Second Nature is a curiously familiar solo exhibition of brand-new paintings on paper and canvas by artist Vonn Cummings Sumner. Familiar, that is, if you’re a follower of George Herriman’s influential comic strip character Krazy Kat and her unrequited love for brick-throwing Ignatz the Mouse.
Born of COVID-19, Sumner turned his pandemic loneliness to the form of Arizona’s most renowned “wandering avatar.” The seasons changed, the days turned into nights and nights into mornings, as Sumner imagined a 21st-century Krazy in verdant dales, wide-open spaces and art historical–seeded landscapes, evoking longing for a connection with nature without Ignatz, brick or jail in sight. Sumner’s sixth solo exhibition with the Morton gallery, Second Nature will be on view through April 8 at 52 O St. NW, #302, in Washington DC.
Introduced to Krazy Kat by his longtime mentor Wayne Thiebaud (1920–2021), reviving the character enabled Sumner to focus on existential concerns and painterly notions of color, composition, gesture and mark-making. “Lightened by the exhibition’s … moments of enigma, color and joy, Second Nature finds Krazy Kat (and Sumner) on a heavy, if much-needed retreat.” The work’s employ of a familiar, beloved character can have that effect on all.
I very much enjoyed the following conversation with Sumner, if only to focus on something other than the strife caused by real (and fake) post-COVID ‘Merica. Second Nature is neither real nor fake, but it sure is refreshing.
I’m assuming you are a comics fan. Or is it just Krazy Kat that captures your fascination?
Yes, of course. I am a lifelong comics fan. My favorite, as a kid in the ’80s, was the X-Men. I also loved the Marvel Universe comic books that just had a page for each character. When I was a kid, I was making my own comics (which weren’t very good). My friends in elementary school were into it too. We would sit around and draw from comics together. We had subscriptions at the local comic book store, where we would go once a month when the new issues came out. I loved a lot of the weird stuff, though. From Mad Magazine’s comics to Groo the Wanderer. And there was one called Plop! Then I got older and discovered R. Crumb, and then Dark Horse Comics and other things. I was obsessed with Daniel Clowes for a while; he was very influential on me. Art Spiegelman, of course.
You remove Krazy’s cohorts from your work, substituting other artistic features like landscape and pattern. What is your motive for devoting your energies to transformation?
It’s very appropriate that you use the word “transformation”— that feels right. This is hard to articulate, but I have this gut feeling that if I included Ignatz or Offisa Pup, then it would be a totally different kind of thing. I’m not interested in reenacting the comic strip literally; it’s more I feel connected to Krazy Kat, like Krazy is an old friend, a timeless soul. It’s like Krazy Kat comes from another time, but is also timeless somehow. As a painter, I am interested in the world as it is now; how we make beauty and meaning and life now. So I am trying to summon the spirit of Krazy Kat, to accompany me in this time and to see what happens in this context, here and now. Personally the fast few years have been a time of pretty intense transformation. And globally, of course, the past few years have been transformational (for better or worse). Krazy Kat comes from that world (of the strip) where things are transforming all the time, so this pairing feels appropriate somehow. Sometimes I think: What if Krazy Kat were the last being on earth? Or, what if Krazy Kat was the first of a new species, after a mass extinction? Sometimes I think of Krazy Kat almost like a child, mimicking what we do. None of it is that literal, of course, since it is a visual medium and I am working largely by following instincts, impulses, intuitions—trying to stay ahead of my rational mind so that the paintings remain a little bit of a mystery even to me. You are right, though, I am searching for some kind of transformation via Krazy Kat.
Your reinterpretation of Krazy Kat is an inspiring take on a classic character who is particularly associated by art historians with the early marriage of cartoon and modern art. Where did your passion for Krazy come from?
I think that is part of why Krazy Kat feels right to me, to paint this character that is intertwined with the development of modern art in general, and especially in the U.S., the link to the Armory show of 1913. It’s all connected, artistically. My passion for Krazy comes from my time at UD Davis: I was an 18-year-old freshman, sitting in the back of Prof. Wayne Thiebaud’s ART 148/Theory & Criticism class. He started class one day with an image of one of the Krazy Kat comic strips projected up on the screen, and spoke with obvious affection for this odd, dense, unorthodox cartoon that had been beloved by painters: Willem de Kooning, Richard Diebenkorn, Picasso. That had a huge impact on me, being introduced to it that way, in that setting, at that impressionable stage.
