Not all comics are about costumed superheroes. It’s a point the exhibition Comic Tragics: The Exploding Language of Contemporary Comic Art, now showing at the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA), poignantly illustrates. Through words and pictures, the exhibition explores humanity’s shared experiences of love, loss, fear and trauma.
Robert Cook, AGWA’s curator of contemporary design and international art, has spent decades reading independent comics. In addition to being interested in how these comics fit into the contemporary art landscape, he’s equally fascinated by the direct conversation they spark between artist and audience.
“Rather than standing back and trying to figure it out, visitors seem to be dropping their guard and looking closely,” says Cook. “There are no codes to untangle or barriers; this work speaks to you directly. Hopefully it will be a revelation to those who don’t know the material.”
When choosing the artists to showcase in Comic Tragics, Cook was drawn to work that shared personal stories and conveyed confronting emotions.
American Anders Nilsen exhibits a selection from his books Don’t Go Where I Can’t Follow and The End. Exploring memories of his time with his late fiancé through postcards, drawings and journal entries, Nilsen’s work is a moving exploration of death, grief and letting go.
Melbourne artist Tommi Parrish is the sole Australian in the nine-artist show. For her, being able to share gallery space with artists she admires is deeply reaffirming. She says she was attracted to comics because of their scope and likes works where the artist has “reached as far down their throat as possible and really shown their guts”.
That’s certainly the case with Parrish’s 2014 work Doubt. A comic that follows a doubt “shadow” as it haunts the piece’s main subject, it’s an honest and accessible depiction of the debilitating power of uncertainty.
“Comics can do extraordinary things and communicate a sensation that can't be put into words,” says Parrish. “There’s so much content in the world already. Why add more unless you care deeply about what you’re creating?”
Comic Tragics is a free exhibition showing until Monday July 25 at the Art Gallery of Western Australia. AGWA is holding a Comic Tragics’ Big Day In from 11am to 4pm on Sunday June 5. The day will include lectures, a talk from curator Robert Cook and a comic-art workshop.