If someone drew a MAD map of the U.S.A. for August 2009, its center would be in Ojai, where the Ojai Valley Museum (OVM) has organized an entertaining and historical retrospective of the work of one of MAD Magazine‘s most prolific and distinctive artists, Sergio Aragones. OVM creative director Fred Kidder and exhibit designer Roger Conrad have collaborated directly with Aragones, who lives in Ojai, to create an artist’s world in miniature, including glimpses of every imaginable aspect of the creative process. To add to the MADcap fun of this show, alongside the traditional informational wall cards of an art exhibit, viewers get a number of drawings done right on the walls by Aragones himself. These not-so-minor masterpieces of marginalia are just as irreverent as the ones that Aragones has been publishing as his signature contribution to MAD for decades. To imagine the artist prowling around the installation of the show, pen in hand and ready to strike, is a fair symbol of the man’s approach to his art. For Aragones, there always seems to be more fun to be had, more jokes to be made, and more drawing to do.
Because the museum has had such unparalleled access not only to the artist, but also to his studio and collections, the show includes some great materials that offer important context for the work as a whole. For instance, in the space adjacent to the main room, a substantial group of original comics by other artists who influenced Aragones can be seen. Many of these sheets are original artwork, and they often include personal inscriptions. Upon entering the main space, one sees immediately how crucial the process of copying others’ work is to the early development of a cartoonist, as several of the figures from the influences section-Hekyll and Jekyll, The Gumps-reappear in Aragones’s doodling from his school notebooks.
Once he gets going as a professional artist, Aragones becomes an unstoppable force of visual creativity, and from MAD to Groo the Wanderer and beyond, his drawing appears to come as naturally to him as breathing. It’s Aragones’s genius for physical comedy based on unexpected uses of space that keeps coming back to the viewer as one moves through the gallery. And the exhibit itself winds its way through the artist’s career, from the fascinating storyboard sketches he submitted to MAD to the marginalia, and then to the sumptuous detail of his large tableau, such as the giant drawing of Hollywood that Aragones produced for the trade magazine of cartoonists, the Reuben Journal, just this spring. Like these giant tableaus, this exhibit teems with life.