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Pinning down Chicago artist Lilli Carre

Illustrator's ethereal work seen as a bridge between fine art, comics world

Christopher Borrelli

5:42 PM EST, December 10, 2012

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Lille Carre is 29, petite, moon-faced and unassuming. She curls forward as she speaks. On a quiet morning in her Noble Square apartment, she speaks softly and gives off an air of frailty. It's not hard to picture her stepping out of one of her own creations. She is an illustrator, an animator and a cartoonist, and her characters are similarly ethereal and angular and look exhausted. They appear to be moments away from floating off into space. They are like her work: hard to pin down.

Her illustrations — in Slate, the New Yorker, Time Out Chicago — are elemental, colorful and accessible but with a hint of the grotesque. Her cover for the latest Penguin edition of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" — Huck strolling along a river bottom littered with skulls and bones, his head cresting the water and puffing on a pipe — was both sweet and dark.

Then there are her comics, which look more like the wordless individual cells of an unspooled animated film. Likewise, her animated films seem more like art installations, and as contemporary as her subjects of dislocation and identity may feel, her aesthetic suggests cave paintings, wood carvings and tribal etchings.

"I think of her as a bridge between the fine arts and comics world," said Michael Green, the former Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator who selected her for a recent MCA show about up-and-coming cartoonists. "She harks back to the Chicago Imagists in a way, to artists like Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke, to that whole school that pulled from comic images, except Lilli is drawing from the whole history of art."

At the moment there are two shows in Chicago that feature Carre. The first, "Where'd I Leave the Thing Itself," at the Roots & Culture gallery in the Noble Square neighborhood through Jan. 5, is an assemblage of experimental films, projects and works on paper made with animator Alexander Stewart (Carre's longtime boyfriend). The second is "Epic Something," a group show at the Hyde Park Art Center (through Feb. 24) about the mingling of narrative and image. Carre's contribution, a laser-cut sculpture made during a summer residency at the Haystack artist retreat in Maine, shows a woman standing in water and the words: "It's not so bad once you get used to it."

It's "Heads or Tails," however, her new book, a hodgepodge of short stories created for various magazines and anthologies, that best captures the range, humor and vague sense of ennui she's made her name on. "The Lagoon," her 2008 graphic novel, which is also full of images of people submerged in water, was her first major statement; "Heads or Tails," her fifth book in the past six years (including an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir Tree"), strange and generous and difficult to put down, is her smartest.

In one of the book's last pieces, a surreal, nearly wordless story called "Sweet Spot," a man stands in a field. There is a drip of rain, then a deluge. The man runs through the downpour, which is drawn by Carre as squiggles filling up the panels. The man spots a literal break in the weather, an odd, diamond-shaped hole in the rain. He crawls into it, stretching out the small hole so that it fits snugly around him — until he is content and standing inside of a tear in a sheet of rain, beset on all sides by an unrelenting downpour.

"The meanings in her work are elusive," said Eric Reynolds, associate publisher at Fantagraphics Books, which released "Heads or Tails" and "The Lagoon." "There's such a seamless harmony between her images and her words that the work lends itself to subtext, to a Southern Gothic, Flannery O'Connor quality. But, at other times, to this understated and Raymond Carver-esque feeling as well. There are a lot of talented cartoonists out there who do not have a lot to say. Lilli has never struck me as someone with a shortage of things to say."

But what, exactly?

"Heads or Tails," along with her piece at the Hyde Park Art Center and "The Lagoon" and several stories in her book "Nine Ways to Disappear," is full of recurring images of people wading in bodies of water or curling into themselves then vanishing. One of the stories in "Nine Ways" shows a woman saying "Oh, well," then folding in on herself until she becomes, well, a button, which then rolls away and disappears down a sewer. Another story in "Heads or Tails" shows a man in an ocean who turns to see a huge wave bearing down on him.

Of course there's an urge to read deeply into this, to apply pop psychology and imagine that Carre has feelings of being set-upon and besieged. Told this, she said, almost too quiet to hear, "I do return to certain visual things that keep happening in my stuff, though I don't know why they keep happening."

The water, for instance.

"The water is a recurring visual, yes. The man in the ocean with the wave, that comes out of being struck by an extreme ambivalence. There's a wave coming, but do you dive under it or just stay where you are?" she said. "I think about ambivalence a lot, retracing steps, rethinking decisions, arriving back at the point where you started."

She feels set-upon then? The man standing in a storm …

"He's smiling."

But besieged.

"Huh, I like that something as simple as that image can be interpreted that way."

So, she doesn't feel besieged?

"Maybe in the grand sense, I suppose. Or maybe it's some absurd attempt for a quiet space in a place where there can be no possibility for shelter anymore. Or maybe I just want to carve out my own space."

Carre grew up in Los Angeles. Her parents were graphic designers. After they separated, her father became a forensic animator, making short computer-animated films to help explain how crimes were committed; he died of cancer when she was a teenager. Though Carre came to Chicago a decade ago to study sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — she said she went though a John Cage phase — she gravitated to the animation program. Four years later, her first book, "Tales of Woodsman Pete," a striking combination of Monty Python-esque drollery and Chris Ware-ish antiquity, was published by Top Shelf Comics. A year after graduating from SAIC, her short "How She Slept at Night" screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.

"When I first found out how young she was, I was shocked," said Laura Park, a Chicago cartoonist and friend of Carre's. "There were echoes of European art in her work and classic Americana and cinema, and yet, in a way, it's still hard to track the source of her images. You can't quite place a person who would make them."

Ben Kolak, one of the Chicago filmmakers working on an upcoming feature documentary about the history of the Chicago Imagists, a film that will include animation from Carre, who is illustrating interviews with the artists, said, "Lilli has a rare sensibility, the sensibility of a person who gets fine arts but doesn't spend all day worrying about it, which makes her more immediate than many people who come from fine-art schools."

Carre herself said the years she spent working part time at the Facets Multimedia film library were as key as anything. Indeed, her films jitter and jump like 80-year-old black-and-white Disney shorts, but with a grainy bleakness reminiscent of Wilder and Bresson. She chalks this up to "wanting to see a human hand in the results." Asked about this rough abstractness in these images, she ran across her living room to a bookcase and pulled down a large coffee-table book and unfolded it on the floor: "The Art of the Eskimo."

She flipped through the pages and let its tribal aesthetic, clearly reflected in her images, speak for itself. Then she said: "I get a lot of influence from people who are probably untrained. I like the angular look of the characters. That wood-carved look, which is literally against the grain. You see the tension in the results."

After chatting a while, she left her apartment and walked down the street to meet Stewart, who was preparing for their Roots & Culture show. They've run the Eyeworks Festival of Experimental Animation for several years, but this gallery show represents their first attempt at artistic collaboration. Stewart, a DePaul University animation professor, said later: "I think 90 percent of artists try to fit into the mold of what people expect of them, and Lilli is very aware of what people are expecting of her. But then she does her own thing, which is probably why we get along so well. We both only do what we want to do."

At the gallery Stewart pointed her toward a wall. A flicking series of abstracted images wavered on it. The images of shapes and curls and colors seemed forever on the verge of collapsing, as though their backbones were unstable. Carre's face lit up. "I haven't seen it projected yet," she said. They stood side by side and watched for a while. His contributions to the film are gray, blocky, severe. Hers are more jaunty.

"My work is definitely influenced by Lilli," he said. "Since we've known each other it definitely has more — "

"Personality," she said.

"That's right," he said, "more personality."

cborrelli@tribune.com

Twitter @borrelli