by BK Munn
Last night I rolled out of my hammock, shook off my slumbers and attended the opening of the cartoonist Seth’s new show, Seth: A Life, All Play, at the Art Gallery of Guelph. The show is described as an exploration of the artists’ creative process and how his comics-making stems from the playful practices of childhood, and much of what is on display over the three huge rooms of the main floor of this museum space is certainly whimsical and even downright frolicsome in its scope and inventiveness, mimicking as it does a child’s obsessive universe-building and use of simple materials to create stories, games, and fantastic monuments.
The show notes tell us that “the work on view encompasses the same childhood inspirations – comic books, toys and models, as well as DIY materials such as cardboard, poster paint, and glue,” but some of the largest and most impressive installations here are made of galvanized steel and welded metal, ceramics, yarn, wood, and who knows what. Besides the largest public assemblage to date of Seth’s cardboard city Dominion (“almost complete,” Seth told me, with the exception of one building that is currently part of the This Is Serious show in Hamilton), there are large constructions that Seth has collaborated on with other artists and artisans to make his various whims concrete, like the piece titled Cenotaph Hotel, a dollhouse-like structure fabricated from steel with stark black and white ceramic figures inside enacting some sort of nightmare mashup of THX-1138 and a funeral home set in a hotel lobby. There are several other pieces like this; blown-up versions of toys and doll furniture that gesture towards the world of the child while engaging with typical Seth themes of death, aging, and lonelieness.
The show has a large number of pieces that are basically scrapbooks and diaries compiled by Seth not necessarily with publication or display in mind, although his practice of transforming the most banal aspects of his daily life, from bathrooms to bedsheets, into art objects make me wonder if we can ever say about anything he does that he doesn’t have at least half of one eye towards eventually sharing even his most heartfelt-personal or throwaway-lighthearted ephemera with a bigger audience. Collections of old hand-lettered headlines from obscure Canadian newspapers and magazines pasted into exquisitely-bound scrapbooks are here alongside Seth’s rubber-stamp diaries, alongside books of sketches and plans for books, alongside papier-mache puppets, alongside knitted caricatures of characters from his graphic novels. The walls are hung with original comics pages of fugitive pieces, including the complete 10-page instalment of the “Owen Moore” story that was partially serialized in the defunct Toro Magazine that I once despaired of ever seeing completed.
The show looks great and as a fan it’s wonderful to have a glimpse “inside the studio” as it were. The opening was very well attended with carloads of cartoonists from all over Toronto/London/Hamilton and a crew from Seth’s Montreal publisher on hand to make the show seem like a mini comics festival. The one theme that emerged in my chats with these other comics-makers was wonderment in the care, detail, and obvious time that Seth puts into this personal work while he is very busy working as a freelance illustrator, book-designer and creating his own comics for publication. “Where does he find all the time?” was the common refrain. It’s a very interesting exhibit even if you’re not familiar with the artist’s work and definitely worth checking out, especially when you consider that the gallery curators will be gradually turning the pages of the books in the vitrines so each experience will be unique.