What is ‘Cartoony Figuration?’ (And who’s afraid of it)

Before answering Dallas Contemporary’s question, “who’s afraid of cartoony figuration,” a definition of the term. Simply put, “cartoony figuration” refers to a genre of figurative artwork produced in a cartoony style. Think Philip Guston’s Ku Klux Klan paintings from the late 1960s, or his skewering of Richard Nixon in the 70s. Robert Colescott.

Dallas Contemporary Adjunct Curator Alison M. Gingeras coined the term in an essay for Karolina Jabłonska’s (b. 1991, Niedomice, Poland) first monograph “Made Up Story” (2022). Appropriate, then, that Gingeras curates “Who’s Afraid of Cartoony Figuration?” a group exhibition opening April 3, 2024, featuring Jabłońska.

As for answering the titular question.

“There’s not much to be afraid of unless you take the subject matter the artists explore via the ‘comix’ style seriously,” Gingeras told me. “Why else would the Tate and its museum partners have canceled, then ultimately dramatically postponed, the (Philip) Guston retrospective at the height of the Black Lives Matter uprisings in 2020?”

Gingeras is referring to the controversial delay of a Guston retrospective set to debut in June 2020 at the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. before visiting Tate Modern in London, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, and the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where it eventually appeared October 23, 2022, through January 16, 2023.

“There was a fear of the complexity and complicated histories embedded in Guston’s work being misunderstood at such a fraught moment,” Gingeras added. “In particular, I would argue, the fear was based on the assumption that Guston’s political meanings would be potentially undermined by the cartoony style that might not be understood by the general public as ‘serious.’”

The public follows critics to that conclusion. Tastemakers have dismissed cartoony figuration since its appearance in the mid-20th century. Guston, again, serving as the perfect example.

“The overwhelmingly negative reception of Philip Guston’s work when he started to make the ‘hood paintings’—Ku Klux Komix as one critic called them—epitomizes this anti-cartoony snobbery that’s contributed to a suspicion towards this type of work,” Gingeras said.

But with Guston now seen as an essential of the last century and Colescott’s auction prices soaring, a light shines on Cartoony Figuration that has not previously.

Karolina Jabłonska, Pancakes lady, 190x170cm, oil on canvas, 2023.
Karolina Jabłonska, Pancakes lady, 190x170cm, oil on canvas, 2023. Photo by Mateusz Torbus.

“This exhibition gave me an opportunity to recognize the legacy of these artists who are posthumously making a big impact on contemporary painting and sculpture while highlighting four contemporary artists whose works distinguish them in the current landscape,” Gingeras said.

In addition to Jabłonska, “Who’s Afraid of Cartoony Figuration” spotlights Sally Saul (1946, Albany, NY), Tabboo! (né Stephan Tashjian; b. 1959, Leicester, MA) and Umar Rashid, also known as Frohawk Two Feathers (b. 1976, Chicago).

The artists combine the levity of cartoons, comics, and commercial illustration with typically irreverent and subversive social commentary. Dark humor. Anti-establishment. Cartoony Figuration makes for the perfect artistic weapon to train upon the colonial, the capitalist, the corrupt, the patriarchal.

Unwrapping complexities lying beneath the cheeky, populist aesthetics, the exhibition presents works by artists coming from different generations, geographies, and practices who have uniformly honed their cartoony figuration to address critical subjects of contemporary life.

Gingeras deliberately selected this foursome for their diversity.

“It’s like a snapshot of different, interrelated struggles—with Umar’s focus on decolonizing histories with wicked humor and irreverence, Karolina’s deep involvement with the Women’s Strike in Poland and the struggle for abortion rights, Tabboo’s longstanding visibility in the LGBTQ+ underground in New York, and Sally Saul, who takes up the poetics and politics of the human condition and everyday life,” she said. “What connects them is how they harness the populist connotations of the cartoon in order to convey difficult subjects with a disarming accessibility. Each strategically deploys the language of the cartoon as a way to confront serious subjects, existential questions, and polemical topics in a manner that is relatable—or, at least, less confrontational.”

True to their iconoclastic nature, artists broadly defined under the Cartoony Figuration umbrella are ununited. There’s no manifesto or membership card. Saul works in ceramics, which may catch visitors off guard.

Made especially for Dallas Contemporary, Rashid will create a new chapter of his grand historical narrative. Set at the turn of the 18th century, his story centers on a band of Black and mixed race “free radical” rebels in what today is called North-Central Texas, but was then known as Nueva España. In a series of six large scale paintings, this band of roving rebels spread their liberatory struggle and ancient regime change across the landscape while encountering Numunuu (Comanche) tribes people as well as European settlers.

 “Who’s Afraid of Cartoony Figuration” will remain on view at Dallas Contemporary, where admission is free, through September 22, 2024.

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