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Basil Wolverton.

BASIL WOLVERTON

Gladstone Gallery | New York

American graphic artist and cartoonist Basil Wolverton is famous for his gross-out drawings of dopey, deranged, even pustulous men and women (one of which graced a rather famous issue of MAD magazine in 1954). Active from the 1940s to the 1970s (he died in 1978), Wolverton's client list, such as Marvel Comics, Topps bubblegum, EC Comics and Cracked magazine, enabled him to inspire whole generations of warped sensibilities, among them Mike Kelley, Paul McCarthy, Peter Saul, Robert Crumb and Robert Williams. Cameron Jamie, no doubt part of this illustrious list, is also the curator of a hefty Wolverton mini-retrospective at Gladstone Gallery (through August 14). Over 140 drawings, most originally intended for publication, line the walls of this ample space, and provide fascinating insight into the darker corners of the mid-twentieth-century American pop psyche.

Surely the aftershocks of WWII and the atom bomb had some role in shaping the sickening figures of Wolverton's oeuvre, but God--Wolverton was a Christian minister--must have had a hand in it too. His series of apocalyptic drawings from ca. 1950, such as Mass Grave with Bulldozer, Meteor Shower with Eclipse and Earthquake, Fire From the Sky and Plague of Darkness with Boils, which by comparison make Jack Chick look like Charles Schultz, are both damning and horrific. Raw flesh--engraved, crosshatched and stippled--peels, sears, rots and crumbles, while people weep, waste away and die. The disfiguration in these pictures isn't for laughs, but they are not so far removed formally from the pictures that are. Yet despite appearances, these "end of days" images do not sermonize about sticking to the straight and narrow, nor do they seek redemption. They do what successful newspaper cartoons are supposed to do: they illustrate mass stupidity, fear of annihilation, morbid obsessions, and an understanding of human frailty. These pictures are not the tools of a Bible basher, but belong to a deeper, far more capricious sensibility that seems to understand that, at some point or another, we've all been condemned.

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Wolverton was well known for his kindness, generosity and self-effacing modesty, which are hardly surprising qualities for this stereotypically normal, hyper-macho 1950s man. Thank goodness then for these small cracks in the surface, whose subterranean totality adds up to one hell of a show.

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Title Annotation:exhibit at the Gladstone Gallery
Author:Jovanovich, Alex
Publication:ArtUS
Geographic Code:1U2NY
Date:Sep 22, 2009
Words:382
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