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EXHIBIT REVIEW: "Nemo in Slumberland: The Exhibition"

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Winsor McCay's "Nemo in Slumberland" (detail)

Is the day-to-day grind getting you down? Take a trip to Selby Gallery at Ringling College of Art and Design and check out its current art show. A trip to "Little Nemo: The Exhibition" is a trip to another world.

Cartoonist Winsor McCay is your conductor on this mystery tour. McCay was the visionary mind behind  "Little Nemo in Slumberland," which ran from 1905 to 1913 in the New York Herald and New York American from 1905 to 1913. The otherworldly Sunday comic strip (actually, an entire comic page) was surreal before the label had been invented. (Salvador Dali was in diapers as the time.) McCay was the strip's creator.

As a one-time professional cartoonist, I can tell you this exhibit fills me with awe, admiration and 100-proof jealousy. Like Mort Drucker and a handful of other cartoonists, McCay did his pen-and-ink line art free hand -- without any pencil underlay. (Though a cartoonist friend of mind swears he detects faint, blue pencil outlines here and there.) McCay's art -- full page as it was -- had a strong resemblance to comic book panel design. (Or what we now call "graphic novels," now that comic books have grown up and become respectable.)  McCay's art flowed brilliantly from panel to panel -- with a strong use of black and dynamic composition to make your eye go exactly where he wanted it to. So, brilliant layout, in the sense of static design. McKay was also brilliant at suggesting motion -- a polar bear giving chase, a horse galloping, Little Nemo walking on giant stilts, you name it. He combined that brilliant depiction of action with brilliant figure design. When he inked his characters, McCay seemed to start with a strong black outline, then filled in the lighter line weights inside. Working free hand, he had zero room for error -- the cartoonist's equivalent of tightrope-walking without a net. But McCay was a Wallenda of the cartooning world and he pulled it off. "Little Nemo" proves it.

But "Little Nemo" wasn't the only comic that flowed out of his mind. McCay's output included "Little Sammy Sneeze," "Dream of the Rarebit Fiend" (a cautionary tale about cheese pie-induced hallucinations) and "The Story of Hungry Henrietta." The cartoonist created these all these strips -- and he did them all at the same time in a white hot spell of creativity from 1904 to 1911.

And -- as if that wasn't enough -- McCay was also an animation pioneer. (Not surprising, as his strips seemed to want to move.) His "Gertie the Dinosaur" short from 1914 was arguably the first example of what would later be called "character animation." Gertie not only moved; she revealed her distinct personality in the way she moved.

According to art historian John Canemaker, "He had some inner demon that drove him to create like mad. He would draw and draw and draw and never knew when to stop."

This exhibit showcases McCay’s rare, original drawings and comic strips. It also features sketches for Little Nemo in Slumberland, an original youth opera by composer Daron Aric Hagen and librettist J.D. McClatchy, based on McCay's dreamworld, which premieres on Nov. 10 and 11 at Sarasota Opera.

Art historian John Canemaker will offer a multimedia presentation followed by a panel discussion with author and graphic designer, Chip Kidd, and other guests, at 7  p.m. Nov. 15; Selby Gallery, Ringling College of Art and Design, 2700 N. Tamiami Trail, Sarasota; 359-7563.

Sarasota Herald Tribune arts writer Carrie Seidman offers insights on how McClatchy and Hagen dreamed up their original youth opera: Creating Nemo.

Here's a reaction to the exhibit by cartoonist Austin McKinley published in his "Squareasota" strip in this week's Ticket:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW
LITTLE NEMO: The Exhibition.
Through Dec 12 at Selby Gallery at the Ringling College of Art and Design; 359-7563; Selby Gallery
Last modified: November 5, 2012
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