MCA Chicago’s Landmark Comics Show Is All About World-Building
Tasked with telling the backstory behind Chicago’s rich comics history through exhibition design, local firm Norman Kelley deftly employs color, scale, and proportion, finding a kinship with cartoonists in the process.
For more than a century, Chicago has nurtured a community of preeminent cartoonists, many of whom pushed the medium forward and taught the art to new generations. With a focus on rediscovering the work of women and BIPOC comic artists, “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now” at the Museum of Contemporary Art spotlights the past 60 years of the city’s artful cartooning history through the work of Lynda Barry, Daniel Clowes, Edie Fake, Nicole Hollander, Kerry James Marshall, and others in a dynamic exhibition design by local firm Norman Kelley.
To set the scene for the exhibition’s punchy graphics, the firm painted western-facing walls in vibrant colors sourced from Le Corbusier’s architectural polychromy in a scheme that slightly alters the scale of the museum’s fourth-floor galleries. “We worked closely with a majority of the artists to construct specific proportions of space around their bodies of work, as well as devise color palettes that were specific to the art and the curator’s chronological and historical timeline,” the firm principals, Carrie Norman and Thomas Kelley, tell Surface. “As architects, drawing is our primary communicative tool, so naturally we feel a kinship with cartoonists who draw to tell stories and build worlds.”
Below, we get a closer look at the project.
Project Description: The Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is hosting the exhibition, “Chicago Comics: 1960s to Now,” a celebration of Chicago’s pivotal role as a national and innovative center for comics and cartooning. With a focus on rediscovering the work of women and BIPOC comic artists, this major exhibition presents the last 60 years of the city’s artful cartooning history, showing how comic art is a democratic medium that allows artists to speak directly to people in relatable ways. More than 40 cartoonists, among them Lynda Barry, Lilli Carre, Daniel Clowes, Nick Drnaso, Edie Fake, Emil Ferris, Nicole Hollander, Charles Johnson, Kerry James Marshall, and Chris Ware among many others are represented by comics, graphic novels, zines, original drawings, dioramas, commissioned films, installations, rare ephemera, and books.
On view until October 3, the exhibition is organized by comic historian and curator-at-large Dan Nadel from an idea by former MCA chief curator Michael Darling and explores the ways how artists use comics not only to entertain readers, but to engage them in the relevant social and political issues of their time. We reimagined the space for visitors to feel like they’re walking through a comic strip. A colorful matrix of rooms, or enfilade, divides the fourth-floor galleries, and installations are viewed between, within, and through portals, as if looking through the frames of a comic.
Inspiration: The balance of color and surface in the works of Krijn de Koning, Le Corbusier, and Edie Fake.
Blueprint: Our exhibition design consists of 13 partition walls distributed across the museum’s fourth-floor vaulted galleries. The 12-foot-high walls are oriented east to west, with their western faces painted in desaturated colors and eastern faces painted in vibrant colors. All colors are sourced from Le Corbusier’s architectural polychromy from 1959. Each of the 32 colors are foreshadowed at the entry in a custom mural designed by cartoonist Edie Fake.
At each wall, a large opening offers visitors a passage or view. An 11-foot square opening indexes the existing building’s structural bays to provide egress between rooms designed for single artists and multiple artists’ work. Two nine-foot square openings, or windows, near the beginning and end of the chronological show provide views to look ahead and backward, and match the dimensions of vinyl blow-ups of certain artworks. We also designed a system of steel-and-acrylic table and wall vitrines that display multiple artworks using only magnets.
Takeaways/Uniqueness: From the beginning, we were compelled by a mutual attentiveness to the art of drawing. As architects, drawing is our primary communicative tool. Naturally, we feel a kinship with cartoonists who draw to tell stories and build worlds. In addition, the scale of drawings at which cartoonists typically draw (by hand sometimes) is intimate—many of the original drawings are at a scale no larger than a letter-size piece of paper. This degree of intimacy is key to comics because they are also haptic objects: they require you to hold, leaf, and get as close to the work as possible to inspect every narrative detail.
We were gifted with an opportunity to design an exhibition around content that spoke a similar language to our own and also required you to pay close, and proximate, attention. We believe our exhibition design serves less as an intervention to the MCA’s fourth-floor galleries and more of an alteration of its existing scale.
Challenges: There are approximately 40 artists in the exhibition. Some have enjoyed long careers; others are just starting out. Some artists draw by hand or digitally while others utilize alternative media (i.e. maquettes, animation, costumes). While place ties everyone together, the work is truly varied. Difference was something we had to both contend with and embrace. Among other design strategies, we worked closely with a majority of the artists to construct specific proportions of space around their bodies of work, as well as devise color palettes that were specific to the art and the curator’s chronological and historical timeline.
Other Details: When we first spoke with curator Dan Nadel about the culture that surrounds comics, we realized that the medium was never meant to be read in libraries or art galleries, but usually in transit, or in more intimate domestic settings like smoky basements. We hope that viewers are provided with a comfortable background to actually read the comics and become absorbed by the extensive lineage of Chicago’s contribution to comic history. Like music in a Hitchock film, we hope that the space we’ve designed is secondary to the storyline.