The parallels between architecture and comics have not gone unremarked upon. There is, of course, a shared proclivity for world-building, as well as a reliance on grid, contour, line. But there’s one other point of commonality: both mediums tend to suffer when transplanted to the gallery context. That Chicago Comics: 1960 to Now, open at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago through October 3, manages to avoid this fate is thanks, in large part, to the exhibition design by Chicago- and New Orleans–based architecture firm Norman Kelley.
Using the subtlest applications of color and depth, architects Thomas Kelley and Carrie Norman have wrangled curator Dan Nadel’s kaleidoscopic vision into a joyful, propulsive, yet easily navigable show.
There are many moments of suspense and surprise. One particularly inspired move occurs at the exhibition’s beginning, where a series of yellow, green, red, and blue thresholds are placed on an axial enfilade. Apertures punched into each display wall alternately reveal and obscure works while preventing visitors from passing all the way through. The galleries come together like interlocking puzzle pieces to tease the next reveal, and the architects deploy them at key points in the show’s chronology.
Chicago Comics is peopled with outsiders—women and Black artists, but also broke-yet-scrappy art school kids—who found the shores of Lake Michigan a conducive place for their work. The material is diverse; in addition to comics strips, graphic novels, and zines, there are dioramas, installations, and memorabilia. Nadel frames the subject matter as a critical practice, one driven by a populist impulse to fuse elements of commercial comics like Dick Tracy with those of the counterculture. Indeed, antiauthoritarian bellicosity pervades the early galleries, where every character looks like a Saturday morning cartoon Abbie Hoffman. (In the case of Conspiracy Capers, art mirrored life; local scene lynchpins Skip Williamson and Jay Lynch created the one-and-done comic with the sole intention of using the proceeds to cover the attorney fees for the Chicago Seven.) There’s a sharp political edge to the strips from this period, even if they are laden with the sort of daredevil obscenity and goofy nihilism that seems pro-forma for ’60s radicalism today.
In the galleries devoted to alt-weeklies and zines, which began overtaking comic books in the 1980s, there is a shift toward moody, often meta, interiority. There are fewer portly, cloven-hoofed Chicago police officers and chain-breaking heroes like Tom Floyd’s “Blackman” (“Soul Wonder of the World!”); in their place rise a regiment of college dropouts creating for an audience that never arrives. By the time Daniel Clowes’s Art School Confidential hit stands in 1991, whatever energy remained from the counterculture had been redirected into cultural production powered by privilege-washing scammers trying one more time to pull off the “tampon-in-a-teacup trick.”
Moving into the aughts, the subject matter quiets to match the literary heft of the ascendant graphic novel. Norman Kelley’s subdued color scheme in these stretches of the exhibition mirrors this transition. Gray, beige-ish orange, and light blue set the mood for works like Ivan Brunetti’s Autobiography, which catalogs spiraling meditations on mortality prompted by a troublesome visit to the dentist.
In the best moments, the exhibition design puts these disparate stories into a kind of dialogue. Molly Colleen O’Connell’s Extra Extra Extra is an architecture-scaled bit of metafiction in which a comic book stand is staffed by a grotesque blue alligator. The piece brings the narrative up to the present, and from this vantage point, visitors realize the visual axis encountered at the start goes both ways. The telescoping, color-coded thresholds permit views back to the very first gallery, where from a wall-sized panel, Dick Tracy “gazes” onto O’Connell’s hallucinogenic tableaux and surmises, “Today I’ve seen everything.” It’s hard to argue the point.
The exuberant coloration returns in the concluding gallery, where works like Edie Fake’s Memory Palaces (2014) signal their investment in political and sociological critique. The building blocks of Fake’s palazzi are in fact fragments—quirky historicist details drawn from non-extant places and spaces where members of Chicago’s queer community once gathered. Fake manipulates these art Deco lines, crystal chandelier teardrops, and stained-glass arabesques into architectural codes decipherable only to a dissident clique already in the know.
Of the featured artists, Chris Ware most explicitly engages with architecture, and it’s not at all an accident that he enjoys pride of place in the exhibition. In his work, buildings become stage sets for interior lives, nonneutral places where people think and feel. And because Ware is a longtime Windy City resident, shabby-but-lovable three-flats and gabled roofs—unmistakably “Chicago” to design partisans—feature heavily. Unexpectedly, then, Chicago Comics blows up the cozy, if melancholy, cohesion that structures the comics, scattering fragments everywhere. Warian motifs are enlarged and collaged into a kind of wallpaper, while vitrines display wood sculptures of indistinct representation. It’s a jarring, and then sublime, presentation of Ware’s more recognizable style, offering a madcap peek behind the scenes of his creative process. The pure density of objects and images in this gallery—drawings scaling the walls and wonky sculpture ogling you with bug-eyed inanity—makes it the show’s most frenzied experience.
But it could have easily faltered were it not for Norman Kelley’s design scheme of layered galleries and perspectival shifts and reveals. Some visitors may come away from Chicago Comics with a familiar feeling—that of digging into a heap of comics, their varied contents splayed out, beckoning one to new worlds.