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Portrait of this artist begins on city bus

Clowes' art relies on Chicago faces

Christopher Borrelli

3:03 PM EDT, July 5, 2013

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The other day I met with cartoonist Daniel Clowes. We walked around the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, which just opened a major new retrospective of his work. Clowes is thin and somber, with graying temples and the look of a stoic Midwestern farmhand. He is 52 and wore drab colors and a dark baseball cap and dark sneakers. He said: "You know, sometimes I wonder if I spent half of my childhood riding the Jeffery Express bus downtown from Hyde Park. I would get carsick, so I found myself staring upward and across, at the beaten down faces of our great Chicago." He laughed at his own melodramatic newsreel tone.

"I would not make eye contact," he continued, darting his eyes up and down, demonstrating technique. "Most people were staring at their shoes, so when they raised their faces I would memorize what they were wearing and what they looked like — what about that guy's face revealed that he was a hopeless alcoholic."

I nodded.

Sometimes on the No. 147 I see a Clowesean face. A Clowesean face is marked by longing and regret, though rarely anguish. It has a haunted, lived-in placidity, as if whatever left its mark happened a lifetime ago. A Clowesean face feels uneasily real and never quite pretty. Indeed, a Clowesean face is every bad picture of yourself: The head is too large (or too small) and the forehead too prominent, the sags are sagging, the lips thinning (and teeth coming forward), the hairstyle is somewhat outdated (but perversely, intensely coiffed).

A Clowesean face is a face that could be torn from one of Clowes' comics, or vice versa — a face that Clowes, who grew up in Chicago, appropriated. For instance, one of Clowes' more generous caricatures is Enid Coleslaw, the freckled, black-bobbed dyspeptic from "Ghost World" — Clowes' best-known work (and later an acclaimed movie that landed Clowes a 2002 Oscar nomination for adapted screenplay). Clowes may have started "Ghost World" in 1992 just after leaving Wicker Park and moving to Oakland, Calif., but Enid is recognizably early-'90s Wicker Park, the sarcastic hipster archetype.

An Everyhipster — gawky features included.

Last weekend, at the opening of "Modern Cartoonist: The Art of Daniel Clowes," MCA curator Lynne Warren found herself staring closely at the fans who lined up to have their show catalogs signed by Clowes. "Certain artists, they become a part of your visual repertoire," she said. "You occasionally see a Chris Ware comic or Roger Brown silhouette out in the world. Dan's faces, though, I see all the time."

Because you have one.

I have one.

"You may think of a Clowes face as distorted," said Ken Parille, editor of the new "Daniel Clowes Reader" (a kind of alternative catalog to the official catalog), "but go into any public place and look twice at someone when they are not looking — that's when you begin to realize there's a weird photo-realism to his work."

So much so that recently, when I stumbled onto Daniel Bertner's startled, grimacing, video-camera portraits, I thought immediately of Clowes' faces. Last February, Bertner, who graduated from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago last year, set up a surveillance camera outside his Pilsen apartment, at Damen Avenue and 21st Street. He attached a note of explanation: This camera, connected to facial recognition software, is an art project; your photo is being taken and posted on Twitter without your consent.

Looking at his Pilsen portraits (on Twitter at @chicagofaces), two thoughts come to mind:

The first is that portraiture — both consensual and surreptitious — is thriving. On the harmless side, there are movie posters (more likely now to be character portraits than storytelling panoramas) and street-fashion blogs (which seem to proliferate daily). On the more-likely-to-rankle-privacy-activists side is portraiture such as Bertner's, which he said he conceived as a portrait of the Pilsen community and its "emotional gestures." Visually, though, it's more reminiscent of the grainy images found on Skype, another form of portraiture. (You might even argue that the outrage over the National Security Agency surveillance program and its desire to keep the communications records on millions of Americans is in part a debate about unauthorized portraiture.)

My second thought: Clowes has been doing this for 30 years — only slowly, subtly.

