For better or for worse, master cartoonist Basil Wolverton may have single-handedly altered thousands of boys’ psyches. In a 50-year career, marvelously surveyed here, Wolverton provided 13-year-old nerds (and more than a few adults) with a nearly inexhaustible supply of comics on pre-teen fantasies: richly imagined sci-fi exploits, slapstick violence, visions of Armageddon, and, best known for their appearances in Mad magazine, the most grotesque faces ever drawn.
Wolverton first rose to prominence in 1946, when Al Capp’s Li’l Abner ran a contest (judged by Boris Karloff, Frank Sinatra, and Salvador Dalí!) to depict Lena the Hyena, a character so ugly, Capp joked, that he couldn’t draw her. Wolverton won, hands down, with a creature bearing the kind of hideous distortions (giant crooked teeth, a snaking nose, a deformed ear) that would define the cartoonist’s enduring and influential style. What makes Wolverton’s vulgarity so appealing is the expert draftsmanship, particularly the careful details (like pustules and saliva) and a meticulous cross-hatching, which lends his characters a solid presence and coats them with a kind of fine-grained dirt. With pathos so fully realized, your disgust gives way to sympathy.
Wolverton, who died in 1978, had a knack, too, for nightmarish drama, exemplified by a stunning, densely inked illustration from 1935 sci-fi pulp, in which a gun-toting corpse floats menacingly above a wary astronaut. But Wolverton saved his most enthralling pieces for the Bible. An ordained minister for a wacky Oregon church, he produced, in the mid 1950s, a series of apocalyptic scenes for the Book of Revelations; men and women, foregrounded in close-up, writhe under dominant skies of fire, plague, and war. Though many classify Wolverton’s work as goofy humor, the show makes clear that his real subject, whatever the context, was human frailty.
‘Portraits: In Pursuit of Likeness’
For illogical reasons, fine-art prints don’t receive the kind of respect afforded painting, but their second-class status has nothing to do with originality, as evidenced by this juried exhibit of fresh and engaging portraiture. The theme, broadly interpreted in 47 works created through numerous printmaking techniques, includes Jon Kessler’s eerie handmade paper constructions of suicide bombers; Barbara Madsen’s personification of metal doodads in a photogravure; Chika Ito’s lovely silk-screened William Steig–like faces; Rebecca Loyche’s photograms of improvised explosive devices (reminiscent, ironically, of airport X-rays); and My Indigo Manuscript, a six-panel monotype from Joan Dix Blair of symbols, lines, and clustered marks on a blue background, like an intimate view of the cosmos. International Print Center, 526 W 26th, 212-989-5090. Through July 31
At the entrance, the recorded barkers beckon: The Bush Tetras belt out “Too Many Creeps,” a group inspired by John Cage bangs on rocks, and Louise Lawler bird-squawks the names of prominent male artists. Step right up: It’s the summer’s most intriguing carnival, a group show of works based on music and noise, both real and imagined, that will amaze, confound, and delight—a talking box, a vibrating Slinky, a lascivious fly!
The cacophony is invigorating, but the juxtaposition alone is a kick. Robert Morris’s simple wooden cube, Box With the Sound of Its Own Making, rattles like a malfunctioning magical object, while on the opposite wall, Lucas and Jason Ajemian conjure Satan by performing Black Sabbath’s “Into the Void” backward. Tacita Dean’s layout (silent) of magnetic-tape strips, holding the recordings of birds, sits next to avant-garde rocker Nick Cave’s Soundsuit, a giant tube with arms, which, when worn, clickety-clacks its many hundreds of buttons.
Things get even headier in the next room. There’s Yoko Ono’s notorious 1970 film Fly—an apotheosis of Fluxus—that follows the insect, whining like Vincent Price’s fly-man, as it explores Ono’s nudity. Nearby stands Laurie Anderson’s quasi-spiritual sculpture, a chalice on a rotating saw blade screeching electronica, as if to beg for alms (or ohms). And Joseph Beuys, a father figure here, is represented by his pile of felt squares from 1969 that emits the taped monologue of the artist chanting, in German dialect, a Beckettian repetition of “Yes, yes, no, no.” The show is not so much white noise as it is a kaleidoscope for the ear. James Cohan Gallery, 533 W 26th, 212-714-9500. Through August 12