- another instalment of Pooloka-Ville is expected in October along with a new graphic novel entitled Wimbledon Green, about an obsessive comic-book collector.
Seth continues at the Art Gallery of Ontario until Oct. 16.

 

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