Variations of the Void: Sophie Crumb and Joseph Havel

DKCT Contemporary on the Bowery is currently hosting cartoonist Sophie Crumb’s debut New York show, in conjunction with the release, by W.W. Norton, of Evolution of a Crazy Artist, a full-color, chronological compilation of the artist’s drawings dating back to her early childhood. The show is organized not thematically but anthologically. There are a few pretty watercolors (in inkjet reproduction); some single- and double-page comics, including Ms. Crumb’s reworking of a section of an old Tijuana Bible; a funny portrait of reality-TV star Snooki sitting on a rocking horse reading The 48 Laws of Power, and other related, more or less sincere studies of tabloid fame; and miscellaneous watercolors and drawings, some of them made as gifts for Ms. Crumb’s more famous cartoonist parents, Robert and Aline.

In their prefaces to the book, and in the national media attention that’s come with it, all three artists, R., Aline and Sophie Crumb, acknowledge their nepotism honestly and with humility. No one is making great claims for Ms. Crumb as a fully developed artist. They propose instead that the interest of the work lies in R. Crumb’s compulsive archiving: How often can we watch an artist develop from nursery-school drawings all the way through to adulthood?

Even a bare acknowledgment of nepotism is more than we’re likely to get from most scions of the famous, but in the context of all three Crumbs’ highly confessional work, it’s disappointing. Ms. Crumb’s tabloid-style portraits of Britney and Angelina don’t illuminate the nature of their fame so much as make you wonder about Ms. Crumb’s relationship to her own. “I have let go,” she writes, on one drawing in the book, “of all that pressure of living up and being compared to ‘the Legend.'” From a personal standpoint, if that’s true, we can be happy for her; but from an artistic standpoint, we’d rather see a head-on confrontation in all its gory messiness.

 

JOSEPH HAVEL, AT Yvon Lambert, has on display two explorations of the substance of the void. The first, smaller piece is a hardcover copy of A Void, the novel-length lipogram written by Oulipo founder Georges Perec, and translated into English by Gilbert Adair, without the letter “e.” Mr. Havel has carefully cut every word out of the book–except, on page 101, the word “No!”

This reviewer declines to comment.

The larger piece, Seven Variations of Nothing, is described as a set of seven monochrome “paintings,” and they do, in fact, when first noticed through the gallery’s enormous windows, look like paintings. From closer up, the paintings are revealed to be plexiglass boxes filled with neat columns of white shirt labels; each is embroidered with the word “nothing,” which the artist photocopied from one of John Berryman’s Dream Songs. The labels are arranged in seven simple patterns–a square target, vertical columns, horizontal rows, diagonals and so on–but always sideways, so that the word “nothing” is only visible from the sides of the frames. Far more striking than these patterns imposed by the artist are the smaller-scale patterns that emerge naturally from the organic imperfection of the process, the labels turning and writhing under one another’s pressure like struggling sea creatures rendered as a static Platonic form.

Mr. Havel has worked with men’s shirts before, and Seven Variations can certainly be read as a mordant and complex comment on the nature of consumerist ideas of purity and beauty, their falsity and gluttonous emptiness. (Once in a hat store in Borough Park, I watched a young Hasidic man confront a dressing mirror in a black hat that, to my eyes, looked exactly like every other hat in the store, and say thoughtfully, “No, I think I liked the other one.”)

Formally, the work is a powerful demonstration that the human mind abhors a vacuum as much as nature does–that however stringent the terms of a given minimalism, the variations within those terms are as broad and important as any other artistic choices, and that a formal depiction of emptiness must have as much flesh as any other formed object. There’s nothing here but clear glass and white labels–but there are also a few tiny bits of stray yellow fuzz, and some of the labels show brownish discoloration, and the plexiglass gives off, from certain angles, icy blue reflections, and depending on the piece, the screws that hold the glass to the backing are either silver-colored or bronze, and the plywood backing itself is four different shades of tan, and all these colors are necessary to create an impression of whiteness that’s interesting to look at.

editorial@observer.com

Variations of the Void: Sophie Crumb and Joseph Havel