The aged and seemingly immortal "The More You Know" public service announcement campaign on NBC elliptically implies "The Better Off You'll Be." All this knowing, apparently, will lead to enlightenment, empowerment, and better living. Socrates, however, thought himself wise only because he knew one thing: that he knew nothing.
Socrates, I kinda feel you. Leaving SMoCA's tandem exhibitions "IDIOS KOSMOS: KOINOS KOSMOS" — one curated by and the other created by artist Jon Haddock — I came up against my own curiosity about the vivid and fascinating worlds these artists create.
I also came up against my own philosophies about idios kosmos and koinos kosmos, Greek terms made contemporary by sci-fi writer Philip K. Dick in his own metaphysical essay about schizophrenia and the I Ching. Both exhibits focus on what is private (idios) and what is collective (koinos) and how much of each we do, or can, bring to the other. Are we individual agents or members of something greater? The cop-out answer is, of course, both. But what if we had to choose?
Those questions and ideas permeate Haddock's own work in the exhibit "Us Versus Them," and they also are interesting to consider in the gallery next door. Haddock, who acted as guest curator of "Masters of Collective Reality," chose nine artists whose work he admires and has been influential to his own. I took in "Masters of Collective Reality" first, took a break to investigate a noisy installation happening in the next gallery, came back again before taking in Haddock's solo exhibit, then went back a third time before leaving the museum.
I sat in my car for a minute, letting June heat seep into my industrially air-conditioned bones, utterly exhausted. But this was nothing like the aftereffects of waiting in a long line to see the next and then the next and then the next Monet. My head was spinning and has been since. I don't know about you, but the Impressionists don't do that to me.
In fact, that's it! I felt as though something had been done to me. I sent a few "you have to see this exhibit" texts because I wanted some friends to have it done to them, too, so that we could experience — hey, wait a minute! — collective reality? I completely fell for the dollar bill glued to the sidewalk. If these tandem exhibits are some kind of Jon Haddock-engineered psychological experiment, then I am a willing subject.
The nine artists in "Masters of Collective Reality" vary so distinctly that labeling their creations "comics" really begins and ends the comparisons. Their works are gathered in a bright room with color and bold lines on every wall. In the middle of it all is a sitting area with stacks of books about comic arts (not to be confused with comic books) and even a table with paper and crayons where visitors might draw their own comics. But this exhibit isn't really geared toward 10-year-olds who want to draw robots. Kids will no doubt be excited by and interested in the graphics here, but their parents will linger at the walls and display cases over frame after frame of the graphic — violence, politics, sex, substance abuse, isolation — alongside the graphics.
Fred Guardineer (1913-2002) and Basil Wolverton (1909-1978) are the resident masters in "Masters of Collective Reality." Guardineer's work will be familiar to aficionados. He contributed to the 1938 DC comic that introduced Superman, and his body of work, influenced by pop culture and wartime, includes the character Blue Tracer (of the Military Times series) and contributions to another series, Crime Does Not Pay. One digital reproduction (most of the work in the exhibit is digitally reproduced) from that series, "The Laughing Sadist," features a woman about to meet her maker at the hands of said sadist. Her black eye — neat blue lines drawn across part of her anguished face — stands as proof that he's the only one laughing.
Wolverton, another Golden Ager, drew from both science fiction and biblical worlds. He's the creator of Marco from Mars and is responsible for fantastic narratives like "The Brain Bats of Venus." The good/bad and us/them binaries and the focus on violence, retribution, and terror so present in science fiction are natural fits for stories about the apocalypse. Wolverton was an ordained Protestant minister, and his Bible-story illustrations are among the coolest work here. In 1958's Girl with Snake, a prepubescent cross between Jane Russell and Liza Minnelli (wearing a virginal summertime romper) kneels and stares into the serious if not sinister eyes of a serpent. Her wide-open expression says, "Bring it on!"
Aside from Guardineer, Wolverton, and John Stanley, creator of both Little Lulu and Goblin's Ball, the other work in the exhibit feels more contemporary. Even Rory Hayes, who died of a drug overdose in 1983, seems to be speaking to distinct 21st-century alienation. His work pushes drug use, base sexuality, violence, and paranoia, in all their tragedy and darkness, right up in our grills. Often, it's his teddy-bear alter ego (which he began drawing at age 7) that does the pushing.