Dynamic group exhibition examines an often overlooked artistic language

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Dynamic group exhibition examines an often overlooked artistic language
Karolina Jabłonska, Gas Burner, 2023. Oil on canvas, 200 x 160 cm. Courtesy of the artist and Esther Schipper Gallery. Photo by Mateusz Torbus.

DALLAS, TX.- Dallas Contemporary is presenting Who’s Afraid of Cartoony Figuration?. The multi-dimensional group exhibition, curated by Adjunct Curator Alison M. Gingeras, presents works by artists Karolina Jabłońska, Sally Saul, Tabboo! and Umar Rashid that dare to mix the levity of cartoons, comics, and commercial illustration with some of the most pressing socio-political subjects of our day.

Beginning in the mid-twentieth century, a distinct lineage of figurative painters emerged that appropriated the visual styles of cartoons, comics, and commercial illustration. This stylistic choice was made at great risk, with the gravitas of the socio-political content at hand oftentimes being obscured or downplayed by the so-called ‘unserious’ cultural associations around their chosen formal language.

Famed Pop artists from the 60s such as Andy Warhol (1928-1987) and Roy Lichtenstein (1923-1997) gained early acceptance for their cultural critique of American popular culture and capitalism, thereby exempting them from suspicion. However, the subsequent generation of painters, operating beyond the "pure" confines of American Pop's use of cartoony figurative language, was considered to be in violation of the established codes of serious figurative representation.

Cartoony Figuration emerged in the 60s and 70s with the Chicago Imagism movements, led by artists like Jim Nutt (b. 1938), Gladys Nilsson (b. 1940), Peter Saul (b. 1934), Roy de Forest (1930-2007), and Joan Brown (1938-1990). In California, Robert Colescott (1925-2009) independently used satirical cartoon-like renderings to tackle social and political issues and explore his own identity. Notably, Philip Guston (1913-1980) shifted to figuration in the late 1960s, facing criticism for his "Hood" paintings in 1970 that addressed political and personal subjects, including the persistent threats of the Ku Klux Klan. Guston's formal risks and the gravity of his subject matter were initially overlooked and criticized but are now deemed some of the most powerful critiques of American society.

Who’s Afraid of Cartoony Figuration? acknowledges this rich history by examining the work of contemporary artists who have taken up this mantle and explores the ambiguous, subversive content from its “comix” packaging. Unwrapping the complexities that lie beneath the irreverent, populist aesthetics of cartoony figuration, the exhibitions presents works by artists coming from different generations, geographies, and practices that have honed their cartoony figuration to address critical subjects of the present day.

“Dallas Contemporary is delighted to present another groundbreaking group exhibition by our Adjunct Curator Alison M. Gingeras, whose skill in connecting the overlooked corners of art history to this current moment is always revelatory," said Dallas Contemporary Executive Director Carolina Alvarez-Mathies. "The artists Gingeras has gathered for this exhibition balance complex, often sinister current political themes with a formal wit that is truly refreshing."

Inside the exhibition, Karolina Jabłońska (b. 1991, Niedomice, Poland; lives and works in Kraków) paints the politics of everyday life from her point of view, using her distinctive figurative style to amplify the impact of quotidian subject matter. Influenced by the feminist movements that have reshaped civil society in her native Poland, Jabłońska uses the immediacy of her cartoon-like depictions to viscerally explore the politics of gendered domestic spaces and women’s unpaid labors. Debuting a new body of work made for Dallas Contemporary, Jabłońska has staged her new series of self portraits in the kitchen where she appears in a comic state of struggle with boiling pots of Borsch, flaming aprons, and jars of pickles. Her Kitchen series evokes the traditional culinary staples of Polish cuisine while rendering fragments of her own body and likeness into these kitchen scenes. Jabłońska allegorically stages the conflict between traditional gender expectations and the feminist agency of the younger generation who have struggled against conventional norms through movements such as the Women’s Strike that transformed national politics in Poland. This will be Jabłońska first museum presentation in the US.

Sally Saul (b. 1946, Albany, NY; lives and works in Germantown, NY) creates ceramics and sculptures with playful figures embodying sly politics. Her signature melange of whimsy and sensitivity transpires on her sculptural vignettes which take up images of everyday life as well as more explicit references to current events, and her own lived experience as a woman artist. Saul has lived and worked with the generation of artists from Chicago and San Francisco who have inspired the exhibition’s exploration of Cartoony Figuration. At Dallas Contemporary, Saul will present over a dozen recent sculptures that probe the intersection of everyday life and existential angst with her signature humor and wily feminist subversion.

Tabboo! (né Stephan Tashjian) (b. 1959, Leicester, MA; lives and works in New York) has been a leading voice of the queer underground in New York since the 1980s. His whimsical illustration style—inspired in part by his collection of puppets—was first used for performance posters and flyers for his drag act. Since then, his paintings have mined a range of historical references including ancient Greek motifs, the vibrant visual culture of the Weimar Republic, psychedelic patterns, calligraphic text, punk-collage strategies, and the performative personas of drag, theater, and nightlife. The selection of works presented at Dallas Contemporary spans four decades of Tabboo!’s oeuvre, spanning some of his earliest flyers for drag performances at the cult Pyramid Club in the East Village in the early 1980s, to his distinctive calligraphic text pieces in which he inscribes himself within a cannon of queer cultural luminaries, to more recent figurative paintings that evoke puppet shows featuring animal and human characters that are part of Tabboo!’s personal pantheon.

Umar Rashid also known as Frohawk Two Feathers (b. 1976, Chicago, IL; lives and works in Los Angeles, CA.) has created an epic decolonized history of the Americas in his paintings as well as his poetry, writings and performances. Inserting Black, Brown and First People protagonists into his imaginative alt-history paintings, Rashid has conjured the vast narrative of the Frenglish Empire (1648-1848) in which he recasts the histories of European colonization and autonomous indigenous nations in North America. His visual narratives slyly combine an array of art historical tropes from French, English and Dutch history paintings to the Ledger Drawings of the Plains Indians mashed up with cartoony figurative elements and anachronistic references to contemporary popular culture. 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 will center 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, they are depicted encountering Numunuu (Comanche) tribes people as well as European settlers.

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