There's an image near the end of "The Art of John K.," running through Dec. 28 at the LCAD@Forest gallery in Laguna, that succinctly summarizes the relationship between maverick cartoonist/The Ren & Stimpy Show creator John Kricfalusi and his audience. It's a series of layout drawings from the 1991 TV short Boo Boo Runs Wild that he wrote and directed: Boo Boo Bear has somehow torn out the seat of Ranger Smith's pants. Next page, pal Yogi Bear is smacking Smith's ass, with Boo Boo following suit, hitting him so hard it knocks the spots off the Ranger's pink underpants. Smith, initially angry, now blushes, his hand covering his mouth like a shy Japanese schoolgirl, while more spanking and hilarity ensues. Kricfalusi's (misspelled) note on the drawing reads, "But Quivers."
Delighting in the grotesque and slyly kinky, Kricfalusi has always created work that at equal measure repelled and attracted his audiences, introducing them to things that would make their butts quiver long before they even knew it would. A glorious fuck-you to the sparsely animated Saturday-morning crap of the time, the artist's Grimm affection for the dark undercurrents of children's imagination—the sadism, love of bodily functions, ridicule, violence and gender-vaguery—is invigorating. His stint on Nickelodeon was a short one, but that risk-taking paved the way for future animated works as diverse as Beavis & Butthead, SpongeBob SquarePants, and The Venture Brothers.
A celebration of firsts, "The Art of John K." is Kricfalusi's first exhibition, as well as Laguna College of Art + Design's first downtown presence in 52 years—the brand-spanking-new gallery is located just a few doors down from the legendary BC Space. Curated by the college's animation chair, Dave Kuhn, and Arualyn When (in collaboration with Andrea Harris-McGee), it's a belated celebration and also perfectly timed: Kricfalusi is working on a new Kickstarter-funded series, Cans Without Labels. Just a glance at the renaissance of adult cartoons and smarter children's animation suggests the attitude and ambiance of the industry has finally caught up with him.
"The Art of John K." at LCAD@Forest, 225 Forest Ave., Laguna Beach, (949) 715-8089; www.lcad.edu. Open Mon.-Tues. Wed. Sat., 11 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Free.
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The passive/aggressive relationship of Kricfalusi's two most famous characters, the unremittingly tense Chihuahua Ren and the adorably stupid cat Stimpy, is well-represented by the exhibition, with large panels of animation cels, ink-on-paper sketches, character designs and notes in skillful display. Ren, covered in gooey gray hairballs, slaps Stimpy senseless or fluffs the cat into a pillow, while entire episodes of two of their most famous—and funniest—shows, "Big House Blues" and "Stimpy's Invention," play quietly on monitors, the hook-y lyrics of "Happy Happy Joy Joy" ear-worming itself into your brain.
Further down is a plethora of back-handed celebrity caricatures, with the Obamas, Tom Cruise, Taylor Swift and the gang from the Twilight saga, among others, gracing the wall—all lips, chins and teeth, the lot grotesque enough to make Basil Wolverton queasy. Near that, music videos animated by the artist, including the Ralph Bakshi-esque black "cats" capping one another and big-lipped, top-heavy girls boogying with Mick Jagger in 1986's "Harlem Shuffle." Even better, you can watch a cartoon version of Björk take a bubble bath, and then be devoured by piranha, a bloody chunk at a time, her cartoon Icelandic naked bits covered by just the merest suggestion of bubbles ("I Miss You," 1995).
If you're not familiar with Ren & Stimpy or the host of other cartoons the artist has worked on—The Ripping Friends, the online Weekend Pussy Hunt, and The New Adventures of Beany and Cecil are all at least a decade old—you may be at a bit of a loss. Throw yourself into it headfirst by watching the videos on display (which should be louder or proffered with headphones since one of Kricfalusi's skills as an animator is sound effects and ironic use of classical music), and you'll quickly become familiar with his style, but his influences—animators Tex Avery and Bob Clampett, illustrator Wolverton, and cartoonist Ed "Big Daddy" Roth—aren't given their due. Introductory information on Kricfalusi's background is inconveniently missing from the show, as well as the work of artists he has influenced. Supplying that information would go a long way toward putting the revolutionary status of the work into context.