From the beginning, modern art has been a favorite target of cartoonists wanting to deflate highbrow pretensions. They’re motivated partly by sour grapes (resentment over the presumably low status of their craft compared to fine art), and partly because many of them share the enduring prejudice that avant-garde art requires no skill, that it’s little more than a con game.
Yet many of these comic parodies are compelling in their own right, distilling the stylistic essence of their time. Taken together, they create a fun-house version of art history that’s often as fascinating as the real deal.
In his latest show, Jayson Musson takes a trip through this hall of mirrors.
Resembling gigantic toys, his paintings and objects adapt images from Nancy, the long-running daily comic strip begun in 1938 by Ernie Bushmiller. They’re an odd lot: brightly colored canvases limned with squiggles, zigzags and spirals; a sculptural cousin to the Pillsbury Doughboy with a hole blown clean through his middle. Art-market ready, they’re versions writ large of the same items encountered by the eponymous heroine and her boyfriend, Sluggo, on their trips to the museum—excursions undertaken, apparently, just to experience bewilderment.
Musson is known for his role as Hennessy Youngman, the hip-hop art critic behind Art Thoughtz on YouTube. Musson/Youngman sends up the art world, seeing it through the gimlet eye of an African-American artist navigating a white elitist realm. Youngman is a cartoon character, in other words, whose creator here pays homage to a fellow satirist.
Though Bushmiller wasn’t black, he was born working-class, rising, like Musson, to become well compensated for his talents. He attained privilege, but never lost the outsider’s point of view—surely something Musson can identify with.