Art

Feeling at Home with Alison Bechdel

A brief history of Alison Bechdel (all images courtesy the UM Institute for the Humanities)
Installation view, ‘Dykes, Dads, and Moms to Watch Out For: The Comics of Alison Bechdel’ at the UM Institute for the Humanities Gallery (all photos by Sarah Nesbitt, courtesy the UM Institute for the Humanities)

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — When it comes to creating an installation of the work of cartoonist Alison Bechdel, a curator is faced with more than the usual conundrums of what merits inclusion. Dykes, Dads, and Moms to Watch Out For: The Comics of Alison Bechdel, part of a year devoted to “Life Writing” (i.e. creative work which presents a highly biographical perspective) at University of Michigan’s Institute for the Humanities, opened alongside Bechdel’s January 22 appearance as a Penny Stamps distinguished speaker at the school. This first retrospective for Bechdel demonstrates the complexity of curating work by an artist who draws so heavily from her personal history, and who produces work with a tendency to shift the cultural paradigm. And while Bechdel’s comics have a way of drawing the reader into her world, there remains the clear challenge of presenting in a gallery setting content that’s typically received by the viewer in a more personal one.

Hence a series of unusual choices by Amanda Krugliak, arts curator for the Institute for the Humanities and the exhibit, who collaborated closely with Bechdel and Penny Stamps Speaker Series Director Chrisstina Hamilton to create an installation as immersive and deeply narrative as Bechdel’s best-known works, which include the longstanding comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For (1983–2008) and the graphic memoir Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006). The three women sought to create an environment that would mirror the personal spaces brought into the spotlight by Fun Home (which has since been adapted to a musical, originating at the Public Theater in September 2013 and opening on Broadway in April).

Installation view, 'Dykes, Dads, and Moms to Watch Out For: The Comics of Alison Bechdel' at the UM Institute for the Humanities Gallery
Installation view, ‘Dykes, Dads, and Moms to Watch Out For: The Comics of Alison Bechdel’ at the UM Institute for the Humanities Gallery (click to enlarge)

Krugliak has transformed the exhibition space into a simulacrum of a living room, complete with well-worn couch, family photos, and display cases reminiscent of a home library fading in grandeur. One gets the sense of wandering through a set for Fun Home: The Musical, which takes place in the fastidious environs of Bechdel’s childhood: her family’s house and their funeral home. This installation establishes a backdrop for the work, adding context that roughly mimics Bechdel’s personal history — we find a swatch of actual William Morris wallpaper from her childhood home hung above an inkwash drawing she did recreating that background, all set against more wallpaper with a near-identical motif. It also functions as a two-way mirror, for Krugliak has created a gallery that invites visitors to literally sit down with Bechdel’s work and references, handily provided in the form of a small non-lending library, and take them in much as a reader would normally do in their own home. This third dimension demonstrates the catch-and-release effect of Bechdel’s work: by meaningfully replicating her own experience, Bechdel is able to put out art that in turn generates new experiences for her readership — that of seeing themselves reflected in a culture that had previously left them marginalized.

Memorabilia from Bechdel’s life, including a “very nice rejection letter” from Adrienne Rich (click to enlarge)
Memorabilia from Bechdel’s life, including a “very nice rejection letter” from Adrienne Rich (click to enlarge)

There is intense bleed-through here between the personal and the public, the real and the imagined, placing memorabilia from Bechdel’s life and childhood in juxtaposition with that world as she reconstructs it on the page — a tactic Bechdel uses often in her own work, replicating a page of her diary, for example, alongside her adult analysis of her childhood tendency to redact her own writings. Bechdel often parodies her own obsessive-compulsive nature, but this trait clearly serves her to marvelous effect; the meticulous mapping and archiving of her own personal history has created a solid framework to support her mental and emotional explorations of her own experience.

In Bechdel’s work, what begins as life is processed through an artistic medium, then absorbed back into the world in a way that reshapes it, making more room for queer women and their narratives. When Bechdel characterizes her eponymous subjects as “dykes to watch out for,” she’s exploiting a double meaning. Ostensibly, you watch out for someone because they might be a threat, but her clear affection for these characters suggests not to be alert because they represent danger, but because they are interesting. Bechdel, for her part, has boldly tackled issues of alienation and representation in the mainstream — including much pigeonholing as an “Oppressed Minority Cartoonist” — and the impact of her work in terms of how women express themselves and are represented in media has been revolutionary to the point of almost being taken for granted. Although from Fun Home to the University of Michigan to her 2014 MacArthur Fellowship, it would seem the culture at large is finally paying attention.

Memorabilia from Bechdel’s life alongside 'Fun Home'
Memorabilia from Bechdel’s life alongside ‘Fun Home’ (click to enlarge)

Dykes, Dads, and Moms to Watch Out For: The Comics of Alison Bechdel continues at the Institute for the Humanities Gallery, University of Michigan (202 S Thayer St, Ann Arbor, Michigan) through February 25.

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