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 Franzie Weldgen  (1972 - )

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Lived/Active: New York      Known for: cartoon imagery

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Ad Code: 4
Franzie Weldgen
An example of work by Franzie Weldgen
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
Biography from Tucson Museum of Art:
"Low-Brow Art in a High-Brow World: The Art of Franzie Weldgen"
by Julie Sasse, Curator, Tucson Museum of Art

Franzie Weldgen’s art is at once confrontational and hilarious, childish and thought-provoking. His unabashedly cartoon-influenced art is a riotous cacophony of color, pattern and fantasy. Often he paints on top of kitsch reproductions of British hunt or Western cowboy action scenes—some of the mainstays of middle class sofa art, which further emphasizes the consciously low-brow nature of his work. Loyal to the comic book formula, and aligning himself with its culture, Weldgen punctuates his compositions with text inserts and captions that help the viewer to “read” the content of his often alarming narratives. In much of his work, he uses Day-Glo paints, meant to be seen in black light, allowing the text to leap from the canvas and the otherwise tranquil scenes to become sinister. It is possible to simply enjoy the artist’s ability to render color and pattern, and to indulge oneself in the naughty, scatological scenes that he daringly portrays. Yet, if one takes the time to decipher his stories, a boldly witty, satirical message unfolds that belies the more base aspects of his inventory of penises, vaginas, breasts, lolling tongues, and other images of juvenile male humor. If Weldgen has an opinion about a particular social or political event in contemporary culture, he holds nothing back with his over-the-top reactions which force the viewer to take notice.

In person, Weldgen appears to be an earthy, mild mannered artist. With a sweet disposition and wide grin, he has a genuinely seductive personality. Enticed by his smile and easy-going nature, one can be at first shocked by the images that spring forth from such an approachable young man. In fact, Weldgen’s art, as controversial as it may seem, with its debauched scenes of highly sexually-charged images and taboo subject matter in cartoon style, is part of a growing field of art that is garnering the attention of curators and academics--and attracting throngs of young and old cartoonists and artists alike.

Weldgen is currently teaching a course at the University of Arizona called “Comic Books and Sequential Art,” a course that he designed. Augmenting the course is a series of three lectures he organized as part of the Distinguished Lecture Series including such notable comic book artists as Patrick Zircher and Max Cannon. Dr. Julie Plax, Associate Director of the School of Art, was thrilled by the decision to include such a course in the School’s offerings. She explains, “Any program worth its salt has such a program. It attracts young people, but such a course affects all ages in the way that sequential art is being produced, especially for professional illustrators. It’s a great way to get students to think and to use their creative talents.” Enthusiastic support for the course came from the Advising Department, which keeps tabs on students’ interests, and the Visual Communications Department, which emphasizes comic book art’s ability to develop concepts of narration, illustration, and time—a popular focus in illustration now. Whether the course educates a new generation of illustrators or encourages artists to use comics as a vehicle for artistic commentary on high and low art, Weldgen is making his mark in a field that has its roots firmly planted in art history while it continues to grow in new, fresh directions.

The term “low-brow” art has its origins in Victorian America when mass produced imitations of fine art made its way into middle class homes. Clement Greenberg expounded on the subject in his famous essay, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch” in 1939, using the German Jewish term to suggest a “rearguard” of artistic endeavor embodied in commercial art, Tin Pan Alley music, Hollywood movies, and slick, pulp fiction. The Pop Art movement of the 1960s took its sources from advertising and popular culture, making low-brow art a high-brow endeavor, as did Funk Art in California about the same time, marked by humorous overtones inspired by Dada art of the early part of the 20th century. Such notable artists as Michael Ray Charles, Roy Lichtenstein, Peter Saul, Kenny Scharf, and Andy Warhol are among the throngs of artists who have referenced cartoon imagery and what is now popularly termed “low-brow” art. To underscore the serious attention that is being given to this medium, museum schools, such as the Indianapolis Museum of Art, are offering courses in cartoon art; and other institutions, such as Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art and The University of Arizona have organized exhibitions on the topic. “Splat, Boom, Pow!” opened last spring at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, complete with full color reproductions and scholarly essays analyzing and interpreting the work. The historical precedents of this art form, along with the growing interest in it, firmly establish Weldgen as serious artist worth considering.

