The comic book panel is a vivid and addictive distillation of adventure. It’s the vibrant imagery of the child’s imagination purified by the constraints of a three-inch box. Bold and bright these colourful strips reduce action to a whimsical level of abstraction. The comic book is a muse for your imagination. It’s the kindling which ignites your own depths of imaginative play.
What happens when these tiny boxes filled with ever-escalating worlds are exploded to the size of a conventional painting? What happens when they are reproduced with both the artist’s skill of hand and eye for composition? The sheer vibrancy of the comic book panel at-large becomes at once haunting, alluring and dangerous. It’s a powerful feeling, one of being dominated by the painting itself, and one that menacingly emanates from Roy Lichtenstein’s ‘In The Car’ (1963 – pictured above). It’s the most powerful piece on display at Tate Liverpool.
Lichtenstein was a pioneer of the pop art movement in the 1960s. He appropriated low art, advertising and comic books, and transformed them into high art with their thick outlines, bold colours and even the Ben-Day dots intact. ‘In The Car’ is an example of Lichtenstein’s romance comics which focus on young women, romantically entangled and hopelessly unhappy. The painting depicts an unhappy couple driving in a car. She stares straight ahead while he, driving and not looking at the road, glares at the woman beside him. Horizontal, parallel lines convey a sense of motion. While we, the curious onlooker, watch the scene through an open side window and are left to anxiously speculate whether the domineering man is glaring at his lady or at us. It’s a mesmerising painting which emits that sense of impending danger which keeps you glued to the action, not wanting to miss the inevitable crash.
As if sensing the potentially overwhelming power of these comic book paintings Lichtenstein metaphorically winds up the side window later in his career as he moves away from the comic and concentrates on mirrors, reflections, and barriers between the work and the viewer. It is this concentration which dominates the rest of Artist Rooms: Roy Lichtenstein in Focus.
In his series on reflections, Lichtenstein reproduces his comic book paintings but adds a border and, as though encased in glass, paints obscuring reflections across the work. The appropriator appropriates himself and challenges ideas about originality.
It is a shame that Tate Liverpool appears to have taken this theme of obscuration and reflection to heart. The dull and awkward lighting casts a shadow over the exhibit, obscuring the work in an odd haze. Whatever his focus Lichtenstein’s work was always bright and vivid and as-such an exhibit of his work should exemplify that.
Carl Bishop is a writer based in Cheshire.
Artist Rooms: Roy Lichtenstein in Focus is on display at Tate Liverpool until 17 June 2018.