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Review: A trip through the Insomniac’s Mansion

Monday, January 30, 2006

Four walls of a small room in the Carriage House Gallery of the John Nicholas Brown Center are covered with Ben Katchor’s comic strips. They are wallpapered in overlapping gray watercolor prints that bleed into each other and reach deeper than most literature – let alone most comic books – dares. “The Insomniac’s Mansion and other Picture Stories,” a display that forays into the world of comic book artist Ben Katchor, was curated by Brown and art students from the Rhode Island School of Design.

Katchor’s world is almost imaginary; it teeters on the edge of fantasy and reality, a line that seems to grow finer throughout his work. The city Katchor depicts as the backdrop to all of his stories is recognizable but not fully identifiable. No matter how mundane it sometimes seems, there is always one thing that throws you off, like when a word such as “loo” or “elastoplast” pops up in an otherwise English sentence. You still understand it, but how you comprehend it has changed.

Many of the comic strips on display are from “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer: The Beauty Supply District,” one of Katchor’s most recent collections. Knipl is a recurring character in Katchor’s comic strips.

The beauty supply district in Katchor’s picture story is a collection of storefronts and businesses, which specialize in such items as symmetry, understatements, elaboration and spontaneous expression – supplies for creating beauty in a work of art. Katchor’s comics often literalize figures of speech and metaphors, thereby exposing a new aspect of something that seemed to be easily understood.

Paul Buhle, senior lecturer in American Civilization, sees Katchor’s art as a kind of protest.

“Ben is protesting, in his own way, the assimilation of architecture, language and everything else into the corporate city and suburbs,” Buhle said. “He does this best by recapturing fragments of the past, making them eloquent and humorous.”

Katchor has been drawing dark, complicated comic strips for more than 20 years. The son of a Polish Jewish immigrant, Katchor was raised in Brooklyn, N.Y., surrounded by Yiddish culture and classic comics, both of which strongly influenced his work. The main characters in his picture stories are Jewish, and they inhabit a fanciful and imaginative reflection of the world Katchor grew up in. One of Katchor’s picture books, “The Jew of New York,” tells the story of the man who tried to create a Jewish homeland in upstate New York in 1825. Katchor starts with that single fact to create an entire fictional world around it, filled with an assortment of quirky Jewish New Yorkers.

Even though Katchor’s comics have a decidedly Jewish influence, the prominent ideas and themes are so American that anyone can appreciate his work. What he has to say about consumer culture, changing times and dissatisfaction with everyday life is relevant to everyone.

Katchor chiefly works in gray watercolor, a prism of black and white and every shade in between. Gray characters emerge from this world: the President of the Metropolitan Tap-Water Runners’ Association, a man who believes that the entire world should be organized like a butcher shop and an architect who plans the death of the sidewalk. Katchor’s shadowy world often attempts to draw the lines between absurd and ordinary and points out the strangeness of everyday activities, as well as the importance of the inane.

The artwork on display has been organized around prominent themes in Katchor’s work. According to Ani Mukherji GS, the teaching assistant for the class that organized the display, “The intent was both to capture the main social themes in Katchor’s work and also elucidate those themes that spoke most profoundly to the students.”

The few full-color strips are futuristic and satiric, using color to highlight the gaudiness of consumer culture. Katchor’s characters marvel at apartments with bathtubs as deep as aquifers, where the management discourages the use of non-buoyant soap. Other strips contain the modern marvels of walk-thru walls, lighting that adjusts according to one’s complexion and houses that change to reflect the state of the bed sheets. The incredible thing is that Katchor’s “future” is often so close to reality, or what our reality is fast approaching. Absurd as his world is, Katchor’s work has the ability to comment on our culture in a very real way.

“The Insomniac’s Mansion and other Picture Stories” is on view in the Carriage House Gallery of John Nicholas Brown Center until Feb. 7 and is open from 2 to 4 p.m.

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