Exemplifying the hard-hitting nature of Weldgen’s art is Welcome Back to Hidden Valley Ranch, 2000, a large canvas with a wildly painted frame. Its title scrawled on a banner across the top of the composition, like the cover of a comic book. The initial subject matter is taken from a ubiquitous television commercial where a utopian garden and sublime landscape are used to sell something as mundane as salad dressing--pure fodder for Weldgen’s biting satire and vivid imagination. Here the artist personifies two bottles of dressing, giving them male and female genders. Holding hands, their caps explode as they “mix fluids” in a state of marital bliss. This part of the narrative is quite easy to understand as a commentary on the grandiosity of advertising to sell such a common product.

The narrative in this painting continues, but with increasingly sexual imagery. In the lower left corner is a comic book formatted, ragged edged “pow” symbol, meant to be a preview of what can be read on the inside if it were indeed a comic book. Within this space, highlighted by the caption, “Lesbian Lumberjacks,” a hearty female in a plaid wool shirt and short cropped hair holds a medieval axe. She stands on a gigantic severed and bleeding penis as it floats down the river along a bank of severed and standing penises, a simulacrum for trees in a forest. Here Weldgen launches into an imaginative reverie of different versions of utopia and fantasizes about a world of lesbian lumberjacks. What would they cut down—penises. Fully aware of the contentious nature of his narrative, he uses it as a device for social commentary.

Using the lumberjack theme to further emphasis the absurdity of the salad dressing advertising gimmick, Welgen explains, “I’m not anti-gay or a misogynist. If I paint things that are over the top, but in a comic book style, it is meant to throw off the viewer to pose the question—‘Is he trying to present his humor in a cute way or wickedly humorous?’ It is no different than anyone who is doing political satire in the comic book industry. It is perfectly acceptable, and in fact desirable, to push the boundaries of acceptability to make a point and to revel in a certain fantasy based on imagination and playfulness.” Thus, with an understanding of art history, popular culture, and the nature of satire, one can overcome the initial reaction that Weldgen’s art is juvenile and appreciate the thought-provoking, yet humorous nature of his work.

Influenced by reading super-hero comics, Weldgen renders his work in a colorful, dramatic manner, but the overtones of socio-political irreverence are clearly Mad Magazine. His source for commentary comes from newspapers, television, and anything else that he can get his hands on. The artist also feels a close kinship with the work of Robert Crumb and Robert Williams, underground comic book artists who spoke for a rebellious generation in the early 1960s. An example of this sense of irreverence can be seen in Love They Neighbor, 2000. In this composition, a terrified man, whose brain is exploding, runs from Mickey and Goofy, who are plainly up to mischief. The inspiration for this lively painting came from the controversy over Disney buying the ABC network just at the time when the famous comedian Ellen De Generis had her character “come out” on national television as a lesbian. Weldgen explains, “Ellen was one of my favorite programs, and when advertising companies threatened to pull their ads after being prodded by Southern Baptist groups, causing the demise of the program, I got angry and felt I had to say something.” Exposing the ignorance and intolerance of some influential groups, he shoves the images of their disdain in their faces to show them how farcical their fears are—although it is highly unlikely that such groups will seek out his hard-hitting art. Using absurdity to reveal absurdity is best left to a more high-brow audience.

Once the viewer lets down his or her politically-correct guard and preconceived notions of what art should look like, it becomes easy to appreciate the messages embedded in Weldgen’s highly charged paintings. And the number of those who see the strength of his art is growing. This fall, Weldgen will participate in the University of Arizona’s international book art exhibition and symposium Love and Terror. Weldgen is creating a new comic book for this exhibition, “Doodles on Parade,” influenced by his experience as a new father and the excitement, love, and terror that comes with such important life changes. “There will be no heavy sexual overtones in this book, but the thrills and pitfalls of raising a child, explains the new father. Weldgen has also been asked to lecture during an exhibition of comic book art at the University later this fall. But fear not—child rearing hasn’t taken the edge out of the cutting edge nature of Weldgen’s art.

While Weldgen understands the power of humor in his work, he takes issue with the assumption that humor is low-brow. “I think humor in art has a pejorative connotation. To put it simply—ignorance on the viewer’s part that humor is low-brow. Humor can make difficult subject matter very palatable. I also think that humor keeps people from taking themselves too seriously. The main function of it in my art is that it can expose the many contradictory actions of humans. So something that is considered high-brow, for example, abstraction, says nothing in my eyes. To me, that becomes my low-brow.”

Finding his audience at last year’s San Diego International Comic Book Convention, where he pitched his comic book “How to Draw An Elephant,” he met the famous Matt Groening of Bart Simpson and Life in Hell fame. Handing Groening his comic book, he burst out laughing at Weldgen’s creation–this was the high point of his career and the best critical acclaim.

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