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A-Gorey-Phobia: At the Cartoon Art Museum

By Melissa Broder

The Cartoon Art Museum changes their Gorey at Bay exhibit every three months, presenting Edward Gorey lovers with a perennial buffet. For the rest of the population, a trip to the Cartoon Museum is inherently a mind-expanding experience. The current Gorey Stories exhibit altered my perspective on the validity of cartoons, both within a social context and in an aesthetic framework. This exhibit will continue until November 17th, when it will then be replaced by Gorey Details on November 23rd.

Upon entering the museum, I questioned my motivation for attending the exhibit. Can't we experience cartoons through the New Yorker, The Simpsons, or simply in one of Edward Gorey's many books? In witnessing some of his authentic pieces, I discovered that the original size of Gorey's work presents an unforeseen physical aspect of magic. As museum founder Malcolm Whyte describes: "Gorey is unusual in that he works 'to size.' That is the size that his illustrations will be reproduced are the size that he makes them, just like the old days of wood engravers, before there was such a thing as photoengraving. Normally illustrators make their compositions larger than they'll be reproduced."

A series of plates from "The Blue Aspic," which is only available at the Cartoon Art Museum, presents Gorey's obsession with minutia. The cartoonist renders precise detail in unexpected places, such as wallpaper, creating an aura of object-movement that rivals Van Gogh's "The Artist's Bedroom." One gets an eery feeling that Gorey is an omnipresent observer, and his keen eye is present in a set of plates from "The Glorious Nosebleed." In this particular series, Gorey's irony is revealed in drawings and statements regarding the upper class. He proclaims: "She toyed with her beads jadedly," picturing a woman with an upturned nose that matches her wealth-induced boredom. Yet Gorey depicts a difference between himself and other paranoid social critics, a la Van Gogh, in that he is unafraid to be self-referential. Rather than preclude his own presence, Gorey closes the piece with a cartoon self-portrait, and the byline: "He wrote it all down zealously."

Gorey's choice of medium is an effective vehicle for the critique of touchy themes such as: Classism, familial expectation, and sexual relationships. "Cartoons are not always happy," says Museum Administrator Summerlea Kashar. "Subversive cartoons can poke fun at issues that other mediums like writing may not be able to. A lot of artists started copying cartoons when they were younger. If Yoko Ono can pile rocks in the middle of a room and call it art, I think that cartoonists are just as much artists."

Yoko Ono be damned, Edward Gorey is just plain funny. The cartoonist once asserted that: "nothing new has happened since 1914, and you could probably push that back to 1885." I'd like to think that a genuine laugh, in our troubled times, is always a good change of pace. "The Broken Spoke" is a solitary cartoon, which presents a man on a bicycle who is confronted by a polar bear. In "The Broken Spoke," Gorey creates authentic humor utilizing only a single line and picture. The piece makes me wish I had access to cartooning as a mode of expression, rather than writing; consequently, it is both unnecessary and impossible for me to detail the implicit humor of this work using words alone. I know that Gorey would make fun of me for trying.

Gorey Stories is the third installment in a five-part exhibition entitled: Gorey at Bay. The exhibit is made possible by the Edward Gorey Charitable Trust and the Gotham Book Mart, Inc, New York. The Cartoon Art Museum is located on 655 Mission Street in San Francisco. They are open daily from 11:00 am - 5:00 pm, and are closed on Mondays. Admission Prices range from $6 for adults, $4 for students & seniors, and $2 for children ages 6 - 12. The museum is FREE for Children age 5 & below. For more information, call: 415-CARTOON, or visit their website at: www.cartoonart.org.