Making comics about the art world is an excellent idea. The art world, although filled with internal critique, moves enough money to always be in need of a good, healthy mocking. Comics offer a medium that’s visual, but also more informal than so-called “fine art”; they also have their origins in humor and satire.
And so, the premise of Brecht Vandenbroucke’s White Cube is full of promise. Published by Drawn & Quarterly, White Cube collects and adds to, in full color, a series of originally self-published black-and-white strips by Vandenbroucke. The generally one-page, sometimes longer stories wordlessly recount the exploits of two bald-headed identical pink men (perhaps inspired by art world scenesters Eva and Adele?) as they visit a host of art galleries and museums and confront art (hence the proverbial “white cube” of the title, also the name of a gallery in London). Other episodes demonstrate the pair taking what they’ve learned from art and design and applying it in the outside world. If you think those lessons might be morally questionable — you’re right. Our heroes go see, and photograph, the Venus de Milo, and then come across a woman in a wheelchair with no arms and legs; they take pictures of her as she frowns. The pair read about Gordon Matta-Clark and, inspired, go on a cutting rampage, chainsawing in half not just their house but everything — bus, car, bike, coffin, newborn baby’s umbilical cord — at an impossibly busy city intersection. A recurring young boy character proudly shows them paper-doll cutouts that he’s made, and one of the pink men responds with a paper cutout that reads, “YOU HAVE NO TALENT.”
It’s sort of funny, in a crude way, and for the most part, that’s what White Cube has to offer: visual gags about the art world that for the most part probably won’t make you laugh out loud, but might elicit a chuckle. As when the duo seems to be spray-painting the word “SUCKS” on a fence, but it turns out to be a boring painting of a fence. Or when they buy a Warhol Marilyn in one color combination and then use a strobe light to produce the others. The best of Vandenbroucke’s jokes are clever in the way that puns are, which might explain why they had me groaning more than laughing. The problem with many of the gags, I think, is that they stay firmly on the surface, dealing only with aesthetics and appearances rather than content (Brecht apparently calls his pair the Aesthetic Critics). Art is a visual form, sure, but even attempts to strip away meaning have their own meaning. Without engaging that, you end up comparing Pointillism to pixels and thinking it’s somehow novel. Vandenbroucke succeeds most when he leaves the realm of the everyday and enters otherworldly territory. The more surreal strips in the book don’t exactly make sense, but that’s what makes them interesting. After seeing Caravaggio’s “Narcissus,” the two men jump up and somehow become one kaleidoscopic, symmetrical, intertwined figure (a kind of human Rorschach inkblot) — a wonderfully imaginative result. And Vandenbroucke’s take on Marina Abramovic’s “The Artist Is Present” is one of his best: the performance artwork becomes a sci-fi movie, as Abramovic turns cross-eyed, floats upside-down in her chair, and then her eyeballs pop out of her face. The pink guys flee as an assistant tallies another victory for Marina on a chalkboard. This surreal impulse gets taken to its own kind of logical extreme in two colorful standalone artworks in the book, one on a single page and the other unfolding over two (the cover and endpapers follow in the same vein). These are joyfully raucous and jumbled paintings — all the art in the book is hand-painted — that mash up dozens of references: to name just a few, from visual art there’s Manet and Gilbert and George; from comics, Tintin and Art Spiegelman; from pop culture, the Muppets and Beavis and Butt-Head. The chaotic collages show Vandenbroucke forgoing literalism in favor of visuals that aren’t cohesive enough to bear a punch line. In that, they’re a relief, making you want to linger rather than groan and turn the page.
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