art travelling: ‘Cartooney’ at the New Media Gallery

I like physics but I love cartoons        Stephen Hawking

Andy Holden – Cartooney – New media gallery / photo by author

The NEW MEDIA GALLERY Metro Vancouver’s best and most exciting space for contemporary art, has mounted yet another fascinating, provocative and enjoyable exhibition. One of the things I love about visiting Vancouver, which I do regularly, is to catch up on the NMG’S latest offering and so far I have never been disappointed.

The current show hits everybody’s sweet spot: it’s about cartoons. We all grew up on cartoons and most of us retain an affection for these brightly coloured funnies no matter how ‘sophisticated’ we become as we grow up.  No matter how serious I feel, I only have to see a picture of Donald Duck to break out into a big grin. But it’s rare to see cartoons themselves taken seriously unless it’s to excoriate them for present-day lack of ‘correctness’.

While its fair to critique cartoons as cultural products of their time it’s important to remember that cartoons aren’t meant to be subtle. Cartoons are deliberately grotesque, loping along the fine line between realism and the absolutely uncanny. We can identify with cartoon characters and situations, while at the same time fully appreciating how bizarre and unreal they are. Often dismissed in adulthood as ‘kids stuff’ the cartoon is much more complex, artistic and revelatory than we give it credit for, and the show delves into all that with relish.

The artists assembled here by curators Sarah Joyce and Gordon Duggan demonstrate a range of approaches and technologies to address and explore the humble cartoon.

US artists Jennifer and Kevin McCoy make multimedia artworks exploring and indexing the genres and conventions of filmmaking. Their piece for Cartooney, ‘Every Anvil’, is made up from episodes of the Looney Tunes cartoon (1930-1969) which was shown regularly on broadcast TV for decades. the artists have isolated individual shots and identify these by keywords given to each instance of violence or physical action: ‘every explosion’, ‘every singed fur or hair’ and every anvil. There are 120 categories and each is archived on a video CD; the CDs and an accompanying player make up the installation, which is housed in a smart travelling case. Visitors can play back the CD and view it on the screen.  Watching ‘every anvil’ from Looney Tunes played back is an unnerving and fully entertaining experience. Yes, it highlights the violence but it also negates it, by showing just how silly and unreal the cartoon is, as well as appreciating the artistry of the cartoon itself.

Jason Salavon’s ‘All the Ways (The Simpsons) ‘ installation view / photo by author

Jason Salavon’s ‘All the Ways (The Simpsons) ‘ is part of a body of work in which the artist transforms cultural data into visual compositions. Taking digital files of all of the extant episodes of The Simpsons, Salavon has – with his own software and algorithms – reformatted this visual information into visual “averages” that appear as melting patterns and dynamic colour shifts – often very beautiful – which completely changes the familiar images and our relationship with them.

Andy Holden ‘Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape’  / photo by author

British artist Andy Holden’s film ‘Laws of Motion in a Cartoon Landscape’  is a kind of illustrated lecture on the laws of physics in the cartoon world. It is absolutely brilliant and one of the best uses of 57 minutes of your life you’ll ever experience. Holden draws upon real physics,  the work of Greek philosophers and Stephen Hawking, to extract and identify ‘the ten laws of cartoon physics’ – including for example the law that ‘anybody suspended in space will remain in space until made aware of its situation’. It was fascinating to reflect upon how we recognise and immediately accept the laws of physics that shape the cartoon world.

Martin Arnold’s piece ”Black Holes’ links the phenomenon of ‘black holes’ with blacked-out portions of Disney cartoons, in this case, Pluto. The piece reveals the way that the mind’s eye ‘fills in’ the missing parts of the image while simultaneously registering their absence.

Mungo Thompson’s ‘AMERICAN DESERT (for Chuck Jones)’ photo by author

It wasn’t until after I’d left the gallery that I realised I’d seen the work of AV VJ artist patten before, many times. In this show, patten’s piece ‘CB-MMXVIII (I’ve been thinking of giving sleeping lessons)’ is centred on Charlie Brown, life’s eternal loser, who is pressed and compressed in a series of digital distortions interrupted by video collage. The piece, though enormous fun to watch,  appealed to me the least because it lacked the kind of intellectual challenge the others offered.

Mungo Thompson’s ‘AMERICAN DESERT (for Chuck Jones)’ Photo by author

The most exciting piece in the show for me is Mungo Thompson’s ‘AMERICAN DESERT (for Chuck Jones)’ which isolates the desert landscape of the  Road Runner cartoons. Digitally erasing the cartoon figures, Thompson presents the eerie desert terrain familiar from countless Westerns, a mythic landscape emblematic of a certain conception of ‘America’. As in Lech Majewski’s recent film ‘Valley of the Gods’ the iconographic nature of the southwestern desert is represented as a place of power and mystery. But that perspective is immediately problematized because we recognise this myth-making for what it is: as way absolve the national narrative of ‘westward expansion’ from its history of expropriation.

The exhibition brought together a number of issues and thoughts that have been significant for me over the past year or so.  I’ve been pondering and writing about the many ways in which landscape is represented in art and film. Thompson’s piece refreshed my thinking on this as I had not considered the cartoon landscape as part of this question at all. The cartoon, especially as presented here by Thompson,  is both art and film – a fictive created landscape that is part of a moving image. Cartoon streamlines and simplifies the landscape, yet it retains its recognition factor and its iconographic nature is here even more concentrated and intense. Colours are finite and final: green is stark and emphatic green, the yellow of the desert is brutally yellow, the blue sky is inexorably blue. Nothing’s changeable or mutable; that is to say, nature is not present.

Salavon’s treatment of the Simpsons also raised the question of colour for me. I have been thinking about colour for some time now, noting that the way we perceive colour in nature is different from the way we perceive it in art. Salavon helped me to think about that. The RGB colour mix the Simpsons dissolve into is constantly shifting and moving, pixel by pixel. Here the sense of nature’s mutability is echoed in an almost sarcastic way by the dancing pixels, as they form and reform shapes which are imperceptible yet constantly compel us to search them for meaning.

For me, Cartooney offered new ways to think about the intellectual and aesthetic questions that have been troubling me for a while,  providing much food for thought and creative inspiration. Obviously, I am thinking of my own interests and challenges here – based on my own struggles with art-making and art writing. But, given the breadth and depth of the show, I would imagine that the same exhibition offers equal stimulation to all of its visitors, depending on where their interests and questions lie. After all, everybody loves cartoons.


Cartooney (to  F E B R U A R Y    0 2    2 0 2 0)

New Media Gallery

777 Columbia St, New Westminster, BC V3M 5V2

Martin Arnold ‘Black Holes’