News about the premier academic journal devoted to all aspects of cartooning and comics -- the International Journal of Comic Art (ISSN 1531-6793) published and edited by John Lent.

Tuesday, December 4, 2018

Exhibit Review: The Masters Series: Roz Chast.

The Masters Series: Roz Chast. Tyson Skross, exhibit designer. New York City: SVA Chelsea Gallery. November 17 – December 15, 2018.

Roz Chast’s interconnected life and work are the subject of the current exhibit at the School of Visual Art’s SVA Chelsea Gallery as the “30th annual Masters Series Award and Exhibition.” Chast’s secure place in the canon of cartooning makes her a fitting choice for this anniversary honor. Jennifer Schuessler in her New York Times interview about the exhibit called Chast “the poet laureate of urban neurosis,” and discussed her copious work for the New Yorker. I certainly remember reading many one-panel cartoons by Chast in my parents’ copies of the magazine in the 1990s. As this exhibit makes clear, however, her work is much wider in scope than just gag cartooning for one magazine.

The exhibit is designed to be fun. Rather than offering a comprehensive linear trajectory of Chast’s work to date, it is arranged by theme in one large room, subdivided, but offering multiple pathways through the material on display. Visitors are invited to wander, due not only to the arrangement of the material, but also because of the scarcity of wall text. What labels there are do not generally attempt to explain or guide, but rather simply offer titles, years, and materials. This is an exhibit designed to allow appreciation of Chast’s work, rather than an exhibit designed to teach visitors about Chast.

As I walked through, I first encountered an area focused on Chast’s newest book, Going into Town: A Love Letter to New York. Dozens of pages from the book are framed on the walls in tidy lines. The art itself, scaled to the size of the published book, is also quite tidy; only a few of the originals had noticeable changes or corrections overlaid on new paper. In addition to reproductions of life-sized pedestrians on some of the walls, there was also a display of a full wall of Chast’s New York cityscape here.

The next area displays the breadth of her work for the New Yorker, spanning several decades of interior cartoons and cover illustrations. It was charming to see that one of the enlarged reproduction covers had a mailing address label to the SVA. This area has a wall devoted to originals of Chast’s interior cartoons for the magazine from the past two years, and it was there that I first started overhearing other people visiting the exhibit laughing aloud as they read her work on the walls, and there that I started thinking about how Chast has impressively kept her work timely. A display of Chast’s work for her “Motherboard” New Yorker cover, which showed her watercolor designs, her actual fiber art, and a blown-up copy of the cover of the New Yorker that resulted from the photographed fiber art is a thoughtful endcap to this area.

The next area features Chast’s early work, including her cartoons for gay-themed magazine Christopher Street. Childhood drawings and early career sketchbooks faced a tableau and display based on her memoir of her parents’ aging, Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant? Some of her pysanka, or traditional Ukrainian painted Easter eggs, were in a glass case between the sketchbooks and childhood art. This area definitely felt the most like a traditional museum exhibit, since it included older ephemera and objects from her parents’ home with a kind of Benjaminian aura intact. 

The area farthest from the entrance included illustrations from her children’s picture books, more of her fiber arts, the entire alphabet from her book What I Hate: From A-Z, and an installation of an “MRI of Love,” in which visitors are welcome to photograph themselves as the exhibit is designed to be partially interactive. There are the expected books you can page through and a few multimedia interfaces, but there are also Instagram-ready tableaux such as the MRI, which has its own suggested hashtags.

While I enjoyed the whole exhibit, there were some parts that felt more meaningful to me than others. The two-dimensional work is hung simply and at a convenient height for reading. Chast’s lines and watercolors are extremely clean, and while the originals are vibrant, they tend to be reproduced well in print, at basically the same scale at which they are produced. Thus, it was her three-dimensional work which I found most exciting to see in person, since her embroidery, her hooked rugs, and her painted pysanky eggs do not have the same effect when reproduced in photographs. Through her books, I can see Chast’s cartoons whenever I want to, but this may be the only time to see her original fiber art or the handbag she discusses in Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?

Emily Lauer

(This review was written for the International Journal of Comic Art 20:2, but this version appears on the IJOCA website on December 4,2018, while the exhibit is still open for viewing.)

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