Sunday, July 01, 2007

RALPH EATON: Drawings 1970-1975

Fuzz Man in the Fuzz Car

My friend Ralph Eaton’s response to this museum’s previous exhibits of my childhood drawings was to send me a cd with dozens & dozens of images of drawings he did from 1970-1975 (some with his friend Benji Brown). Unlike my drawings, which were done when I was 4-6 years old, these are the work of adolescents, and clearly show some of the specific cultural & environmental influences impacting teenage identity-formation during that time period in the USA.
Fuzz Man in the Fuzz Car aka the Fuzz Chariot

This sequence of Fuzz Man / Buttside / Buttside Gang drawings is influenced by television’s Ironside, reworking paraplegic detective Raymond Burr’s mobile technology-assisted crime-fighting mission into an equally-mobile but somewhat more transgressive mission to spread mayhem & fart-gas.

Fuzz Car Deluxe

Buttside’s Gang

Fuzz Man’s “Buttside’s Gang,” as culturally diverse as Ironside’s staff, also includes Bonnie & Clyde, popular 1967 cinematic icons who reference mobility, class, justice, gender & anarchy, & draw parallels between the Great Depression & the repressive cultural forms of the mid-60s.

As increasingly powerful sectors of the received environment, television, cinema & print publications in the early 70s provide much of the inspiration for these drawings, as I’ll continue to point out below. But while TV was becoming a window onto a wider world, for an adolescent living at home the view from the living room window, out the front of the house, onto the street & across it to the neighbors’ houses, was an equally intense sector of the received environment.

Rusty’s House & Family 1

Adolescence is a period of accelerated development of identity, a process which involves, at least in part, the perception, analysis & articulation of differences between self & other. For a teenager, everything tends to be a little faster & crasser & hyper-exaggerated. Hormonal influences & the swift pace of changing power relations between self & parents / physical environment / social environment lead to exaggeration (which is really a means of simplification) as a technique for adept identity-triangulation & boundary-testing. Television and, specifically, MAD Magazine, used similar techniques of exaggeration and so were entirely in synch with teenage perceptual tropes, though probably for different reasons.

Ralph & Benji drew this same subject (Ralph’s neighbor Rusty’s family) over & over; these are just a few of these drawings. The characteristics & proclivities of Rusty’s family are subjected to increasing exaggeration.

Rusty’s House & Family 2

Paterfamilias Rusty is portrayed as a slob & glutton, obsessed only with food & apparently oblivious to all the chaos around him. Signifiers of his obsession include turkey-leg-filled thought-bubbles & hand-carried watermelons; over the course of these drawings, a small dedicated food-deposit drawer on the side of his house becomes a special roll-up door and eventually morphs into a barred & gated underground drive-in tunnel guarded by soldiers (see below).

Rusty’s House & Family 3
Other members of the family are also depicted almost solely by one defining characteristic. Sonia has a big mouth out of which spews an obscene vocabulary. Ricky is a “slob jr.” in training to become his dad. Jeffrey is both fool & sadist, usually depicted in the act of inflicting violence upon members of his own family. Timmy is the perennial victim (much like South Park’s Kenny): whipped, shot, hanged etc.

Rusty’s House & Family 4

Rusty’s House & Family 5

That Rusty & family are Jewish is referred to by the sporadic appearance of a Star of David mounted on their house. This signifier seems to mark their “otherness” without any direct connection to their depicted personalities or familial dynamic. What interesting to me about its appearance in these drawings is what it suggests about what white male teenagers in southwestern Virginia in the early 70s might have understood about “otherness” - ie that these people were “other” - without having any real idea of what that meant, specifically.

Rusty’s House & Family 6

This drawing above is actually by Benji Brown.

