Roz Chast’s graphic memoir. Bloomsbury, USA (2016)
I was having a New York moment, and not in a good way.
Why is every Chelsea gallery always one avenue further west than I anticipate? Why are the avenues so long, and why are there so many of them? Why must I get stuck walking behind a smoker when an accidental inhale will surely ruin my unborn child’s prospects of getting into a good college, and how dare this unforgiving city continually put obstacles in the path of a very pregnant woman (me)? Yes, New York, I take it all personally.
These were my thoughts as I made my way to “The Masters Series: Roz Chast,” a delightful retrospective of the cartoonist and author’s work now on display at the SVA Chelsea Gallery through Dec. 15. When I finally made it, I found myself among my people: Chast’s frenetic and phobic yet highly lovably characters.
I mean this quite literally. Many distinctive Chast illustrations found in the pages of the New Yorker magazine and elsewhere were transformed into life-sized foam cutouts that silently greeted me throughout the gallery. An entire wall was covered with a vibrant, hand-drawn cityscape that Chast designed exclusively for the exhibition. The effect was immersive, like I’d fallen down a rabbit hole and into the artist’s dynamic imagination. And there was Chast herself, in a short video, her green parakeet perched on her shoulder. She piled stacks of rejections on top of her file cabinet because, she explained, the drawers were already stuffed to the gills with rejections. I enjoyed seeing her “no” pile just as much as the gallery full of yeses.
The retrospective features poster-sized reproductions of her many New Yorker covers and original sketches of cartoons that appeared in the magazine along with photos of her Brooklyn childhood, early sketchbooks and lesser-known example of her prolific mind, such as hand-painted Ukrainian style-eggs and hand-hooked rugs. Of the latter, a mopey family bordered by the Czeslaw Milosz quote, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished” was by far my favorite.
Tyson Skross, exhibitions manager at SVA Galleries, worked closely with Chast on designing the retrospective, which focuses on three areas of her extensive career: “Going Into Town: A Love Letter to New York,” based on a small book Chast originally made for her kids when they came into the city to attend college, the many high points of her career at the New Yroker and and her early life, including many never-before-seen childhood drawings.
“She wanted to show her drawings as a child. The idea that she might inspire a young artist who thinks that they’re just going around drawing, doing their own thing was important and exciting to her,” said Skross.
And what was it like working with Chast?
“She’s amazing. She’s naturally funny. She’s full of stories. Everything she pulled out she had a story about,” Skross continued.
Though I’d admired her New Yorker cartoons, Chast’s work made me sit up straight when she published “Can’t We Talk about Something More Pleasant?” a graphic memoir about her parent’s final years . Finally, a book about dying parents! A friend and I had attempted to write one a few years back — we’d both lost a parent in our 20s, and there was no guide for what to do when all your friends were getting married and starting families while you were stuck at your parents home surrounded by adult diapers. Chast, though of a different generation, had captured a sentiment I’d tried to put into words, a slightly twisted truth that all the maudlin and earnest books I read about grief and dying failed to grasp: an event so existentially devastating as the loss of a parent must be infused with absurdity and humor.
It is one thing to consider a single Chast cartoon amid a sea of text, but quite another to find yourself effortlessly backstroking in an entire Chast-ian ocean. I lost count of the times I thought “yes, exactly!” and “that’s so true.” One, titled “Manspreading in Art” featured a frame with “1200-pages novels” and reminded me of male writer friends who shall go unnamed.
Taken altogether, Chast’s work is a reminder that life never feels clean and angular. It’s always a little squiggly around the edges. Despite perfectionist tendencies, my hair frizzes, my plans go pear-shaped. Perhaps knowing that is enough.
It was a comforting thought. And then I left the gallery, overpaid for a mediocre muffin, and schlepped my way back to Brooklyn.