If you're thinking about pursuing an art career, Matthew Thurber has some terrible news for you. His Art Comic is an intentionally sophomoric send-up of the New York art scene, satirizing both the establishment of internationally revered figures and the lowly newcomers clambering to replace them. Thurber splatters his art references thickly and without gloss: Chris Burden, Bucky Fuller, Thomas Kinkade, Jeff Koons (his sculpture, "Balloon Dog", also makes a cover cameo), Sol LeWitt, James Rosenquist, Brothers Quay (my personal favorite), and, most foregrounded, Matthew Barney—whom I assumed was an invention until I googled and discovered that Thurber's cartoon rendering of the artist is spot-on.
Thurber's approach to narrative is the equivalent of a Jackson Pollock painting. A very brief copyright note explains that Art Comic began as a series of individual pamphlets, though it's not clear when they began or for how long they continued publishing. The novel's opening pages are set in 1999, and while there's a slow evolution into the early '00s, there are also unexplained but clearly su-titled leaps to 2014 that feature Ivan turned Ivanhoe, a quixotic collector on a knightly mission to destroy contemporary art in revenge for his parents' death at the hands of a collapsing Koon sculpture. He receives a much-needed flashback, as does the nefarious art professor, whose sepia-toned backstory includes less-needed bar fights and sex in public bathrooms. But is the professor's present time Ivanhoe's present time? or the present time of the class he's teaching? or was teaching back in, wait, what year is it again, and why is David Bowie alive?
Happily, none of this is confusing—because, since the art world is absurd, why shouldn't time be, too? Even Thurber's chapter divisions seem capricious, since scene leaps between page turns are often more demanding. My favorite three-page sequence segues from a vampire bat flying out of the art professor's window (having just paid him for suppressing the next generation of aspiring artists) to an art student jumping from a funicular to avoid applying to grad school (don't worry, his story picks up even more abruptly in art heaven e18 pages later—though where the hell did that funicular come from?) to Ivanhoe's squire Walter recapping his knight's origin story, which, oh yeah, that was interrupted ten pages earlier by a floppy-eared Matthew Barney tap dancing himself into a bottomless pit. No, wait, that's actually Cupcake dressed as Barney in a screening of his final project.
The novel coheres mostly around a cast of art students: the Barney-obsessed Cupcake, the commercially driven Boris, the beret-wearing and black-identity-questioning Tiffany. Others, like the Jewish-identity-questioning Dorothy, vanish after the final art class critique, and the cast graduates and finds sublets (if actual Manhattan apartment dwellers could sublet the spaces under their bed, I'm sure they would) and dubiously art-related jobs.
Boris and Cupcake's dream of appearing on Drunk TV (a riff on Drunk History, I assume) peters out but other, more obscure plotlines replace it: the three little pigs surveilling New York in a brick submarine; a pair of art delivery handlers transporting fornicating (and fully anatomically human-looking) robots to an exhibit. We later learn that Ivanhoe's friend from another planet made them. Meanwhile, Tiffany seeks divine inspiration, resulting in Jesus Christ beaming down to cause various art-related chaos—not the only appearance of God in the novel. Tiffany is also chased from a critique session by possibly literal demons and rescued by a serial killer with a sailboat and marooned at sea and adopted by pirates where she stays until they turn out to be zombie pirates. If it sounds like I'm giving away too many spoilers—I'm not. These are just a few highlights of Thurber's plot splatter.
Cupcake does land a gallery assistant job with none other than his idol Matthew Barney. The gig unfortunately involves being chased by a wild dog—not to mention an anthropomorphic zebra (or is it a horse?) writing a muckraking exposé on the abusive filmmaker. Barney has also been working on a comic—perhaps the comic we're currently reading? If so, it's got to be better than the collection of "Pissclown" paintings Tiffany inspects in an upscale gallery. Though maybe not much better?
Thurber's style is intentionally rough, a fitting approach for his broad-stroke humor that mocks, for example, concerns about cultural appropriation with an art project titled "Pigoda". It doesn't necessarily look like Thurber drew and colored the novel with his teeth—a strategy Tiffany tries after her class rebukes her "illustrational approach": "Maybe if I paint something poorly, my peers will respect me for once"—but precision, line variation, three-dimensionality, these aren't on Thurber's list of artistic necessities.
Nor should they be. Art Comic lampoons the art world by wallowing in its shallowest waters. On the planet UXOBI, we learn from Ivanhoe's alien friend: "fecal matter is the only artistic medium that has ever existed." Thurber, stranded here on Earth, makes do with paper and ink.