“Homesketch, Review: Bunny Matthews’ Cartoons Show NOLA, A-Z,” NOLA Defender

Review: Bunny Matthews’ Cartoons Show NOLA, A-Z by Cheryl Castjohn via NOLA Defender

Bunny-Matthews-ZuluBunny Matthews new show “The People of New Orleans from A to Z” hangs at the Arthur Roger Gallery throughout March until April 19th, celebrating a closing reception on Saturday the 5th.  The series reads like a children’s A to Z book of illustrations on uniformly 17×14 paper, ink, and colored pencil renderings.

It is exciting to see cartoon caricatures on the walls at Arthur Roger.  The surge of acceptance for comic-style drawing is a late 20th, early 21st century advent, owing nearly everything to New Orleanian George Herriman.  Herriman’s “Krazy Kat” strip would be an inspiration to Robert Crumb and eventually Abstract Expressionist Philip Guston.  Beginning with the lampooning caricature of Honore Daumier, Daumier’s caricatures have only entered into fine arts education post-feminism.

But cartoon art is alive and well amongst New Orleans artists, running the gamut of themes.  Artist Matthew Kirscht dedicates himself exclusively to illustration and cartooning as his unequivocal art form.  But cartoonists never get enough respect, and owe much to Philip Guston’s crossover in the last 1960’s from Abstract Expressionist superstar to outspoken proponent of civil rights through the medium.  So Bunny Matthews, however popular, is a real step forward for all illustrators in this sense.  He is a featured front-page artist at the gallery who also represents heavy-hitters George Dureau and Deborah Luster, and other celebrity clients like Dale Chihuly and John Waters.

Only a couple other artists represented by Arthur Roger could be argued to draw in the cartoon style at times (Bruce Davenport Jr.’s work is arguably something of a cartoonish style, but he probably wouldn’t consider himself a cartoonist by any stretch).  Matthews is different, though, an iconic artist himself, he proves himself artsily iconoclastic at the same time.  Taking aim at the legendary New Orleans stereotypes that constitute our reputation, Matthews uncovers a tender underbelly in the process.  Refusing to create more than five or six tourist-pleasers, Matthews instead elects to venture into social critique with dazzling skill.

His “Zulu” has some edge, but only to an out-of-towner.  Any member of the legendry krewe would probably be honored to own and display the gleeful drawing.  It is bombastic and audacious, proud and loud, and a loving take by New Orleans’ standards.  Likewise, the “King” and “Queen” depictions are loaded with revelry, even if the Queen looks a little shifty or paranoid, depending upon your take on social relations and reaching the top of the more famous krewes.

“Snowball Server” is sweet and serene, and most anyone would appreciate her youthful charm.  His “Astrologer” and “Baker” are also charming, particularly the wandering baby in the lower right corner of the frame.  His especially composed “Indian” shows a Mardi Gras Indian in full and lovely glory, and how hard it must have been for Matthews to stop at the bust rather than drawing the character in head-to-toe glory as he must have wished.  Or at least as the viewer will wish.

Technically speaking, the drawings are nothing short of sumptuous.  His highlights on faces mimic the shine off snazzy new playground equipment in the sun, perfect and glinting with the promise of limitless fun.  His “Gangsta,” “Mama,” “Longshoreman,” and “Zulu,” characters in particular possess a shininess that owes a great deal to Matthews’ slick shading acumen.  Particularly alluring is “Mama’s” perfect purple eyeshadow.  But something disturbing lurks in the empty grocery bags poised right at breast-level of “Creole,” her confrontational gaze seeming just one-off from his “Whore.”

On the topic of “Whore,” she happens to be a stunningly beautiful light-skinned black woman, in a working posture.  Her nose is pierced with a gold ring and her long flowing braids rest behind her and she looks disturbingly much like local music legend Charmaine Neville.  No one is suggesting that Matthews intended the likeness, but this reviewer will wholeheartedly insinuate that many have fantasized about having this sort of access to the legendary musician.

Darker and more poignant are “Gangsta” and “Junkie” sad facts of life in New Orleans, and for the letter “U” Matthews has admitted their counterpart, “Undertaker.”  Gangsta’s (or someone’s) brains splatter on the wall behind him, and the “Junkie” reveals more than her undies in the form of bloody track marks up and down her arm.  More mysterious are “Horticulturist” which is either a jab at the LSU Ag Center, or a wizened take on the granola enthusiast type of transplant that seems to have flooded into the city as quickly as Katrina’s flood waters receded.  Suspicious and unapproachable, bespectacled and nipples concealed, she seems shocked to encounter human contact.

Matthews is wonderfully present in the drawings, stage-side at the strip club and enjoying an encounter with “Whore” that we get to be present for.   We encounter these characters alongside him, some oblivious and some stare into our eyes like the “Astrologer,” “Baker” or the “Creole” characters.  The difference seems to be whether or not the subjects have something to sell us.  In itself a remark on New Orleans culture, certain aspects of New Orleans life sells itself.