Pic Kenny Rodger: Barry Linton (front) with Kelly (left) and Darren Sheehan and Dylan Horrocks.
IN 1961 Roy Lichenstein painted Look Mickey in response to a dare from one of his sons to match the quality of a Disney comic. The challenge turned him from a lately arrived Abstract Expressionist to a pioneer of Pop, but half a century later the relationship between comics and art is still fertile ground for debate.
Lichenstein himself had largely moved on from sourcing images from popular comics by 1965 - looking at his paintings in the flesh you realise the popular image is a misinterpretation, and his concerns were surface and space and colour and how the eye responds. Comics gave him something to paint, but the painting was the bit that interested him.
The debate continues at Bath St, with some of our more maverick comic artists and some artists who use comics for image-making.
Dylan Horrocks, who is represented by panels from his great Hicksville series, two pages from the 2000 story called Western Wind and some colour originals from the Milo's Week comic strip drawn for the NZ Listener in the mid-1990s, gets prickly about the difference between comics and "gallery art".
"Ultimately I guess I'm just not that interested in the distinction. I sometimes get a lot out of looking at paintings as 'comics' - Art Spiegelman once said Picasso is a great cartoonist - but I also have spent much of the last several years exploring the pictures in comics as individual drawings, rather than merely storytelling tools," says Horrocks, adding that the differences "are probably about milieu and markets and subcultures, rather than the work itself".
Rob McLeod, who is showing his 2007 painting Bridesmaid, is unwilling to give up any ground, despite his plunder of cartoon forms.
"I am very protective of painting's territory. I want to establish boundaries by pushing at them, not breaking down barriers. It's important that my work is always recognised as painting," says McLeod.
Denys Watkins is more conciliatory, saying the "art crowd" doesn't get the crossover with comics. As well as Lichenstein, he points to Philip Guston's reversion from pure abstraction to imagery, guided in his exploration of the human condition by George Herriman's Krazy Kat and Robert Crumb.
"For me, Hogarth was the first in this genre. The Rake's Progress was a big influence in subject and drawing."
It was also a work interpreted by David Hockney as a student at the Royal College in London a few years ahead of Watkins. "Being a line and tone man, my early influences were Ginger Meggs and Dagwood in the newspapers. I then expanded to Beano and Disney, graduated to Crumb in the 60s, and have a great respect for the influence of Mad and the iconic skills of Marvel and Eagle."
Many of the American artists he likes, such as Peter Saul, John Wesley, Jim Nutt, and Sue Williams, display some of the drawing skills associated with cartooning.
"Back home, I have to say that only Dick Frizzell, Tom Kreisler and myself had a take on this from my generation, and this came from a love of drawing and the emotive information you can get from such simple apparatus," Watkins says.
McLeod dates his use of comics to 1973, soon after he arrived in New Zealand from Glasgow. "It wasn't so much comics as the newspaper strips, The Wizard of Id in particular and the characters' noses to be specific."
Much of the work from that period was never shown, and McLeod then went "on the road to abstraction". The cartoons returned in the 1990s, even though the paintings looked abstract.
"I finally acknowledged the figurative element in Meet Mutant Mickey, an important work from 2000. Full-blown figuration took over. I started looking at comics again and referring to certain characters: Mickey, Goofy, Daffy Duck, Tweety Bird. But not post-modernly appropriating them. They get twisted to my ends."
Horrocks says comics ignore borders. "Comics tend to be equally engaged with art and literature, and are really both." He says comic artists in the show are some way outside the mainstream, have zero interest in superheroes, and are producing distinctly "local" work.
"Barry Linton and Tim Bollinger, especially, have a very deeply Pacific feel. One of Tim's stories in this show is about the so-called 'terror raids' against Tuhoe and his other story transplants Noah and the flood to contemporary Wellington. Tim's work often has a very strong sense of place to it, especially his Wellington stories.
"Barry's been off on his own unique path for years, creating work that's unlike anything else. He's totally his own man - and he's had very little to do with wider comics cultures, especially the commercial industry, which he probably views with contempt."
Linton sees himself as carrying on an ancient tradition of blending words and pictures for instant and direct communication, saying, "It's as complex as stage or screen art. Its potential is depraved by commerce, but it thrives in secret globally."
What: The Comics Show: Comic book pages by Tim Bollinger, Dylan Horrocks, Barry Linton, Darren and Kelly Sheehan; paintings by Mark Braunias, Dick Frizzell, Rob McLeod and Denys Watkins
Where and when: Bath St Gallery, 43 Bath St, Parnell, to April 25