On exhibit at Rena Bransten Gallery are nine small drawings on colored paper place mats by Robert Crumb. The modest presentation might seem insignificant if not for the notoriety Crumb has achieved by creating iconic figures such as Fritz the Cat, Mr. Natural, Devil Girl and the Keep on Truckin’ guys, and at the requestof Janis Joplin, the album cover art for Big Brother and the Holding Company’s "Cheap Thrills" — images that defined counter-cultural aesthetics and values of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Crumb’s connection to the Bay Area is well-known, as is his reputation as an anti-establishment cultural renegade, which he earned while developing images and running around the streets of the Haight. Crumb moved to San Francisco in 1967; by 1968, he published the first issue of Zap Comix. The magazine was radical, charting and speaking a visual language that was antithetical, in form and content, to the political, cultural and sexual repression of the 1950s.
Crumb’s satirical comics also were reactions to the Comics Code Authority implemented in 1955, which forbade violence, sex, drugs or social relevance in comics to ensure they were commercially viable.
Conversely, "underground comix" such as Zap were sexually explicit, or they commented on the Vietnam War, civil rights struggles, cultural anarchism and drugs.
Through the years, criticism of Crumb’s work has been varied. Some praise it, while others have called it racist, or immature misogynistic pornography.
No matter how one weighs in on Crumb’s artistic production, the work for which he is best known isn’t really in evidence in this display. To a certain extent, it’s what makes the exhibition interesting. It alludes to Crumb’s significance as much by what is absent as by what’s represented.
On display are what appear to be portraits of people captured at particular locations, or remembered by the artist. These drawings render individuals, often at a table, arranged together in seeming isolation — in what might be described as "being alone together."
These free-floating renderings operate without the clear narrative that usually characterizes comics. In the end, these drawings raise more questions than they provide answers.
Where: Rena Bransten Gallery, 77 Geary St., San Francisco
When: 10:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays; 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturdays; closes Feb. 24
Contact: (415) 982-3292 or www.renabranstengallery.com