Monday, June 17, 2013

Down the Rabbit Hole: Camille Rose Garcia at the Walt Disney Family Museum

Entrance to the exhibit.

The Walt Disney Family Museum is not a place I'd expect to see a show from artist Camille Rose Garcia. Succubus Spring, from her 2008 show "Ambien Somnambulants," isn't exactly Bambi. But "Down the Rabbit Hole," featuring her illustrations from a recent edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, is on display there until November 3.

Garcia has long had a connection to Disney, but not the kind that the corporation usually embraces. She grew up in suburban Los Angeles, the birthplace of pop surrealism, and Disneyland ("the happiest place on Earth" and "the Magic Kingdom") has often been present in her work, but not necessarily in a flattering way. Her first major show, in 2000 at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery, was bitingly called "The Happiest Place on Earth." A book of her work was called The Saddest Place on Earth. Her mid-career retrospective at the San Jose Museum of Art was called "The Tragic Kingdom." That show's literature stated of her adolescent relationship with nearby Disneyland: "The artist quickly grew to recognize its artifice and contradictions, and she witnessed the realities of privileged suburban life - adolescent alienation and social marginalization. Her precious glittered compositions are infused with a sense of discontent, yielding works that are simultaneously disturbing and attractive."

Also, my sister and I got a good giggle at one of her art books, which includes a piece with the words "fuck face," being in the gift shop of the Walt Disney Family Museum.

Entrance to the museum, in San Francisco's Presidio.

Perhaps the show indicates the museum's goal of being a cultural institution, not just a theme park PR extension. Indeed the museum itself, while certainly heavy on the feel-good marketing, does take a technical look at the evolution of animation and even covers early Disney labor disputes. Still, Camille Rose Garcia at Disney seems like a surprising decision for both parties.

However, Garcia is not the first lowbrow/pop-surrealist to become associated with Disney. Shag, with his hip, mid-century modern SoCal imagery, has become one of Disneyland's official artists, creating posters and merchandise artwork for the park. And while the style of his art is a perfect fit for retro pleasures like the Tiki Room and Tomorrowland, it does make you wonder what his intentions were and are. Art that seemed to be making a comment on cheery consumerism became part of that cheery consumerism. (Full disclosure: I try to be smug about Disneyland but will still eat the churros and ride Pirates of the Caribbean a billion times.)

Garcia, For the Duchess, at the Walt Disney Family Museum.

But to move on to the art at hand: Garcia's illustrations for a new edition of Lewis Carroll's most famous work. I wrote briefly about this project last year for Easter, and weirdly, that post became my blog's most-read, mainly from people searching for "Camille Rose Garcia" in conjunction with "Alice in Wonderland." There's a lot of interest in this, and it's easy to see why. Although John Tenniel's engravings for the original Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are generally considered sacrosanct, if you're going to have another artist update this volume, Garcia is an ideal choice. 

Garcia has said this illustration, The Lobster Quadrille, is her favorite, as it's not a
scene Tenniel had done. Note narwhal with tiny top hat.

Garcia's surrealist bent is a good match for the material. Her work is dreamlike, cartoonish, playful, and dark. She captures the weirdness and loveliness of Carroll's odd scenes. As wondrous and even cute as they can be, there's always an unpredictable danger lurking. Her Alice's goth-girl toughness reminds us that Carroll's Alice was a pretty hard chick - no-nonsense and capable. Garcia's punkish mixture of pinks, purples, and black drive home the fact that Alice is no damsel in distress.

Part of Garcia's Down the Rabbit Hole show.

The work is beautiful: graceful curves, elegant drips, layers of color in acrylic and watercolor, an occasional dash of black glitter. It's vivid, fun, nightmarish. And the museum stages it well, with dark purple walls and black frames. Supplements include the edition she illustrated, a few other editions, and touchscreen stations with an artist bio and sketches. Large murals of Garcia's rendering of the famous tea party scene decorate the walls of the lobby just outside the exhibit.

The show includes a wall of Mary Blair art. Garcia has named Blair, who "brought modern art" to Disney, as an inspiration. An artist most known for her work on Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland, and the park's Small World ride, it's interesting to see her and Garcia's different, distinctive color palettes and shapes and how they both tackled the challenge of making what Tenniel had illustrated their own.

Blair's concept art for Alice in Wonderland

Access to the exhibit is included in regular ticket purchase. You can see more of Garcia's illustrations for Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at the Merry Karnowsky Gallery's website.

Garcia, detail.

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