The electricity may periodically go out on the East End, but at 4 North Main in Southampton, Jules Feiffer, David Geiser, J.Z. Holden and Paton Miller will prove the “Power of the Line.” The exhibit, organized by Miller, provides a welcome opportunity to appreciate the constancy of drawing and painting as cartooning and caricature, works on paper that capture with humor and wit—and skill—timeless eccentricities and errant behavior. It’s a tradition that dates to the 17th century when the word “cartoon” entered the language, picked up steam as political and social criticism in the 18th and 19th and went darkly grotesque in the mid-20th with the fierce satiric commentary of German artists George Grosz and Wilhelm Heinrich Otto Dix.
Pulitzer Prize winner Jules Feiffer, cartoonist, playwright, novelist and children’s book author who teaches in the MFA program at Stony Brook Southampton, is an obvious draw for the show. Feiffer’s remarkable career is poised to take another turn with the publication next year of an extended graphic novel, which will be “funny and noir,” channeling, Feiffer says, Billy Wilder, Howard Hawks, Raymond Chandler and himself. As for his iconic nervous line figures, many driven by angst, he playfully notes that he’s “through with that…I’ve been at it for 50 years, nobody listens to me.” The pieces in 4 North Main include a signature watercolor dancer from his Fred Astaire series: “I have always loved him as a model, inspiration, and someone I wanted to emulate in my drawings.” Of course, older Village Voice fans will see more they’ll recognize.
David Geiser, with his Hieronymus Bosch/Tim Burtonesque sensibility, may owe some of his oddball inspiration to underground comics, which he used to draw, not to mention Frances Bacon and R. Crumb, but his beautifully drawn, imaginative, fantastical creatures, human and insect, also evidence solid knowledge of high art—an image from Hopper or Tintoretto claiming a bit of background on an otherwise bizarre cartoon page (Geiser is also an accomplished abstract painter). Nothing is simple or sacred: clown heads, a renewed “weird” interest for him, suggest slight danger (“we’re all clowns”). It’s Geiser’s thick-lipped, toothy grotesques, however—surreal forms, scratched out in spidery colored-pencil lines, human anatomy parts sharing space with cephalopods—that compel immediate attention.
J.Z Holden, a writer who’s “always had a thing for color,” invokes as influence the “wild-beast” Fauvists, those early 20th century post or neo-impressionist moderns (Matisse prominent among them) who broke the rules with their bold, “alive” pigment. The vibrant brush strokes in her animal pieces, executed in oil, crayon and gouache, signal with their intensity telling aspects of human behavior, especially the way cats, her “passion,” are “perceived by their owners.” In Lily she pays loving tribute to Jules Feiffer’s recently deceased cat, and in Max, with his striking green eye, she reflects in part her former long-time career working in film and television as a special effects make-up artist. The picture is also meant to invoke the craze that prompts people to buy “83 million cat toys,” blindly following ads.
Paton Miller always loved to do caricatures, starting with sketches of his family when he was a child. Long an admirer particularly of Goya and Daumier and also of Warner Brothers’ Bugs Bunny, Fantasia’s dancing hippos and Mad Magazine, Miller says the 4 North Main show is a tribute to strength of line which he refers to as a kind of Henry Moore “lasso around sculpture,” meaning “you can feel the 3D effect” of line in good drawings. He suggests a mutual influence between painting and drawing for those who do both—one genre enhancing the skill of the other. His own work, he says, is informed by both his “optimistic” view of life and his “sardonic” take on the human condition. “Welcome to Our Towne,” for example, combines expressionistic narrative with a sly sense of the absurd—a cannon is perched on a cliff, a dog sits nearby on a chair—for sure, that greeting is not his doing! Miller’s charcoal sketch of Feiffer, not incidentally, seems a fitting tribute to the spirit of collegiality that informs this show.
“Power of the Line” at 4 North Main, Southampton. Opening July 6, 6- 9 pm.