Time Travel in a Book

From Here to Here, Richard McGuire, Morgan Library: September 25 – November 9, 2014

by Jai Imbrey, PhD.

Curiously enough, the Morgan’s pocket-sized exhibition of the graphic artist Richard McGuire’s new book, Here, is separated from the Medieval Stavelot Triptych only by a set of glass doors—giving us inadvertently an insight into what this new work is all about. In essence, travelling back and forth in time.

Like the exquisite portable golden triptych, McGuire’s work since the 70s has focused on opening windows into the past and future within the framework of a single plausible space. In the triptych, this is accomplished by moveable doors that open onto an ancient relic (a fragment of the True Cross), along with gold and enamel champ-levé scenes of the discovery of the Cross and relevant Saints. The unlocking of the precious doors not only suggests a revelation, but a means to make the past present and to remind the faithful of future rewards.

McGuire, perhaps one of the world’s leading comic book artists, has always inventively explored the ways that visions of the past, present and future can be superimposed within a single frame or image. This one-room exhibition ingeniously places at its center a showcase displaying many of McGuire’s sources of inspiration: Medieval manuscripts, guides to ancient Rome with celluloid overlays, children’s books, Japanese prints and animé, Valeton watercolors – in short an eclectic range of visual material that jumps back and forth over centuries.

Along the walls, the curator, Joel Smith, has arranged elements of McGuire’s new book, Here, revealing the artist’s craftsmanship and ability to layer images. Interestingly, McGuire often begins with a watercolor wash of an environment into which he introduces cut-outs of photos, commercial images, and his own drawings, creating a multi-dimensional space that is both fluid and elegant. The style is quintessentially American, suggestive of contemporary urban and suburban life with portals into the past and future. McGuire then composes his final images digitally.

The cover of McGuire’s book features an open window, seen from outside, with a curtain over which a shadow is cast from a facing structure. The window is a permeable membrane between inside and out, public and private, inviting us to enter into the artist’s world on the other side of the curtain. This exterior window represents a reversal of Alberti’s famous assertion that painting is none other than an image seen through an open window. By showing the window from the outside looking in, McGuire seems to adopt Baudelaire’s view that what is seen from the street looking in is the more intriguing story:

Richard McGuire (b. 1957) Window (cover of Here) 2014 Acrylic on panel Courtesy of Richard McGuire
Richard McGuire (b. 1957) Window (cover of Here) 2014 Acrylic on panel Courtesy of Richard McGuire

There is no object more profound, more mysterious, more fertile, more dark, more radiant than a window illuminated from within by a candle. That which you can see in broad day light is never as interesting as that which happens behind the window pane. There in this darkness or spot of light lies life, dreams and suffering.

(Les Fenêtres, author’s translation)

McGuire— a polymath who has been a graphic artist, cineaste, and the star of the pop band Liquid, Liquid— brings a singular focus to his drawings. Here is both lyrical and strange in the way of American primitives with a sparse text and tonal palette. Yet, his book, beautiful and charming as it is, remains reassuringly old-fashioned. Diminutive in size, it features no cut-outs, pull-downs, or reflective surfaces. McGuire, a huge fan of children’s books, surely knows all about them. He has chosen a modest canvas like cover, recalling text books of the 50s. At once nostalgic and modern, Here invites us to roam back and forth from childhood to maturity with escape hatches into the past and future in the way of a friendly low-tech time-machine.

This exhibition, like many at the Morgan, is a reminder of how this great library has the rare potential for intimacy whether in displaying Rembrandt drawings or the work of inventive artists of our age. It is a pleasure when you go through the great glass doors to suddenly fall, like Alice, through the rabbit hole,

Either the well was very deep, or she fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her and to wonder what was going to happen next.

(Carrol, Lewis, Alice in Wonderland, London, New York (1865), 2010)



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