Death is not death in children’s cartoons – characters bounce back to life no matter how absurd the violence. This warping of mortality informs Ryan Travis Christian’s art works. His chiaroscuro graphite drawings recall the black and white Disney cartoons of the 1920s. The ‘River Rats’ series (2011) stylistically puns on the happy rodent Mickey Mouse, whose human aspirations Christian drowns in the gutter. A new cast of villains emerges, too: the blobby type with vacant eyes that multiplies at will, high on hijinks and frightful in their conformity. In nodding to early Disney animation, Christian fills in his characters with the cultural politics of that era. The hugely influential Disney animator Ub Iwerks emigrated from Germany to the US and gave life to Mickey. Iwerks was responsible for defining the Disney style and developed it simultaneous to German Expressionism. His Skeleton Dance of 1929 redefined the age-old dance-of-death genre for children, and Christian borrows freely from the campy horror of Iwerks’ cult classic, where a graveyard is a playground for death to rattle out its funeral song. Here, humour is horror in disguise.
Christian’s drawings, though not literally animated, are full of motion, explosions, eye-bulges, jazz hands, frenetic patterns and formal gymnastics worthy of a Futurist’s kaleidoscopic vision of a speeding, pulsating humanity. Like the Futurists and the Cubists before him, Christian is concerned with picturing time and space as fractured and multi-dimensional. Whereas the first artistic experiments on this front were inspired by mathematics and theoretical science, Christian looks through pot smoke. The evidence is everywhere: bongs and baggies, reddened eyes (some of the only touches of colour), cannabis leaves, an inscription on one drawing that reads, ‘smoker’s dick’. The drug is an excellent tool for messing with perceptions of time. In light of this, Christian’s zigzag patterns and over-crowded compositions are like manifestations of the drug’s loopy feeling that you’re being followed and kissed by a thousand pinpricks.
If time is to be paused, then to what end? Is it simply to prolong the pleasures of childhood, such that Saturday morning cartoons give way to Saturday morning bong hits? The menace that oozes from the plastic smiles and black, gelatinous lumps in Christian’s pictures imply that decay has already taken root in this carnival, the comedown just moments away. Pictured across this series of drawings, the looming doomsday is celebrated as Christian’s end-of-the-world party, and everyone’s throwing up their hands or throwing up. Joyrides in speeding cars are common motifs of self-destruction in Christian’s pictures. (Balla was also fascinated with fast automobiles). And yet, splattered across eternity’s windshield, no one dies.
Whereas Arturo Herrera deconstructs the Disney fantasy lifestyle, Christian does not use household cartoon icons. Instead, Christian’s characters lack singular identity features, like Kenny Scharf’s psychedelic monsters who lie in wait for the next passive brain to munch on. They are mutant copies of the same clown, that folly fool: the everyman. Booby-trapped behind this funhouse mirror of identity is a rodent brain, distracted from life’s scum by a tasty morsel of laughter.