Cartoons convey view and a voice

Posted: November 24, 2002

Swarthmore College is always surprising us when it comes to art. This month it's happening at McCabe Library with a 30-item solo exhibit featuring Clay Bennett, the 2002 winner of the Pulitzer Prize for editorial cartooning.

Bennett produces editorial cartoons five days a week for the Christian Science Monitor, and his consistent ability to turn out very good work is shown by his being a finalist three years in a row before winning the Pulitzer.

Born in South Carolina in 1958, the son of a much-traveled career Army officer of rock-ribbed Republican leanings, Clay Bennett had attended 10 schools by the time he graduated from high school in Huntsville, Ala.

With his cartooning interests already apparent at the University of North Alabama, where he earned his college degree in art and history in 1980, Bennett was briefly a staff artist at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette and Fayetteville (N.C.) Times. He joined the St. Petersburg Times as editorial cartoonist in 1981 and worked there for three years. Next he trained in computer graphics and animation while distributing his cartoons through King Features Syndicate. Bennett joined the Monitor staff in 1998.

Wit, pun and satire permeate Bennett's Swarthmore show. Sprinklings of words and phrases pull the viewer in for a closer look at his cartoons. But mostly the images themselves are so compelling that captions are unnecessary. Thus Bennett as an editorial cartoonist has earned his reputation as a man of few words, and he makes every word count. Rest assured, the "pure visual image" that he depends on to carry his cartoon message, turns an acerb eye on the establishment every time. Even this mind-tingling show's catchy title "The Art of Heckling" elucidates what may be the desire of this artist to have his own creative approach be made visible in an exhibit. Some of the early influences Bennett has cited in his work were Warner Brothers cartoons, Charles Addams' New Yorker drawings, and censored art from Europe's Eastern Bloc nations during the Cold War.

The featured Bennett cartoons remind me of mezzotints with their mellow, grayed, almost clay-like colors and their somewhat three-dimensional feeling. Yet the artist has a lightness of touch and a deft control. And it enables him to deal with unconventional aspects in such a way that we view the image as both picture in the traditional sense and as an idea that cuts deep and is very forceful.

The detachment with which these images were done allows the seriousness of the subject matter to permeate each one. Almost always thematically interesting, these cartoons feature among their most successful examples topics that concern us all, such as gas-guzzling automobiles and national security, the latter conveyed several times with both an obsessive imagery and the residue of violence veneered with sentiment.

Whatever your political persuasion, this is a very powerful display. For the cartoons in it, diverse as they are, play off each other in very stimulating ways that set forth these subtle yet highly intense editorial cartoons as a creative product.

Swarthmore College's McCabe Library, Swarthmore. To Dec. 6. Mondays-Fridays 8:30 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturdays 10-6, Sundays noon to 10 p.m. 610-328-8489.

Haverford College. Ying Li, a colorful painter from an equally colorful background in her native Beijing, shows sensual and opulent paintings of the past three years at Haverford College. Featured are 40 paintings in three series by this Haverford faculty member who survived 1960s political turmoil in China when her family was forcibly split up and she was sent to a reeducation camp in the countryside, before immigrating to this country in 1983.

Themes of her partly abstract paintings range from farmland painted in Umbria, Italy, to large paintings inspired by Vermont waterways, and also still lifes of solid objects including seashells and skulls. Li has not settled into formula.

She uses color exuberantly and paints seemingly with an abandon yet rhythmically, her well-controlled thick paint lashing across the canvas. The considerable attraction of her work may be due to the combination of heart and mind on view here. This is feeling art, with thought behind it, rather than an arid series of exercises played out in an art ghetto for only a small coterie.

By selecting just certain motifs to give expression within each landscape or other subject, Li attempts to glide into abstraction. And yet she never quite drains any motif of narrative content, which does have interest in her work.

If Ying Li's latest display is a legible search for ways of penetrating people's consciousness to arouse emotional reaction, her journey back and forth between what is recognizable and what isn't, nonetheless confers on these paintings a mystical flavor or otherworldly quality.

Haverford College's Cantor Fitzgerald Gallery in Whitehead Campus Center, Coursey Rd., Haverford. To Dec. 8. Mondays-Fridays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays-Sundays noon to 5 p.m. 610-896-1037.

Contact Victoria Donohoe at vdonohoe@phillynews.com.

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