“Fly and Boater” by Alice Muhlback

The function of the artist is to make

 people like life better than they have before.

 – Kurt Vonnegut

Alice Muhlback could perhaps be considered as Ithaca’s Picasso.

Why I am so attracted to Alice Muhlback’s art, in all probability, is the reason is that I am a cartoonist.  (I worked about 15 years in comics, overlapping with three decades in the animation industry.) Alice’s art is cartoon-based.  She draws cartoon characters in line, and then paints the work like a great abstract expressionist.

Her new show currently on view at the Eye Gallery on the Ithaca Commons (arguably the hippest gallery in Ithaca) features art riffing on an animated film, Alice, co-created with the filmmaker Pamela Tan and producer Chris Holmes (with music composed by Joshua Handal) called Once Upon an Eye.

The film can’t be shown yet as it has been entered in various film festivals, but there is animation on display at the exhibit with characters and situations from the film (a bit like a coming attraction).

She has a style totally her own.  And she has developed over the years a type of personal iconography of reoccurring characters that she deploys like a composer using reoccurring themes.

There are some precedents in world cartooning that her art reminds me of. In animation, I think of the Beatles film Yellow Submarine, and the Murakami-Wolf film The Point (which featured music by the late Harry Neilson).  In the print medium, I think of M.K. Brown (a cartoonist whose work appeared in The National Lampoon, which was humor magazine of my youth) and the cartoonist Dan O’Neil, who drew the newspaper strip Odd Bodkins, and was one of the Air Pirates, a group of underground cartoonists who got the Disney organization very angry at them in the 1970s.

And I think of the late, sainted B. Kliban–the cartoonist who was famous for those ubiquitous cats.

But there are also those two late, sainted, world-class cartoonists Alex Toth and Jean “Moebius” Giraud.  Toth was a great cartoonist in the adventure mode (Space Ghost) where Moebius was a great French science-fiction cartoonist (Metal Hurlant).  But both artists occasionally drew much simpler work that displayed a near miraculous sense of design.

That’s what reminds me of Alice’s work.  Her design sense is extraordinary.  She comes up with the most compelling of character designs with an absolute simplicity of line.

And then she paints her work like the greatest of the abstract expressionists who emerged in New York City after World War II…Mark Rothko and Franz Kline and so on.

As to why I think of her in terms of Picasso…

I once saw an exhibit of extremely large Picasso paintings at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, California circa 1979.  They were from a period when Picasso lived in Cannes in the South of France.  

It was happy, earthy subject matter–women, food, palm trees, the Mediterranean–and the paintings were like big cartoons, drawn with thick, heavy lines.  I especially remember how the characters all had big cartoon hands, much like Muhlbeck’s characters.

Muhlbeck also frequently makes sculptures of her characters using cast-off materials.  Picasso did that too.  Picasso’s neighbors called him “the Junkman” because he was forever picking up cast-off stuff on his walks around his neighborhood, which he used to make his sculptures.  Both Alice’s and Picasso’s sculptures have a sort of funky, jury-rigged quality to them.

Alice’s work also reminds me of Joan Miro and Paul Klee.  Both artists have a cartoony quality to their work…cartoon-like characters and objects drawn in line and painted with bright, childlike colors.

And I think of Marc Chagall for pure charm.  Alice often has characters floating in the air, which reminds me of Chagall’s famous, super-charming painting of two lovers…locked in a kiss and floating through the air.

Now let’s consider the gallery…

The Eye Gallery, on the Commons in downtown Ithaca, is one of Ithaca’s newest galleries.  Julie Simmons-Lynch, the former editor of Heavy Metal magazine, launched it in September of 2015.  It is a tremendous cultural addition to the city.  

And, as I mentioned earlier, Alice Muhlback’s show at Eye features characters and situations from her animated film Once Upon an Eye.

Here’s the synopsis of the film:  “Two souls hatch–one flees, one pursues–under the benevolent gaze of a larger presence.  It is an age-old tale of love.

The two souls are portrayed by a bird and a floating eye, the “larger presence” portrayed by a giant. And the paintings and sculptures at the Eye Gallery feature the bird and the eye and the giant in reoccurring motifs as well as some of Alice’s other characters: one of her emblematic cats, a buffalo, a very appealing cartoon horse, a bird-boat, and a tree with a moon-face, a sun-face, and a cartoon star as foliage.  

And the sculptural installations are marvelous: a giant lying on the floor, head propped in hand, a cat sculpture, a mobile of the bird (who looks a bit like a flying wing–Alice called it “a new model”), an ornate little mini-theatre to watch the film upon, and, my favorite, a tree with thin, wire foliage and little plastic viewers hanging like fruit, each one containing a miniature painting within.

Alice even has one interactive sculptural display where one can look into one of those Viewmaster things I had when I was a kid (now called an “Image3D”) and she has somehow loaded a revolving selection of her artwork in it.

There’s also a bit of luggage with the giant, the eye, and the bird drawn on it, painted as a very nice abstract-expressionist piece.  (It’s not too early to be thinking about a Christmas present for that special, hard-to-find-an-appropriate-gift-for, loved one.)

Once Upon an Eye is a marvelous little show in an elegant gallery… a worthy addition to the cultural richness of Our Enlightened Little Town.  If the Art-Loving Reader is downtown with a little time on his or her hands… why not drop by the Eye and take in this marvelous show?

It will make you like life a little better than before. • 

Once Upon an Eye will be on display from Nov. 4 to Dec. 18 at the Eye Gallery, on the Commons, 126 E. State/MLK St., Ithaca, N.Y., 2nd floor.  Thurs. – Fri. 4 –6 p.m., Sat. – Sun. 12 – 5 p.m.  (607) 342-4414.  www.eyeithaca.com.  

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