Ben Katchor’s serial picture-stories inspire nostalgia for a bygone era, but time and place are rarely specified. Instead Katchor’s urban milieu melds past and present. Many of his quirky characters – middlemen and small-time entrepreneurs – express a longing for the short-lived world of American Yiddish culture. This everyday world – already waning in New York by the 1950s – is intimately bound up with the artifacts of urban culture.
Idiosyncratic language pervades Katchor’s picture-stories. His humorous meditations on city life are expressed in a visually frenetic pastiche of word and image. Past and present collide in anachronistic window displays, commercial signs, public announcements, and other printed matter. Misused or borrowed words, notably from Yiddish, and nonsense language, create accidental puns. All this playfulness points to the instability of words in relation to what they signify – functionally, culturally, and visually.
Ruins are a leitmotif in Katchor’s drawings. As a sign of physical decay, they suggest the instability of the artist’s fictional worlds. His characters are exiles and émigrés, natives and tourists, whether they inhabit the nineteenth-century setting of The Jew of New York or the contemporary, dystopic island paradises of The Cardboard Valise. Through his fictional cast, Katchor explores national and cultural identities under a barrage of constant change. Each time he shows us the next replacement for the newly obsolete, he frustrates a romanticized view of the past.
Whether literally or metaphorically, Katchor represents the experience of American Jews of Eastern European descent in the Diaspora – not sentimentally, but with wit and irony. His work plays on the conflicts between identity and assimilation, tradition and modernity. These conflicts are revealed in uncanny moments in his picture-stories, in the inappropriate use of Yiddish words, in the half-remembered, misremembered places that the characters encounter, and in the layered history of the city itself.
Drawing for the Comics
After first appearing in the underground comics of the 1980s, Ben Katchor’s drawings are now regularly published in such mainstream magazines as The New Yorker. In addition to the galleries of the exhibition, where the major serial picture-stories are exhibited, in the hallways of the exhibition space are selections from recent illustrations and other projects. Katchor’s subjects range from Hasidism to national elections, and have appeared in Yiddish and other languages.
Katchor’s comic strips and illustrations are drawn for reproduction in newspapers and magazines. Drawings and strips representing various stages of Katchor’s process are shown throughout the exhibition. He starts with a script, then creates underdrawings in ink. On reduced versions of the drawings made on a photocopy machine, he adds watercolor before the drawings are scanned for reproduction. For legibility, they are also shown in the exhibition as enlarged Iris prints or color copies.