Armed Biker

The narrative of adolescent development in the 20th century is inextricably intertwined with the concept of “Coolness” & its interrogatory & confrontational relationship to established cultural mores. For many teenagers growing up in the relatively static culture of southwestern Virginia in the late 60s, television & cinema & Mad Magazine provided models of Coolness, usually depicted as exaggerations & simplifications of codes of dress & behavior, that would allow avenues of escape from the horrifying probability of growing up to become one’s parents etc.

Depictions of outlaw bikers, pirates & Robin-Hood-like gangsters suggested romantic possibilities for lives to be led outside the constraints of existing local cultures. For testosterone-charged teenage males, it was natural to privilege “toughness” as a primary component of Coolness. I like the drawing below for its melding of pirate tropes with urban Black 60’s funk fashion.

Pirate Funk Gang

Television was actively bringing images of urban Black culture into homes far away from any actual contact with that culture. The politicized & interrelated discourses of civil rights activism, urban violence, race relations, popular music & fashion, all squeezed through a highly constrained but not-yet-overdetermined media (TV) into the chaotic brains of teens produced drawings like the one below, which depicts Black males looting, playing pool & barbequeing.

Look What I Got

As interesting an insight as this is into how Blacks were being portrayed & perceived by TV & its audience, I am more intrigued by the fact that these characters are dressed to the nines in styles that seem to come straight from Carnaby Street to the streets of “the ghetto,” and that a tremendous amount of work has been put into the depiction of the fashion details. The mis-en-scène here seems in part to be an excuse for showcasing the patterns, colors & cut of the clothes. And I am especially bemused by the fact that the television being looted is a console-type television. This is very much a drawing of a particular moment in cultural history.

Running Hippies

It’s not too far from the scene of urban looting to this scene of white hippies running.

Woodstock 1

Woodstock - or more specifically, the Woodstock depicted in the style of Mad Magazine’s heavily-populated, double-page spreads - became a strong inspiration for Ralph & Benji. The Mad style, in combination with limited drawing skills, creates tableaus reminiscent of medieval painting prior to the development of “perspective.”

In this first drawing we still see carry-overs from the “Rusty’s House” drawings, with many of the characters depicted in such a way as to suggest that they are meant to represent real people that the artist knows. And the scene includes a UFO, a grave, a submarine; the music festival doesn’t quite encompass all the action.

Music 1

Music 1 & Music 2 here (all titles are the curator’s not the artists’) don’t specifically depict Woodstock but I believe they derive from the form of the artists’ Woodstock drawings. In the first, in contrast to Woodstock 1, the characters have largely become anonymous male musicians & bikini-clad female dancers. The only recognizable character is the fictional Charlie Brown, obviously feeling very much out of place in this increasing tribal & sexualized gathering.

Music 2
Woodstock 2

The population at Woodstock has grown considerably, but the individuality of the characters is enhanced. A dirigible above the stage makes Mad Magazine’s influence explicit.

Woodstock 3

Woodstock is now filled to bursting; characters’ bodies extend beyond the crowded frame, which is now filled with characters from other popular-culture sources: Dagwood, Beetle Bailey, Smokey the Bear. Snoopy seems to take it all in stride. Can’t we all just get along?

City Plan 1

I love maps & was immediately drawn to these examples of purposely-dysfunctional city-planning. Every effort has been made to make the worst possible urban-planning decisions. In City Plan 3, the most dystopic of all, the atomic-bomb testing plant is right next to the gas station; the old-folks home is completely cut off by a freeway interchange; the Quaker church is next to the dragstrip. To get to “colored town” one has to walk by the KKK center. One scenario that seems unfortunately prescient is the short & direct path leading from school to reform school & then to prison.

City Plan 2

City Plan 3

Psychedelic Patterns

Finally we bring this exhibit to a close with this drawing by 17-year-old Ralph, a drawing that seems to me to compress all the Woodstock & city-plan drawings that came before it through a filter whose x-axis is almost certainly LSD & whose y-axis might be Picasso.

See more of Ralph Eaton's drawings in The North Oakland Temporary Museum Annex: