Thursday, April 16, 2020

PLAGUE ART, part 4

John Cuneo has a mind and sense of humor that are, in my opinion, unique in illustration today.  As far as I know, they're unique in the rest of the world too.

Detail of a sketch on the back of a menu from the Bear Cafe
The internet is flooded with artistic responses to the coronavirus.  Some are more interesting or illuminating than others.  As you'd expect, there's a huge amount of repetition and overlap.  But Cuneo overlaps with nobody.  Every time you go to his instagram page you know you'll see something you haven't seen anywhere else.

The following are some examples of Cuneo's perspective.  Beware!  Because it is Cuneo they are VERY NSFW.  But Cuneo uses sex the way Hitchcock used suspense-- a seemingly "lowbrow" vehicle that a master can employ to deliver powerful, trenchant statements of a high order.

Look how smart this joke is:

Cuneo bypasses the predictable joke that men are such pigs that-- even in the face of a deadly worldwide pandemic-- they think only about one thing.

He also bypasses the predictable joke that the man is so selfish that he wears a mask but cuts a hole in his partner's mask because some things are worth the risk to your partner, y'know.

He even bypasses the joke that his partner understands what a loathsome fellow he is;  she doesn't even bother to yell any more, or look up from her cell phone, she just gives him a sidelong glance with a world weary expression on her face.

Any one of those ideas would be a punchline for one of the better cartoonists today, but they are just way stations for Cuneo on the path to the woman's calm, understated request for the scissors.  What a marvelous statement about human nature, both male and female, in the face of the virus.

Here's another drawing about human interaction during the plague-- a different kind of "safe sex."

But Cuneo is particularly good at depicting lives of quiet desperation that people are experiencing after weeks of isolation at home:

Cuneo is one of those rare artists today who doesn't use a loose, scratchy style to evade scrutiny.  Study the faces on that last drawing above to see how carefully he captures the pathos of the unfeeling husband and the despondent wife.

The hunched shoulders, averted eyes and body angle fend off any attempt at human interaction

One might argue that Cuneo's distinctive voice is in the tradition of R. Crumb, but I think Cuneo is smarter, funnier, and better at drawing.


MORAN said...

Cuneo is awesome.

Anonymous said...

Cuneo is fearless. Has anyone here ever met him? I wonder what it's like to be his wife.


Laurence John said...

The mood on the street reminds me of these George Tooker paintings:

Tom said...

Great picks for how things feel Laurence.

chris bennett said...


On your point about Cuneo drawing better than Crumb.

Cuneo's way of thinking about form (evidenced by an artist's manner of drawing) along with the mise-en-scène/punchline of each work, is part of what gives his oeuvre its tone of what I can best describe as heartbroken sleaziness.

Robert Crumb's way of thinking about form; its evenly paced ant-like hatching relentlessly building wooden forms in ponderous motion is perfectly suited to the artist's own phobic and obsessive world view (along with his own mise-en-scène/punchlines of course).

So I believe this to be a question of aesthetic intent born of temperament rather than a difference in drawing skills per se.

David Apatoff said...

MORAN-- Agreed.

JSL-- I don't even want to THINK about that.

Laurence John-- Agreed. While not strictly about a plague, Tooker's eerie paintings do a good job of conveying the current tone out there. Tooker is a little too tightly controlled for my taste, but his tightness does a good job of conveying the weirdness beneath the surface.

David Apatoff said...

chris bennett-- I didn't mean to slight Crumb's work. I have great respect for his insatiable appetite for drawing as well as for the honesty of his eccentricity. And I agree with you that the drawing ability of Crumb / Cuneo cannot be a strict apples to apples comparison.

But here is the basis for my preference: I think Crumb's drawings lack the subtlety and nuance of Cuneo's; his facial expressions and figure drawing capture none of the complexity of Cuneo's. They tend to be broad, slapstick images with exaggerated expressions, eyes popping out of the head, huge toothy grins, etc. The body language is similarly exaggerated. The drawings are highly entertaining in a crazed kind of way, but I see no depth or profundity in his lines (his "evenly paced ant-like hatching" seems to have very little variety or inspiration compared to Cuneo's more sensitive lines).

