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That Creeping Feeling: R. Crumb’s Art & Beauty
Suzie McCracken , May 7th, 2016 09:03

At David Zwirner's gallery in London, Suzie McCracken finds issue with the work of R. Crumb

R. Crumb, Untitled, 2002, Page from Art & Beauty Magazine, Number 2, 2003, Ink and correction fluid on paper, © Robert Crumb, 2002. Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York/London

I’m the sort of gal that can normally spin an opinion of an event, gig or exhibition before the white wine at the press view has come up to room temperature. But the David Zwirner gallery’s exhibition of R Crumb’s Art & Beauty has given me a bit of a psychic battering. I’ve actually, god forbid, had to do a bit of thinking. It’s taken hours of research, a viewing of Terry Zwigoff’s 1994 documentary Crumb, and two, already-binned thousand-word essays for me to get to this: I like the images that R Crumb has created of women in Art & Beauty, but they have an edge of awfulness. Does that matter? Oh, who knows.

In 1996 Kitchen Sink Press published Art & Beauty magazine by R Crumb, the underground comix legend famed for his psychosexual comic strips that satirised American life. Named after a real-life publication he remembered from his youth, Crumb’s version of Art & Beauty featured drawings of women engaging in a range of catalog-style activities, all of them rendered in his trademark exaggerated shapeliness. Volume two was published in 2003, and now volume three rounds off a luxe coffee-table style compliation of the works, published by David Zwirner Books. The exhibition features pieces from across the decades, mostly without the commentary that accompanies each vignette in the printed volume.

Off the bat, I was excited and aroused. I love Crumb’s shapes; I love the women he renders bulbous, fleshy and muscular. A tracing of Serena Williams, a moment before she strikes down a serve, with her sportswear bunching up, is perfect in its portrayal of athleticism as the ultimate in eroticism. An image of a gymnast, bum raised high in a handstand, makes my buttocks clench in empathy. A sketch of a woman in a bikini and sunglasses, wearing a smile and with her hands in the air, looks like a GTA 5 loading screen from a parallel, purely hand-drawn universe. I love the exaggerations of fertility; Crumb’s subjects take on a Woman of Willendorf vibe, rendered in kitsch, magical nostalgia.

And for many, this, along with Crumb’s countercultural kudos, will be enough for them to find great joy in this exhibition. But I cannot shake the sensation that surveying women who have been drawn on the basis of the sexual gratification they provide for the artist, gives me. Not only do I see the misogyny seething through every pencil stroke, I feel like I see the attempts to obscure it, with humour and academisation, just long enough so that patrons can get out their chequebooks.

When Crumb is transparent about the psychological pains that drive his compulsions, and when he brings his inner narratives to the fore in comic books that are violent, visceral and obviously women-hating, I can deal with it. I like that those works make me think about Crumb’s life, the lives of those of his generation, the sexuality of humans, the therapy of artmaking, the sadness and inevitability of trauma.

But Art & Beauty… I can’t.

Installation view from the 2016 solo exhibition R. Crumb: Art & Beauty, at David Zwirner, London

I don’t know if this is the fault of Crumb or the paratextual art-world machinery, to be fair. Unfortunately Lucas Zwirner, son of David and head of the Zwirner’s publishing arm, makes me retch at the opening by encouraging the crowd to think of Crumb in the context of ‘the grotesque’ and Breugel. It’s an attempt to legitimise Crumb to an audience that considers itself learned by saying, “Look! Art & Beauty is more grown-up, right? There’s barely even any words in the frames! It comes as a hardback now!”, whereas pasting his comic books on the wall would, to me, be far more ‘legitimate’. So maybe I can blame the insistence of people who aren’t Crumb for my creeping feeling of being misled.

But then there are the selfie drawings. Crumb’s process has had a bit of makeover thanks to the ubiquity of photography – he now not only has pre-published imagery to work from, but also snaps sent to him from friends and admirers and images sent to him personally by women who wish to be drawn.

The reproductions of the latter are what I find most jarring from the show. It’s hard in 2016 not to look at a photo of a woman taking a photo of themselves in a mirror in underwear and reel off the arguments pertaining to it being empowering. I’m not sure I agree with that notion, but I do understand that exerting control over an image of yourself is an authoritative act. And here Crumb is undermining that, and by extension any possible hint of the celebratory in his work, by painstakingly redrawing and ripping the autonomy from these self-portraits, making them fall under his copyright.

R. Crumb, Untitled, 2016, Page from Art & Beauty Magazine, Number 3, 2016, Ink and correction fluid on paper, © Robert Crumb, 2016. Courtesy the artist, Paul Morris, and David Zwirner, New York/London

I’m not saying that that entirely devalues these images. Now that Crumb has the opportunity to draw women that he would rarely encounter socially or serendipitously (most of the subjects appear to be in the US, while Crumb now lives in the south of France), these iPhone photos afford him a dash of intimacy with women that are a huge geographical and often cultural and generational distance from him. That’s interesting. But it simultaneously feels kleptomanic. He takes great pleasure in absolving women of power.

But hey, I’m not your nan. We can all enjoy the art of someone who hates women just fine; it’s not like he’s the only one. But, personally, I find Art & Beauty insidious, and I distrust the institutions and people framing it for reasons that are complex, biased, smart, stupid and, most of all, boring. That doesn’t mean I don’t think you should go see it, of course. No show has made me question the very core of my relationship with art and the art world so much recently, and I’m thankful for that. So cheers, R Crumb. I think.

R. Crumb: Art & Beauty is at David Zwirner, London, until 4 June 2016