The rumor is that the golden years of creator-driven animation are coming to an end. Hell, writers back in 2010 were saying it was already dead. (Actually, it was one writer decrying the number of shows popping up just to promo toys, and that link got copied ad infinitum.) If walking through basic cable and satellite channel Nickelodeon’s exhibition, “Happy Happy! Joy Joy! Art and Artifacts From 25 Years of Creator-Driven Cartoons,” at Cal State Fullerton’s Begovich Gallery is any indication, reports of the era’s death may be greatly exaggerated.
Nickelodeon is the rare pop-cultural leader to take bold steps in presenting an equality of vision when it comes to racial representation: From green to pink to yellow, from blue to green, the channel’s palette of Pantone is neatly represented by the rainbow cascade of cardboard boxes in the piece Character Blocks at the gallery’s entrance, all of them shades of various animated characters’ skin. Welcomed into our home every day, presented to us during our impressionable, uncynical youth, it’s worth noting that the gentle shows Nick has produced may have done more for racial diversity than Hollywood is doing at the moment. While you can read accounts of the sound and the fury surrounding the whitewashing of Tilda Swinton’s Ancient One in Doctor Strange or Scarlett Johansson’s Motoko Kusanagi in Ghost In the Shell, you can watch Nickelodeon’s Sanjay and Craig, in which the lead character is an Indian preteen—voiced by an American actor of Indian descent—and doesn’t work in a 7-Eleven (thank you, Simpsons!). The network’s cult hit series Avatar: The Last Airbender goes several steps further, with an entire cast of Asian heroes.
The channel’s embrace of kitsch gets a nod in the oversized couch and milky bowl of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle cereal to the right of Character Blocks. There’s the sleeping cat hidden under the automobile-sized record console, the terrible wallpaper that looks as if 45 rpm singles were pressed into the wall, and the embarrassing family portraits and gaudy figurines—all in-jokes referencing shows the channel produced—scaled as though seen from a child’s perspective. Not only are you dwarfed by everything in a way that feels utterly safe and familiar, but the colossal TV screen is also set just far enough away to draw your attention and fill your vision (with clips from Nick shows).
Farther into the gallery are show bibles, detailed folders with outlines, character backgrounds, drawings and story ideas that allow for projects to be handed off to different creative teams, while still allowing for consistency. Also featured are pieces of clothing—cartoon-inspired couture that is worthy of an exhibition by itself, but the jacket and dress here seem like an afterthought—and a well-laid out, if occasionally random, flurry of Doug sketches; Hey Arnold! storyboards; revelatory notes from animator/cartoonist/comic-book artist/director/producer Bob Camp to his animation team; and painted Rugrats animation cels. As with most galleries, volume control and comfortable seating are a second thought when it comes to video material, so you need to lean in close to catch the punchy anecdotes in the installation, all competing with the gallery’s environmental noise.
What really prevents this from being just a colorful, self-congratulatory advertising write-off is the commissioned artwork of Monte Blunk. On white canvases outside the Begovich are Blunk’s remarkable wire-and-black-rubberized-paint sculptures that resemble the scratches and scrawls one might see on a sketchpad: Krumm from Aaahh!!! Real Monsters holds one of his eyes in his palm, tossing the other in the air; the bald-headed Aang from The Last Airbender swoops by with his airbender staff; a shrieking, snaggle-haired Chuckie from Rugrats tries to escape Reptar. In the back of the gallery stands Blunk’s joyous adult-sized SpongeBob sculpture, hands in the air, mouth cutting loose with a primordial chuckle, built with more than 700 yellow pencils. It honors the character’s rambunctious hyperactivity, as well as his hand-drawn beginnings, while being simultaneously nightmarish enough to keep you at a distance.
Though the exhibition smartly plays to the past couple of decades of everyone’s nostalgia (the exhibit’s title references 1990s favorite The Ren & Stimpy Show), a quick look at the network’s roster reveals that a handful of the shows are still running. While it could be argued that the longest-running shows are past their prime—SpongeBob turned 17 this week—for every arguable zombie stumbling about, there’s a handful of new cartoons being introduced. The new ground-breakers may not always be at Nickelodeon—FOX, Cartoon Network, Adult Swim and Netflix, for example, all have animated series out there—but it’s impossible to look at Nick and not realize it’s the reason we have these shows at all. From FOX’s irreverent Bordertown (with Weekly editor Gustavo Arellano as consultant) to the just-released, hyper-violent Ajin: Demi-Human from Netflix, there’s more to come. No need to stock up on the machetes and ammunition just yet.
“Happy Happy! Joy Joy! Art and Artifacts From 25 Years of Creator-Driven Cartoons” at Begovich Gallery, 800 N. State College Blvd., Fullerton, (949) 724-6880; www.fullerton.edu/arts/art/visual_events_current.html. Instagram: @begovichgallery. Open Mon.-Thurs. & Sat., noon-4 p.m. Through May 22. Exhibition is free, but parking isn’t, so plan for Saturdays when the traffic is easier and parking cheaper.