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Monday, December 5, 2022

Exhibit Review: Chris Ware

reviewed by Martha Kennedy

Chris Ware. Julien June Misserey and Benoît Peeters. Paris: Bibliothèque publique d’information, June 8-October 10, 2022.


An outstanding exhibition that featured the work of Chris Ware ran June 8 – October 10, 2022, at the Bibliothèque publique d’information (Bpi) at the Centre Pompidou in Paris. It was developed in partnership with the Angoulême International Comics Festival, which honored him with the Grand Lifetime Achievement Award in June of 2021. The exhibition, developed in close collaboration with Ware, celebrated his prodigious talent and inventiveness in comics, an area in which he has pushed expressive and formal boundaries. Prior to this major international honor during his nearly 40-year career, Ware had already received many other prestigious awards including: several Ignatz, Harvey, and Eisner awards, the Guardian First Book Award, an American Book Award, the Prize for the best album at the Angoulême Festival and Critic’s Prize, and Grand Prize of the city of Angoulême.


I had the pleasure of viewing this impressive retrospective in person this past summer. The show gave a window into Ware’s prolific, multi-faceted work for which he has won great international acclaim. The exhibition was for anyone interested in his work including those highly versed in it as well as those beginning to discover it.


The overarching arrangement was chronological with the following sections: issues of the Acme Novelty Library; three groups that largely feature selected drawings and color enlargements for each of Ware’s graphic novels; and Comics & Co., an area that presents examples of the artist’s work for magazines, posters, and short animated films. Exhibit texts were in French but included some portions in English in smaller type. French editions of Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth, Building Stories, and Rusty Brown, attached to stands, were easily browsed and helped anchor each group of items related to each graphic novel.


On entering the Bpi, it was easy to find the exhibition. Just inside the entry were large cases containing numerous issues of The Acme Novelty Library, the ongoing series that Ware began in the 1990s. The differing sizes, formats, and stylistically-changing cover designs hinted at the contents within and several examples were opened to display some of the highly varied comics stories (unsigned and purporting to be by multiple creators), cutouts with instructions for assembly, and articles addressed to readers. Some issues presented versions or portions of comics that eventually became parts of Ware’s graphic novels including Jimmy Corrigan the Smartest Kid on Earth.


The section devoted to Jimmy Corrigan (2001) included drawings and enlargements that primarily highlight the feelings and musings of Corrigan, the middle-aged, highly introverted protagonist and his eventual meeting with the father long absent from his life. The work is semi-autobiographical in that Ware draws upon his own experience of meeting his own absent father while he was working on his novel. In one drawing Ware shares Jimmy imagining what his father looks like by depicting multiple images of older men’s bald heads shown sequentially in a grid. In an online tour, curators Misserey and Peeters commented that making such use of the page at this time was highly innovative formally. They also mentioned Ware’s interest in evoking nostalgia tinged with sadness and detailed rendering of such architectural settings as the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, for example. Such interest continued into his work that followed.      


The section on Building Stories underscored the unconventional nature of this graphic novel that consists of fourteen separate printed works cased in a box that tell stories about people living in one building.  An exhibit case containing multiple notebooks relating to the graphic novel gave a glimpse into Ware’s creative process. As noted in the exhibit brochure, the stories of people in the building gradually build a portrait of one resident, a woman florist and aspiring artist with one leg. One of the most striking original drawings in this section featured a life-size rendering of the artist’s daughter based on her actual size at the time he drew it. This presented formal challenges in balancing the large form with smaller visual units, a challenge that he handled with impressive skill in composing the double page spread. Misserey and Peeters observed that the drawings and color enlargements in this section demonstrate that Ware had moved beyond a semi-autobiographical milieu to create a world that reflects increasing engagement with others.   


Some of the most compelling pieces in the section on Rusty Brown portray the character Joanne Cole, a Black teacher at the school attended by Rusty. To this reader, she is also one of the most interesting and sympathetic characters in the novel. The drawings on view included key scenes in her professional and personal history: we see her seeking to connect with her students, her strong engagement with playing the banjo (an interest shared with Ware), her careful interactions with white colleagues (much of which require repression and self-containment), qualities so well captured in Ware’s depictions. His imagery conveys a broadening of his relationships with others in the world. I agree with Misserey and Peeters who pointed to a growing sense of empathy and compassion toward others that is seen in this work.  


Midway through the show, a video of Ware being interviewed in his home and studio provided an engaging interlude. A clip that showed him at work using his straight edges and fine tipped pens conveys some of the intense focus required to achieve the precision, care, and thoughtful deliberation so evident in his work.


The section Comics & Co. presented examples of such additional work as a beautifully drawn cover for The Ragtime Ephemeralist, covers for The New Yorker, architectural drawings, and short video animations. Ware’s designs for The New Yorker, in particular, stand out not only as visually arresting but also as full of nuanced, thoughtful perspectives on the state of American society that reference the impacts of heightened socio-political divisions, the pandemic, threats of mass shootings at schools, and more. His architectural drawings also reminded me of how he uses this well-honed skill in rendering Midwestern architecture in Omaha and Chicago, in particular, to evoke a sense of place that contributes to narrative atmosphere and immediacy in his graphic novels.  


Further evidence of Ware’s multi-faceted interests and talent could be seen in several cases that displayed small wooden objects--figures and toys that he fashioned by hand. While some of these playful objects portrayed characters in his comics, others in a case near the end of the show were made for family events such as birthdays. Including such objects underscored the importance of family as well as work in his life.


When interviewed in conjunction with this exhibition, Ware agreed that he identifies as a “full ‘book artist.’” As he draws, writes, and designs his books, he tries to keep in mind the ways in which a human being is like a book in that it has a spine, is “bigger on the inside that the outside,” and can convey the truth about itself (or not.) He also said that a book is “also the only art which pretty much anyone can afford and own.” While the original drawings in the exhibition are one-of-a-kind, Ware also says that they represent “simply one step” in his creative process: “the finished, printed object is the art itself.” This emphasis on the book made the Bpi seem the perfect venue for this artist’s superb retrospective. No matter what aspect of Ware’s work you find most compelling or admirable or challenging, this exhibition shed light on your understanding of his art, him as an artist, and a human being.

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