Roz Chast at Norman Rockwell Museum: Human folly on display
Stockbridge — Perhaps it is in the nature of genius that it shows up where you would least expect it. In scribbly cartoons of neurotic apartment-dwellers that punctuate the pages of the New Yorker? Surely not?
You can judge for yourself at Roz Chast: Cartoon Memoirs that has just opened (and runs through October 26) at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge. You should allow yourself plenty of time there, because although most of Chast’s individual pieces are tiny, there are an awful lot of them here, and in a range that might surprise you: whole walls close-packed with the originals of her New Yorker cartoons, her children’s book illustrations, almost the entire content of her latest book Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? and, in addition, examples of her hook rugs and Pysanky (Ukranian-style dyed eggs).
In the middle of all this, the people at the museum have installed an almost human-scale cutout of a typical Roz Chast couple. The husband (and, of course, they are married) wears a BE YOURSELF t-shirt, while his wife’s announces I’M WITH STUPID. It is funny, of course, but it is far more than that. If there is something rather depressing in how people nowadays are willing to sum themselves up in the glib phrases that fit on the front of the t-shirt, there is something even sadder about how much these particular t-shirts actually say about these
people wearing them. Look at the husband, poor sap –- overweight, and hunch-shouldered from years of office work, he’s doing his best to embrace off-duty style. His comb-over and moustache are more mussed than usual and he has paired his t-shirt with a pair of green plaid shorts and is wearing sandals over his knee length socks. If the outfit is pathetic, it is matched by the expression of wary, somewhat dazed optimism on his face. And his wife’s attitude? It is summed up by the dismissive statement on her t-shirt. She genuinely believes her husband is stupid. “Oy! How many years have I lived with him, and you think I don’t know he’s stupid?” Her face is set in a permanent disgruntled frown, her attitude at once the result and cause of her husband’s hopelessness.
Chast’s subject, here and elsewhere, is human folly, and there is no more significant theme for an artist to tackle.
Roz Chast is absurdly modest about her gifts. When she is asked about how Norman Rockwell might have responded to her work being shown in his museum, she immediately starts marveling at his skills. She cites The Gossips and says, “Look at all those different facial expressions!” as though it were something that she couldn’t do. In fact, her characters’ facial expressions are not only as eloquent as anything you will find in Rockwell, they are also rendered with far greater economy. I’m with Stupid’s weary disappointment is rendered in less than twenty strokes of her pen.
Chast talks about an occasion when she had to draw a character walking through a wood, and is clearly still dissatisfied with how she rendered the details of the forest floor. “They just look like things!” she says. Still, she will admit that in her preferred domain – the urban scene, and particularly the urban interior – things come more naturally to her. “I’d like to think that if you opened one of those drawers, you’d know what you’d find in there,” she explains. This is another aspect of Roz Chast’s genius, that she can set her dramas in very specific circumstances – the living room, the kitchen, the street, sometimes even a garden or beach – and their implications have far broader relevance. To our own lives, for example.
It is in Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? – Chast’s bittersweet account of her parents’ declining years that was published last year – that her very special gifts are perhaps most palpable, and that has been reflected in its reception. It was shortlisted for the National Book Award in Non-Fiction, and won the inaugural Kirkus Prize for Non-Fiction and the National Book Critics’ Circle award for Autobiography. Earlier this year she was awarded the $250,000 Heinz Award in the Arts and Humanities. Her citation praises “her uncompromising body of work, bringing wry humor and wit to some of our most profound everyday anxieties, brilliantly translating the mundane into rich, comical observations that reflect her acute observations of the human experience.” It could not be better expressed.
Roz Chast has drawn pictures her whole life. “I don’t think I ever thought about having a career as a cartoonist,” she says. “I just thought, this is all I can do. It never occurred to me that I would do anything else.” Still, she clearly does not find it easy. “If there’s any other thing you can do – anything! – do that instead,” is her advice. Let us be grateful there was nothing else Roz Chast could do.