New York

Charles Burns

Adam Baumgold Gallery

Everything in the world of Charles Burns is suffused in an otherworldly glow, as if the only available light were provided by cosmic radiation, nuclear blasts, or the full moon. Through this permanent midnight ranges a freakish cast of characters, sometimes half-human, half-animal, often hideously disfigured or diseased. Even the natural landscape they inhabit is cast in an unsettling hue, the ground underfoot littered with cigarette butts, scraps of clothing, shards of broken glass, and mangled animal remains, the waters fetid and opaque. And when the scene shifts from rural to urban, the city seems to pulse with violence, an endless, airless film noir set built from hard, metallic lines.

A veteran of the 1980s comics underground that found its fullest expression in the seminal anthology RAW (edited by Maus creator Art Spiegelman in collaboration with his wife, Françoise Mouly), Burns achieved national recognition via his magazine and newspaper illustrations, record cover designs, and syndicated strips. Making gradual inroads in the fine-art world, he exhibited at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art Museum in 1999, and was included in 2004 in Robert Storr’s SITE Santa Fe Biennial, “Disparities and Deformations: Our Grotesque”; but a recent show at Adam Baumgold Gallery was his first solo exhibition. A micro-retrospective of sorts, it featured highlights and outtakes from the artist’s work of the past twenty-five years.

Burns works in black ink on white paper. His drawings are small, and the installation in Baumgold’s poky basement space had an outwardly modest aspect. But the artist’s virtuosic precision makes his pictures not only well suited for print reproduction but seductively moreish whatever the setting. Somehow, the flatter Burns’s backdrops become, and the more unnaturally rigid or imaginatively misshapen his figures, the more irrepressibly each uncanny image lurches to zombielike life. Inspired by the pulpy blood-and-guts aesthetic of 1950s-era EC Comics titles, Burns inflects his hard-boiled genre tales with an operatic admixture of pop-cultural nostalgia, absurdist humor, and Cronenbergian body horror that engenders a perpetual disquiet.

Excerpts from the comic series Big Baby (an eerie meditation on the terrors of childhood), Dog Boy (an outwardly lighter saga of corporeal misidentification), and El Borbah (the high-octane adventures of a four-hundred-pound masked Mexican wrestler who moonlights as a private dick) all featured in the show, but at its heart were a suite of drawings from the graphic novel Black Hole. This brooding epic, Burns’s masterpiece to date, sees the artist hone his preoccupations with sickness and mutation, adolescence and sexual awakening, to a nightmarish intensity. The story of an AIDS-like teen plague is all the more effective for Burns’s comprehensive fusion of the banal with the fantastic; his visual language—all portentous shadows, wild eyes, and putrefying flesh—is perfectly matched to his themes.

The rest of the show was dotted with an assortment of one-off delights. In Crumb Illustration, 1995, Burns pays homage to the titular comix demigod, forcing R. Crumb’s grimacing visage—as well as a street full of his invented cronies—through a stylistic filter that combs out the original’s wiry cross-hatching into an equally characteristic sheen. Mutant Tilley: “New Yorker,” 1993, presents another gleeful twist, as Burns reimagines the magazine’s monocled mascot as a sinewy demon with a pustulated neck, examining a hovering mosquito while posed against a postapocalyptic wasteland. It is testament to the power of Burns’s vision that the dandy looks every bit as forbidding as the B-movie monsters that surround him.

Michael Wilson