N.Y. Urban Graphic Ballads Come West

"Ben Katchor: Picture-Stories" is at The Magnes Museum, 121 Steuart St., San Francisco, until June 30. Admission is $4, and $3 for students. (415) 591-8800 for times and information.





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Collective sanity in pop culture must depend on a certain measure of regular memory purges; it seems as if author and comic artist Ben Katchor skims this lucid layer between yesterday's news and oblivion to create eight-panel moments that show us versions of ourselves that occupy the blind spots in our 'big picture.'

"Picture Stories," the first broadly conceived exhibition of Katchor's art, collected from a multitude of sources, opens today at the Magnes Museum in San Francisco after a run in New York City. Included works range from a ten year span of strips from his well-known "Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer" series to the sets he designed from the Obie-Award winning opera, "The Carbon Copy Building."

Sliding sublimely from mini-portraits of the nostalgic to the obsessed to the entrepreneurially convinced, Katchor utilizes the graphic medium to strongly emphasize both unique settings or situations and the central role his characters play in them.

Katchor has been one of a vanguard of comic artists who has gained the 'graphic novel' format recognition as a medium that beyond being culturally significant, transcends the limitations of modern fiction writing.

"The benefit of the medium is that you can show things that you really can't describe," says Katchor. "Even the best writing style doesn't cut to the heart of the matter."

The words of the script themselves have meaning, but they also occupy a geographical space, and thus create a different meaning on the page. His characters share a signature interaction with their narration in some strips-they can respond or act to that unseen voice.

Courtesy/Ben Katchor
Julius Knipl: The protagonist en route-forever.

"[Comic artistry] is really an ability to communicate at both ends of a symbolic spectrum of meaning," Katchor says, "but how you theoretically approach comics is very different from the result. I have a very intuitive way of envisioning my art."

A Knipl strip, "The Museum of Immanent Art," showcases some of the best aspects of his writing and art. Yet another institution whose adherents are full of fervor falls through the cracks, but its product is metaphorical, and so it lives on.

"This museum is all about the artistic impulse, an exciting state of mind, invoked by empty frame hangers and the smell of oil and turpentine," says Katchor

The primacy of original artistic material-in his case, ink-is evident for Katchor, who lived as a typesetter in the '70s.

"Ink wash goes back to early European figure drawing-it is one of the most economical ways of visually describing atmosphere," Katchor says. "Artists like Poussin would use it as study for a painting, kind of like a short hand-it's really all there in the drawing, though."

Down to the oil and turpentine, 'greasy memories' and tactile details that draw out our instinctful reactions, sometimes the realm of word and image strikes at a more base sensory world that Katchor readily recognizes.

"A smell or taste can be an incredibly powerful thing. On certain streets in eastern Berlin, they still burn coal-a strong smell I haven't experienced since childhood in New York," Katchor says. "That whole world was abruptly brought back."

The petite physical scraps and detritus of his stories play such an incredibly insidious role sometimes that the ticket stubs, ads and other paraphernalia even show up in the front and rear covers-and now in the new parts of the exhibit.

Actual collections of the faux-tchotchkes of the characters in his novel "The Jew of New York" and certain strips are set up in imaginative arrangements that closely mirror the stories they are taken from. This seems the logical conclusion of audience interaction made possible that has carried the kernel of fiction from Katchor's brain, into picture, to operetta: one can literally now step into a Katchor strip.

Besides his continuing series "Hotel and Farm" which appears Wednesdays in SF Weekly, Katchor is writing the libretto and deigning sets for another musical show, "The Slug-Bearers of Kayroll Island," with music from the pop world by Mark Mulcahy.

"It's based on a short series I did in the architecture and design magazine Metropolis about the people who add lead weights to give consumer appliances weight," says Katchor.

On musing about the fact that the San Francisco Bay is a new metropolitan area to experience the exhibit following his eastern home, he posed a light-hearted thesis-antithesis relationship between the urban space that inspired much of his work and that of the Golden Gate.

"This is the place people go to escape from New York," Katchor says. "The sunlight all year long is amazing-it seems like a place where you don't have to live as much in your own imagination."

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