Displayed across the gallery’s two floors in all of its Tipp-Ex and cut-and-stick glory are the original work for the third volume of Art & Beauty. These pages effortlessly maintain the punk pen-to-photocopier aesthetic Robert Crumb built his name on. Because Art & Beauty was directly inspired by Crumb’s collection of semi-erotic 20s/30s catalogues by the same name, the work focuses exclusively on the female form. In particular, Crumb’s apparent ideal female form: sturdy yet curvaceous with enlarged feet and hands, exaggerated lower half, and thick ankles emphasised by knee-high socks and boots. Crumb renders the strong legs and shapely buttocks of women in bold lines and meticulous cross-hatching. His drawings seem almost sculptural, the figures solid and tactile.
Interestingly, Crumb’s taste has come to align with the modern mainstream focus on thighbrows, 100-squat-challenge, Kardashian-esque figures as the new ideal. The link to the modern paradigm is made more explicit by drawings of selfies (iPhone included) in the most recent edition of Art & Beauty. However, his source of models is broad, ranging from selfies to sports photography, celebrities, friends in purposeful poses, and candid images of strangers in the street. These unposed drawings come across as the most voyeuristic; they appear to be women in public places, unaware they are the subject of a drawing. For example, the series of drawings showing a woman buying an ice-cream at the beach appear to be from a deckchair or beach towel-eye view: drawn from below. One of the pages on display gives the game away with a note that the drawing was made from a picture taken on Aline Kominsky-Crumb’s (his wife’s) iPhone.
However, some drawings are clearly posed for and often these have quotes about the model: her figure and maybe some aspect of her personality, e.g animal lover or fitness fanatic. These asides, often presented in a classic cartoon rectangle of text overlapping the image, read like a Page Three girl’s column meets art-speak. They are laugh-out-loud funny. The connection to the 1920s catalogue seems more overt here: the cheerful, old fashioned and painfully earnest language conveys a male gaze so overt as to be gratuitous, though the images are fairly tame, all the while trying to maintain the integrity of a truly artistic publication. These images are usually accompanied by reams of quotes from famous and respected artists – a stark juxtaposition of pulpy pin-ups and great masters.
What appears to be the first page of the third volume, located just inside the entrance, criticises the idea of artistic validation, particularly art-speak reviews. Crumb as Editor in Chief calls this art writing ‘confusing’ and ‘incomprehensible’, he suggests it is elitist and falls short of explaining the true essence of art. Having dismissed these attempts at defining art, he concludes by saying he will carry on with his ‘artistic endeavours’ and ‘hope for the best’. This self-consciousness is the overriding aspect of this show which enables Crumb’s work to walk the tight-rope between send-up and homage.
In this way, the work is as much a tongue-in-cheek pastiche of outdated objectifications of women as it is a genuine catalogue of beautiful images which challenge the idea of what art is. Crumb expertly clashes highbrow with lowbrow: comics and mild titillation meet fine-art and art philosophy. After all, what makes an oil painting of a reclining nude more artistic than a pen drawing of a waitress in skinny jeans?