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Back in 1967, painter Philip Guston, one of the big guns of abstract expressionism, made a move that is still reverberating in the art world. He abruptly, and with no precedent that anyone could see, introduced cartoon imagery into his abstract universe of churned pigment and impressionistic forms.

What made this so revolutionary and shocking was that these cartoons were treated seriously. It was like taking the clunky figures of underground cartoonist R. Crumb and imbuing them with the real anguish of living beings. They weren't comical and they certainly weren't deadpan commentators on pop culture.

Like a whole batch of young artists, Reed Anderson uses Guston as a springboard for brave leaps into a postmodern world where tragedy is only a dangerous hair's breadth from cruel comedy.

Guston played it straight: His cartoons are surrogates for humans immersed in the painful human dilemma. Not Anderson. For him, the cartoon is a rude sign that mocks and teases any received meanings of tragedy.

An eye may explode, a head may spurt blood and a face may erupt into a maniacal saw-tooth grin, but the violence is detached from actual experience by being safely lodged within a comic-book scenario. Here, cartoons are the shield of cool detachment.

Take the tiny paintings in "20 Little Paintings About Death." Each shows a fractured cartoon head hemorrhaging from one place or another -- now from the nose, now from the ear, now from the skull. Even though the blood is represented in universal cartoon blood-spurt style and the characters grimace in a caricatured expression of pain, this is about as much depicted violent as anyone might want in his cartoons.

But by various ingenious devices Anderson shifts the attention away from any single meaning. For one thing, these paintings, done on cardboard, look like throwaways. High art is denied -- or better, absorbed -- and self-consciously so. It's cool to look junky, unfinished and uncommitted. And Anderson is good at it. His expressionistic treatment of the heads, for example, is so offhanded that it is stripped of all its traditional connection with the artist's inner emotional life. Expressionism in the Guston mode it ain't.

Then to add another confounding layer of meaning -- or should I say non-meaning -- the artist paints black circles in simple patterns directly on top of his tortured cartoon figures. This can't elevate the cartoons' sense of independence. Is the predicament of his characters so inconsequential that it can be the site of random abstract pattern work? Or are we to take these configurations as some contrived symbol of a negative state of being?

Either way, the message is profoundly mixed and, because so self-canceling, unsettling. No sooner has Anderson's vivid patchwork of cartoon and abstract signs let loose with one provisionary meaning than another, more absurd one starts rattling to the surface. His 10-foot-high "Super Bear Head" is an apparently comic character made out of cardboard and surrounded with fluorescent lights that have been transformed into rocketships by the addition of crude wings and tailpieces. But it's a tad menacing, too, with its bulging turrets and elongated eyes and in the aggressive way it hangs in space like some laughing creature out of a child's nightmare.

Anderson gleefully rides along the edge of meaning, teasing it with small and large jokes that somehow never are exactly laughter-inducing. There's an image of a leopard head with attached flames that could have come off the gas tank of a Harley -- except that it has lost all its slick graphic presence and seems weighted down with the worries of the world. And the small construction "Diorama" manages to reduce the grandeur of a mountain to a couple of chunks of roughly cut wood and a square of blue painted on the wall.

Part of Anderson's message is that, indeed, pain and death are the ultimate tragedy of human consciousness. The body, assaulted by disease and failing, is a cartoon machine that won't work, and the brain's cherished logic has more loopholes than the tax code.

But then, there's also laughter. It may be cruel, black, but it keeps scary reality from taking hold of us and driving us all insane.

This comic sense makes Anderson's work very entertaining. But there's more to it than that. He's practiced at imitating the look of art of all variety. In his hands low art -- the cartoons -- seems to find a perfect kinship in the high art of abstraction. With the distinctions of style all but dispelled, Anderson can be free to work on blurring the meanings style expresses.

Reed Anderson:
How Things Are

Small paintings and drawings, constructions and a big cardboard sculpture, all based on cartoon imagery, by this former Buffalo artist.

Through April 18 in Big Orbit Gallery, 30-D Essex St. (883-3209).

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