The Politics of Art: Beverly Arts Center exhibits Jack Higgins’s cartoons

Some of the strongest opinions in newspapers today can be found in a single frame. Political cartoons have been entertaining and infuriating readers for centuries: at best, they vent our political frustrations with a succinct sense of humor. This quality is what led Chicago Sun-Times cartoonist Jack Higgins to win the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning in 1989. Twenty years later, Higgins has published a compilation of his illustrations entitled “My Kind of ‘Toon, Chicago Is.” Even though his cartoons have an international audience, Higgins returns to his South Side roots in a show at the Beverly Art Center this month, which features 183 of his original drawings.

Curator Carla Winterbottom reflects on the uniqueness of the show’s theme: “We’re trying to open up our boundaries a bit. Sometimes we have conceptual art that can be political, but the message is a lot more obscured. You’d have to read about the art to discover the politics behind it.” In Higgins’ work, the message is much more explicit. The cartoons’ politics target a slew of local and national figureheads and events, engaging with and even confronting the viewer’s personal perspective. Winterbottom remarked that during the New Year’s Eve party held at the gallery, the pieces were “great conversation starters.”

The cartoon aspect of the artwork is happily misleading: these illustrations are not from the funnies section. While some of the pieces are “lighthearted and funny,” Winterbottom predicts that the pieces with challenging messages will provoke more discussion. “Some are really heavy, some tackle politics of religion, local politics, national, and international. There is something for everyone to get excited about.”

In some ways, the show attempts to emphasize the illustrations’ importance as art, not simply criticism. Displaying the originals allows an intimate look into the artist’s process. “They’re actually quite yummy to look at,” says Winterbottom. “You can see the line work, and whether or not he used ink or markers. There are areas with Wite-Out, as he developed the drawing and changed it.” The visibility of Higgins’ hand in his work emphasizes his skill as much as it puts his work in a larger artistic context. Winterbottom describes the illustrations as “very rich, much richer than they would look on the printed page. They’re really nice little pieces of art.”

Winterbottom’s arrangement of the show also highlights the cartoons’ visual strengths. Instead of ordering the pieces chronologically, or grouping them thematically, Winterbottom hung the illustrations in groups based on similar visual traits. “We pinned them up, raw, unframed on the wall, in groupings that correlate more to the shape, the size, and the color…Because for the most part they’re black and white, I wanted to have some kind of visual impact as you walk in the gallery.” Winterbottom hopes that the unique approach will draw the viewer in, even before reading the pieces allows the content to take over. As a fellow artist, she is drawn to Higgins’ ability to create such a clear message through equally impressive talent. “The idea of being able to draw something so well, and then marry that with an idea so seamlessly, and then add humor as well! This is really a major accomplishment. I don’t think a lot of people realize how difficult that is, what amount of talent that takes.”

From Mayor Daley to Islamic fundamentalists, Higgins surveys the globe to find subjects for his cartoons. As for some of the pieces’ potential controversial nature, Winterbottom explains that “all the topics address issues that could justifiably anger people. It’s a really fine line but it’s a real accomplishment to express [these ideas] as cartoons, because they’re touchy subjects.” Tragedies in the news, like car crashes and school shootings, are particularly difficult to draw in this medium, but “[Higgins] goes after all of that and just makes these powerful illustrations that get people thinking.”
In the caricaturized version of our world that they portray, political cartoons show us familiar faces and issues stripped of their pomp and authority, giving the public a glimpse of humanity and letting us see the humor of the situation. Regardless of what party you associate with or who you’ve voted for, Winterbottom suggests that Higgins’ cartoons “bypass our prejudices somehow. When you see something laid out visually, with just a small caption, it can get into your thinking a little more directly.” Message received.
Beverly Arts Center, 2407 W. 111th St. Opening reception January 8. Friday, 7-9pm. Through January 21. Monday-Saturday, 9am-9pm; Sunday, noon-6pm.

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