As you walk into his MCA show, you're greeted by a projection of 300 of his faces, many of which originated in Chicago: defiant faces morphing into desperate faces, geeky into dour, crazy into sober. More interestingly, you're also greeted with a wry, self-denigrating portrait of Clowes: Wall text at the entrance claims that he "defined the indie aesthetic of his generation" and "captured the dissatisfaction and alienation of a generation." Turn the corner and, like a visual wedgy, you see "Pussey!" — a portrait of Clowes' creation Dan Pussey, a cartoonist who finds fame and dies alone. The walls are lined with Clowes' original drawings and test pieces clustered around each of Clowes' graphic novels and comics and projects; the final "Pussey!" piece, for instance, shows two elderly women in Dan Pussey's nursing home tossing out his life's work.

On the other hand, on the be-careful-what-you-wish-for end of the self-flagellation scale, there's also a portrait of Clowes as a cartooning robot ("which is how I felt at the time"), moving through a convention, signing a comic with one hand and strangling a fan with another, drawing a comic with yet another hand and all the time using X-ray vision to spy on a couple sipping Champagne far from the cartoon world.

As we walked around the MCA, Clowes said the show is much larger than its initial incarnation last year at the Oakland Museum of California: "In Oakland it felt like walking into a retirement party. Here, in my hometown, it's surreal, like coming upon a shrine to yourself — I can't grasp how the kid on the Jeffery got here."

Like many cartoonists, he can be lavishly self-deprecating: He likens the art on the walls — many pieces of which are the original art created for his books — more to "the honeycomb a bee leaves" than a work of art intended for a museum. The handful of paintings in the show — painstakingly created over weeks to achieve a flat, bright color that publishers could never reproduce correctly (which is why there are so few paintings here) — he considers not his thing. "I don't enjoy paint as much as ink, which has this visceral feel to me," he said. "Ink is like blood, so much so that when you wash it off your hands at the end of the day, it pours out over the sink like blood, exactly as blood does when you have a cut. Ink's a part of me in a way paint isn't.

"My stuff's not meant to be seen as abstract shapes across from a gallery," he continued. "It doesn't have that thing where a shape pulls you across a room. It's drawn at arm's length and to be read at arm's length."

We walked on.

I stopped at a portrait of a child, a hairy, downtrodden mass of a kid — almost a furry egg on legs.

"Hair and glasses make a character recognizable," Clowes said. "Even with a very realistic comic you are losing maybe 80 percent of the information you would get from a photo of the same thing. There's always more."

Which is ironic to hear, considering that Clowes is one of the more technically accomplished cartoonist working, "a more sophisticated renderer of faces than your average accomplished visual artist," Warren said, "operating more in an old-masters tradition, the kind not valued very highly in a lot of art schools right now." Indeed, Susan Miller, the San Francisco-based curator who organized the show, said: "Dan is accessing a tradition of portraiture that doesn't even have much to do with the art world, because his portraits are embedded within comics. His book, 'Wilson,' for instance, is a portrait, but it requires reading, assimilating the character over the course of the book — because Dan has extended the concept of what a portrait is."

There's a mix of nostalgia and disgust going on in many of his portraits, as though Clowes, who draws heavily from bright pop designs and characters of the '60s and '70s, hates himself for being unable to leave his childhood behind. Parille described this odd feeling as the result of "a guy who can deliver Henry James but make it look like 'Hagar the Horrible,' wedding the absolute clarity of a Sunday comic with incredible inner complexity."

I told Clowes that his characters often look like comic strip characters aged in real time.

"Yup," Clowes said.

We stopped in front of a strip, made for his comic book "Eight Ball." It shows a cheerful man extolling Chicago while behind him the locals grunt, ask for deep dish and insist: "If you can't find it in Chicago, you don't need it!" The man continues his hosannas, praising "the mighty waters of Lake Michigan" and retaining his boosterish spirit — even as he swan-dives off the Hancock building. The man is sweating and delusional (and his fly was down the entire time). Look closely, at arm's length. The guy looks a lot like Daniel Clowes.

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli