Watching the Walls

Quick (cartoon) jabs from a black man; non-worthless art.

 Keith Knight: (TH)inking about america A black woman at the airport hesitates to use the "white courtesy phone." President Bush's advisers tremble in fear as the Syntax Mangler in Chief steps up to a podium to pronounce the word "Niger." These are the sorts of situations that Keith Knight captures in his single-panel cartoon, (th)ink—the latest foray for the award-winning cartoonist who has been ironically inking his experience as an urban activist, musician, and black man in San Francisco for 10 years, primarily in his nine-panel strip, The K Chronicles. While Aaron McGruder's widely distributed Boondocks, with its precociously edgy kids who preach the gospel of Huey P. Newton, has gotten more notice, Knight's fluid pen-and-ink drawing style and text-heavy strips are more playful, though not without their own kind of sting. From his standpoint as an African-American artist in modern America—not something you see enough of in the funny pages—Knight necessarily touches on some cogent topics of race and politics. "The K Chronicles is a multipanel, semiautobiographical take on all things around me. It's sorta like that weird uncle telling you a story about life. It's funny, but you're not sure whether to believe it or not," says Knight. "(th)ink, my weekly single panel, deals more with current events in the news— anything from politics, movies, hip-hop, etc." The youthful 40-ish artist currently self-syndicates his strips to about 35 publications, including Salon, the Funny Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle, and has published six books. For his Nov. 16 Hugo House presentation, "Fear of a Black Marker: Underground Cartooning and Activism," he'll discuss favorite and censored strips, plus his "favorite all-time rejection letter" (from The Oregonian). He'll also talk about his new collection of quick-jab (th)ink panels, Are We Feeling Safer Yet?, which have had a great response, says Knight. Editors like them for their more manageable size—"Plus, I don't say all this strange stuff about sheep and drugs and stuff like I do in the K Chronicles." What can black cartoonists say that white cartoonists can't? "I guess making fun of black people in public. But even then, I will get some crap." Is there anything that a black cartoonist can't say? "That Prince still has a really nice bottom." SUE PETERS Tra Selhtrow: All Creatures Great and Odd Kansas-born artist Grant Barnhart, 28, created the sardonic pseudonym Tra Selhtrow when he noticed artists with more exotic names getting more work than he was. Sure enough, interest in his work picked up. He has since proved that his art is not worthless at all. In fact, for the next two months, OKOK Gallery, the airy new art space in old Ballard, is harboring brilliant paintings full of fascinating creatures from this young artist with intensity to spare. Selhtrow's work evokes the wild ink-blotch illustrations of Ralph Steadman, but with more detail and obsession. His deft graphite drawings are set ablaze with well-controlled oils, from the subtle greens and blacks glimmering through the feathers of a raven's wing to the pensive gaze of a red-faced uakari monkey—or the fascinating octopus (pictured) with the dark glistening eye and bubbling textures of its orange-red skin, achieved with a mix of paint, linseed oil, and mineral spirits. Selhtrow then scrapes away layers of paint using his hands and a rag. Most of his paintings are well worked and finished in one section, with a disintegrating collage of line drawings and shapes scattered across the rest of the panel, like an architect's sketch of the interior of an artists's mind. Selhtrow's training as an illustrator is apparent, but he has also slipped into a more painterly realm most impressively. Some paintings are completed with vellum overlays. Other layers are psychological, with the artists's fleeting thoughts murmuring in the background. Written mostly in pencil beneath the paint, these enigmatic musings add another intriguing dimension to the work: "Goat man you have no heart, silly. If you did, you would long for it to be removed." In one paiting, a recurring elephant head is grafted onto a boy's body, later to become an elephant man in another, and still later to disintegrate into half an elaphant head with broken, charred tusks. There is a hint that the artist identifies with this broken majestic creature. (Selhtrow admits to a fasciation with John Meric, the "Elephant Man.") While the animals may sometimes be in pieces, they are more whole than the human figures in Selhtrow's repertoire, oddly bulbous and doughy men. Selhtrow lends more care and sophistication to his animals. In his world, they are clearly the higher, more complex, beings. SUE PETERS

 
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