The Big Show

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At last, what you've been waiting for: the chance to guiltlessly read comix in a museum. Through February 10, 2002, in New York, just up the street from the Metropolitan Museum and the Frick, the Jewish Museum presents, "Ben Katchor: Picture-Stories." This, along with a smaller gallery show in Chelsea called "Ink Studs," showcasing the original artwork of five of America's top comix artists, make for a different and even radical change in how you interact with the medium.

Ben Katchor's Julius Knipl

Katchor has become best known for his weekly comicstrip, "Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer" (now up to its third collection). Taking up a large part of the museum's ground floor, the Katchor show traces his development as a picture story teller, beginning in 1987 when he appeared in Art Spiegelman's "Raw" magazine. Working with a consistent theme of urban whimsy, his characters inhabit a kind of twilight-zoned New York City. A typical scene might be a dried-chewing-gum-removal expert passing by a mustard fountain on his way to work in the Bent Spoon district. Combined with his rough, mostly gray-toned drawings, Katchor essentially writes illustrated, free-verse poems that celebrate the absurd possibilities that America's cities present.

Unlike reading the strips in a book, the museum allows you to experience the artwork as creative process. One wall of the show displays each of the development stages for a single strip. First Katchor types out a panel-by-panel script. Then he draws the strip directly in ink on large pasteboard, photocopies it, and shades the reduced copy with a gray wash or watercolor. This last painterly step especially puts a Katchor show right at home in a museum. At one point you turn a corner and wait for your pupils to adjust to the sudden vibrant color of his later work. Katchor's drawing and painting skill can be best appreciated with the larger scale, more immediate originals.

Katchor has also moved his comix beyond the page into multimedia, which the museum also covers. Listening posts play a number of his strips that were turned into short radio dramas for National Public Radio. At the end of the show runs a continuous video of Katchor's drawings accompanied by the score of "The Carbon Copy Building," an opera written around them. Katchor also does wonderful faux-lectures with accompanying slideshows but they have not been scheduled at the museum.

Further downtown, at the Ten in One gallery until October 13, sits a much smaller show featuring original comix pages by five "Ink Studs:" Chris Ware ("Acme Novelty Library"), Daniel Clowes ("Eightball"), Gary Panter ("Raw"), Kaz ("Underworld") and Charles Burns ("Black Hole"). The participants appear to be random, as do the works selected, nullifying the opportunity to find a curatorial "statement." Mostly it makes for a nice chance to see how these guys work. Ware uses blue, non-photographing pencil on pasteboard and then inks over the parts he likes. A couple of the Clowes pieces are done in colored pencil. And since many cartoonists make their best money selling the originals, you can gasp at the prices: $4,200 for Ware's New York Times Book Review cover and $1,500 for a Clowes "David Boring" page. Interestingly, two paintings by comix-influenced artists far less interesting than any of the "Ink Studs" were selling for more than any of the comix pieces.

Of the two, "Ben Katchor: Picture-Stories," will be more rewarding and culturally important. As crucibles of the fine arts, museum shows smelt self-expressive comix out of the lowbrow kiddie-fare that define the artform for most people. It means a lot that you can wander down from the exhibit of early Marc Chagall (on view at the Jewish Museum until October 10) into a room full of comix. Or if you are like me, the other way around.

The Jewish Museum is at 1109 Fifth Ave. (at 92nd St.) Tel: 212-423-3200. The Ten in One gallery is at 526 W. 26th St. (between 9th and 10th Ave. Tel: 212-604-9660)

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