Art Review: "R. Crumb's Underground"
Grand Central Art Center

Art Review: "R. Crumb's Underground"

There's an exhibit going on at the moment that may be of some interest to comic strip fans. It's the "R. Crumb's Underground" exhibit, at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana. It contains a mixture of 100 drawings, collaborations, sketches, and published pieces of Robert Crumb--pen name R. Crumb-- an underground comic book artist whose art is characterized by its critique of mainstream society.

Though I would happily consider myself an artistic aficionado, I have to admit defeat when it comes to anything related to pop art. So take this assessment with a grain of salt.

As I am standing here one Thursday afternoon, trying to decipher the point of the risque comic book imagery on the walls in front of me, I look down at my watch and realize 5 minutes have passed and I have absolutely no idea what I am looking at. All I know is the characters in those comic strips are of the shameless and disturbing variety. The piece in question that perturbs me is Lap o' Luxury (1977), a study in one lazy afternoon that takes place between a mother, her two little boys, and the cowboy boots of a woman visitor. A seemingly innocent encounter swiftly becomes non-innocent, and I'm left to wonder what it was that I just saw and read. And the more pressing issue: What is the point? 

Perhaps a commentary on repressed sexuality, or on bad parenting, I'm not sure. All I know was that I was disturbed. Which I guess is the point? The same goes for the rest of the comic strips and drawings on display at the exhibit, though they are all skillfully rendered and shameless in their non-PC way. 

Among the robust women, the lanky men, the--deliberate--racial stereotypes and the anthropomorphized animals that are definitely not safe for work, I become more disturbed as I move through the different pieces. Seemingly innocuous, even innocent conceits from the every day are suddenly subverted and made ugly. Yet I guess that is the purpose of the Underground movement and why it has such a large following; it takes the harsh reality and magnifies it, so that even though you would like to, you cannot ignore it anymore.

Maybe I did not like looking at it because, as the Underground movement would say, I have been brainwashed by the mainstream into believing that everything is all sunshine and flowers, and that I am willingly blind to the ugliness that is inherent within contemporary society. Or perhaps it just reminds me why I have never been taken by comic strips, not even the tame Sunday Times ones. If that is the case, I will stick with critiquing paintings and leave the pop art and comics to those of the more seasoned readers.

The exhibit has been touring since 2008 and is organized by the Yerba Buena's Center for the Arts, San Francisco. So for anyone interested in pop art or have an appreciation for comic strips, "R Crumb's Underground" is worth a look if only for its original drawings in black ink pen. For the casual viewer, prepared to be a bit perturbed. Then again, that is the nature of art.



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