It's not often you hear "amen" followed by outright laughter at art openings. But hang an army of political cartoons in a gallery and people react as if they're in a tent meeting listening to a preacher dressed in a clown suit.
At least, there were plenty of amens and chuckles at Saturday's opening of an exhibition by cartoonist Mr. Fish at Santa Monica's Robert Berman Gallery. Mr. Fish, who has been cartooning for the past two decades, currently contributes to Harper's and the level-headed website Truthdig.com. Previously, he appeared in the L.A. Times and contributed to LA Weekly from 2004 to 2008. His exhibition coincides with the release of a collection of cartoons and essays, Go Fish: How to Win Contempt and Influence People, and it's chock full of images.
Over 100 cartoons hang on the walls or lay flat in a glass case. There's too much to take in during a single visit, but you can't help absorbing the infectious, non-partisan anger that characterizes almost every frame. The non-partisan part is most interesting: Mr. Fish berates Obama more harshly than he berates George W. Bush, depicting the current president as a money-grubber, a sellout, a Robin Hood in Armani and the antithesis of Martin Luther King Jr.
Though there's no mistaking the cartoonist's left-leaning tendencies, he has little interest in what he calls "one-sided laziness." "A candidate is an asshole who will seek to convince the public that he is a hero when compared to other assholes," reads one 2007 cartoon. All Mr. Fish's work feels like a concerted effort to break free of political hoopla, which means its derision ignores party lines.
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Actually named Dwayne Booth, Mr. Fish adopted his nom de plume partly to distinguish himself from George Booth, a New Yorker cartoonist known for hillbilly doodles. The New Yorker seemed like the natural place for a career doodler -- it paid well, it was respectable and, supposedly, smart people read it. But Mr. Fish has never appeared in the magazine, though he sent his work in with no response for years. Over time, he's turned this constant rejection into an honor badge. He's become an anti-New Yorker cartoonist, the kind who refuses to hide social criticisms under a shroud of good taste. A 1990 sketch, called "New Yorker Rejection," shows a couple sitting across from each other, in perfect domestic docility. The wife says, "Aren't you glad we're nothing like the lousy goddamn n------?"
Many of Mr. Fish's images have been un-publishable, and he described a number of these during an author's talk at Revolution Books in Hollywood on Sunday, the day after his exhibition opened. Neither the one of the emaciated concentration camp survivors holding signs in support of Palestine nor the one of bin Laden with a connect-the-dots beard struck editors' fancies.
A professorial-looking guy with a buzz haircut and black-rimmed glasses, Mr. Fish seemed more straitlaced than most of his audience Sunday, and this made the intensity of his work seem all the more legitimate. He's not an eccentric; he's professionally crass, and even if it's renegade, his trade has been carefully honed. "Political cartoonists are always trying to minimize the issues," he noted, as if they want to be "like the Oscar Mayer Weiner song." Mr. Fish would rather be like a disease, infecting the public's "moral immune system." But unlike any real disease, he mostly seems motivated by sincere concern for the future. "I don't do my cartoons to be the final word," he said. He does them "to show the extreme of what I'm most afraid of."