If we wanted to try to isolate Crumb's "drawing skills" from his "temperament" I'd take a second look at his drawings for the Old Testament, which he said he handled as a straight illustration assignment. They strike me as pretty mediocre, with a basic comic book sense of staging. The same goes for his Art & Beauty book-- a whole lot of lines, similar to Virgil Finlay's work, but not much reward for all that effort.

I think Crumb's subjects are inventive and weird and phantasmal and I give credit for that but I think Cuneo's subjects, such as the drawings I've posted here, are bizarre in a way that is more directly tied to the complexities of human nature, and I personally find that to be the more challenging work. At least it's more to my liking. I understand that others may have different preferences and that's fine.

Wes said...

Does the Crumb style have any relationship to the "ashcan" school of art -- the uglification of things? Crumb made everything somewhat ugly. I don't mean that harshly -- I read his stuff and enjoyed it enough, but cars, women, sex -- all repugnant even in the possiblity of beauty. I admire his integrity if not his vision.

I assume cartooning has its own "ashcan" roots. Lots of modern cartoonists seem to "uglify" their renderings, or perhaps glory in their own inability to draw coherently. It must be a continuum. I love Whitney Darrow and Peter Arno but they they must have had their critics back in the day for their rough style.

Cuneo seems droll to me, mitigating the rough look of his characters.

Laurence John said...


Crumb started off doing almost a parody of 1920s comic book / animation styles with big feet, rubbery limbs etc. Everything was built of cartoon clichés, and pushed to the point of grotesque. As he became more 'realistic' there was a bit of German 'New Objectivity' in the mix (a lot of 'fine' artists of the 20s deliberately threw out 'correct' understructure and drew things that were deliberately left-brain, crude and 'wrong' e.g. Otto Dix, George Grosz, Edward Burra.

Crumb's mature style has little of those extremes left in it, but i think you can still see some of the Otto Dix influence:

John Cuneo's sculptural form / understructure (wireframe) is pretty realistic, but with odd exaggerations, distortions and wonkiness. Crumb's mature sculptural form is much more limited, rounded and cartoony.

Cuneo's line skips and dances around the forms, whereas Crumb's forms are laboriously rendered.

I get the feeling that Cuneo's work is done stream-of-consciousness in a sketchbook and the word balloons are improvised as he goes along. Which partly explains why the word-ideas feel tacked on, and almost never come across (to me) within the drawing (however much David tries to explain them). Great draughtsman though.

Laurence John said...

p.s. Wes, I don't agree that the Ashcan school's mission was to 'uglify'. In fact, you might say the opposite; that they were attempting to show the beauty in everyday subject matter.

chris bennett said...


I believe the degree to which a language can be made to articulate nuance is the governing factor in its efficiency to express poetry. (Which is why the efficiency of a definition is proportional to its lack of nuance.)

Which is why you make a fair point about the shortcomings of Crumb in that his style lacks the nuance of Cuneo's. And to be consistent with my belief above I would therefore have to agree with you that Cuneo is the better artist.

Wes said...


Thanks for the insights re Crumb and the "ashcan" school. I should have said that they were criticized for "uglificaiton" rather than that being their intent. I realize that they had a broader vision.


kev ferrara said...

The hunched shoulders, averted eyes and body angle fend off any attempt at human interaction

Following the woman's gaze; there's a running metaphor of eye-blocking or shielding built into the man's figure; the blank vertical panes of the eyeglasses which prevent entry into the man's emotions, are the main iteration. The vertical light part of the face echoes the idea first. Then echoed by the blank vertical orange phone case, and then again by the vertical front arm panel below it, and the planted leg that continues down from it.

This is the kind of running metaphor that is unique to drawing and only comes with constant drawing. My guess is Cuneo never thought of it consciously, but simply felt/knew it was right or had the right attitude or emotion. In other words, the meaning may have occurred to him at the intuitional level, but without him putting words to it. Again, the intellect doesn't write the poetry. It comes from a deeper, nonlinear/synthetic place.

Note that the man isn't actually looking down - or we can't tell he is - but the nose is, (the slope of his forehead leading into the nose gets an assist).