Clip: Chris Ware exhibit in Chicago
- Among Ware's work is the cover of Karl Hendricks's _A Gesture of
Kindness_ and several other album covers. The link shows some samples
of his work.
Ware's house built on intellect, not humor
May 9, 2006
BY MARGARET HAWKINS
To characterize Chris Ware as a comic artist is to lead anyone not
familiar with his oddly wrenching graphic novels and comic strips
seriously astray. Yes, the format and look of the work is that of
comics, but the word "comic" implies humor. Conventional comic strips
can be expected to offer up a laugh or at least a smile. Even in
Charles Schultz's wistful "Peanuts," there was usually a joke buried
somewhere in the midst of all that bittersweet insight.
Ware's work, however, is light on the sweet and heavy on the bitter,
often focusing on the minute details of troubled relationships and the
inner lives of desperately lonely people.
"Building Stories; Anatomy, I" (2002), which tells the parallel
stories of the tenants and landlord of a Chicago apartment building,
is among Chris Ware's cerebral works on view at the Museum of
Now a sampling of this intelligent work is on view in the artist's
first solo museum show, which opened Saturday at the Museum of
Contemporary Art. Featuring dozens of pages from Jimmy Corrigan: The
Smartest Kid on Earth, published in 2000, and the more recent Building
Stories, which is ongoing and has run weekly in the New York Times
Magazine since 2005, this small, dense exhibit makes clear what is
less obvious in any single strip: that Ware's work is as literary as
it is visual.
Ware came to Chicago in the mid-1980s to attend graduate school at the
School of the Art Institute, and his work is strongly connected to
this city. Jimmy Corrigan tells the story of four generations of a
Chicago family, centering on the banal misadventures of the lead
character who searches for and is reunited with his estranged father.
Building Stories branches out into less traditional territory, telling
the parallel stories of the tenants and landlord of a Chicago
apartment building. In the strip, one of the main characters is the
building itself, whose memories are as much a part of the story as are
those of the human characters as it recalls its past glory, pines for
a return to its former loveliness and remembers, like any average
neurotic, its history in numbers: 617 dead plants, 32 dogs, 4,167
takeout orders, 23 pianos and 28 grease fires.
Ware's literariness isn't about language exactly and certainly not
about plot -- not much happens in Building Stories, particularly; he
concentrates on character, dramatic structure and pacing. Ware's work
is a mix of fiction, drawing and graphic design in which small
gestures and the placement of a figure within the tiny confines of a
single strip frame speak as much or more about motive and psychology
as a lyrical prose passage. The stories are told with a reserve and
measured pacing we don't ordinarily associate with this medium --
better known for gravity-defying superheroes.
In Ware's comic strips, the action is mostly internal, either
psychological or cerebral. An entire strip in Building Stories can
consist of a depressed one-legged girl lying in bed trying to think of
a reason to get up.
The cover art for "Jimmy Corrigan: Smartest Kid on Earth" (2000),
which traces four generations of a Chicago family.
The extreme self-absorption of his characters can be maddening and yet
their angst is so real and so respectfully drawn -- unlike many comic
artists, Ware never makes fun of his subjects' bodies or dilemmas --
that the viewer-reader simply can't look away.
The very tenderness with which Ware treats his subjects draws us in.
Sound effects are noted but they are quiet -- the slurping of soup,
the frustrated exhalation of a lame person trying to hurry or the
surprisingly poignant empty speech bubble that emanates from the mouth
of a sick cat. Some cats do talk a blue streak; this one's silence is
ominous. Such is the level of Ware's observations; though the lives he
chronicles are crushingly uneventful, we come to care a great deal
In Building Stories, an old woman's life is told as she ages from
fetus to wizened crone, and throughout the tale she seems oblivious to
her own life passage. As she muses on trivial subjects, she grows up
and old before our eyes and never seems to live her life Such is the
story of most of Ware's characters and to read them is to not to be
uplifted. One strip ends with a character thinking to herself "I am
entirely, 100 percent horrifyingly alone." In another the same
character asks herself, "Is it possible to hate yourself to death?"
As I made my rounds of this show, completely absorbed in the lives of
Ware's characters, I heard a couple murmuring to each other behind me.
"This is a little too depressing," the woman was telling the man in an
urgent whisper. "I have to leave."
Margaret Hawkins is a local free-lance writer and critic.
When: Through Aug. 27
Where: Museum of Contemporary Art, 220 E. Chicago
Museum admission: $6-$10 (free on Tuesdays, and for children 12 and
under and members of the military)
Phone: (312) 280-2660