You’ve captured the spirit of Krazy without copying the tropes. In your paintings, she is her own character in a new but not entirely alien landscape. Why did you adapt her in this way? What inspired you to take Krazy out of her natural environment?
Long story short: I had been painting figures for several years, pretty realistically, and most of the time I was painting myself—or at least using my own body/face as a “figure” that I would costume in different ways. Eventually I got really sick of painting myself and needed a change. I painted a series of trashcans and dumpsters—often on fire—on sidewalks and alleys. In a few of those paintings, I included an ‘alley-cat’—again, realistically. One of my painter friends, Randall Cabe, was doing a studio visit with me. We were talking about those paintings and he said he really liked how the cats functioned like a “figure” to help bring the viewer into the space. He knew my love of Krazy Kat, and the connection to Thiebaud, and he said, “why not make that cat into Krazy Kat?” So I did it a couple of times, just to make my friend laugh. I painted Krazy Kat in the alley and on the sidewalk. Then I showed those first two paintings to Thiebaud and he said such interesting, encouraging things that I felt like it was worth exploring some more. Then the pandemic hit and it was during that first week or two of lockdown that it just seemed obvious/inevitable: a Krazy Kat for a crazy time.
You’ve also reconfigured Krazy, elongating her, seemingly taming her while maintaining the essence of the original (especially the ‘Z’ tail). She seems more mature. What went into your decision to create this physical type?
I think it relates back to Herriman’s strip, actually: If you look at Krazy Kat from the beginning, around 1913 to the end in the early 1940s, there is quite a shift in how he draws Krazy. So that is built into the character, in a way—the ability to shift and change and transform. Again this all feels appropriate on a gut level. So then I was painting Krazy Kat—and partly it is just my own mistakes, or limitations, in trying to depict them—but at some point I will just go with it, and accept the way that I have painted them. And then that leads to the obvious question: Why not give Krazy a little more anatomy/structure? All the countless hours that I put in drawing from the model then comes into play. I kind of can’t help but make Krazy a little bit more “human.” To do otherwise, to just be totally faithful to the cartoon, would be too “cute” in my opinion. I am not going for cute. I am interested in the human-animal hybrid tradition of art, going back to the caves, the Lion-Man Hohlenstein-Stadel sculpture, all the way through the great Egyptian versions, the Hindu and Buddhist versions. I’m very interested in Krazy Kat as a kind of modern extension of that tradition—the human/animal hybrid is one of the oldest and most popular themes in the history of art, and that is definitely part of the point of the whole project for me.
I love the nuanced and overt parodies (especially the Bugs Bunny reference). When Herriman drew Krazy there was wit and humor but not parody per se. What are you saying about art, life, comics and existence through your Krazy Kat?
Thank you. I hadn’t thought of it like that yet. That is a really interesting question. I think that has to do with the times—the difference between Modern and Postmodern, perhaps? But also it has to do with the medium: A cartoon strip has its history/language/conventions and a painting has its history/language/conventions. I hold humor very high in the hierarchy of artistic values. And Thiebaud used to say that an artwork without a sense of humor was probably lacking a sense of perspective. So on a very basic level, I take humor very seriously, and I trust it: If a painting can make me laugh, that is enough. I trust that. As for larger messages or explanations, I think that is better left up to each viewer.
How long will you continue to make this otherworldly Krazy Kat?
As long as it feels right. I don’t have a set timeline or anything. Painting, art, etc., doesn’t run on the clock. Sometimes I like to think that Krazy Kat is with me, visiting me, like a spirit or a muse. These are the things that artists should never talk about, haha! We get very carried away.
I own a latter-day daily original (four-panel) Krazy Kat, hanging on the wall in front of me. It seems like Herriman drew it on the fly. In fact, I think he’d disavow it now. How do you think Herriman would take to your interpretations?
Wow, that is really cool, I would love to see it. Wayne had some originals in his collection, which he showed to me. In addition to the amazingly skillful drawing, of course, I was struck by how big they were!
As for your very interesting question, that is very funny to contemplate! The greatest compliment, of course, would be to get his positive stamp of approval. But he might take issue with all of the liberties that I am taking! I understand that Herriman himself did some plein-air painting in the Southwest, and was a great admirer of painting, of course. I think he even did a painting or two of Krazy Kat? He was very hard on himself, very humble and self-depricating. My hope is that, at least, Herriman would see that I have genuine respect and affection for Krazy. But as a painter, I also have to be willing to offend, make mistakes, do it ‘wrong.’ That is the spirit of freedom that Herriman infused the Krazy Kat comic strip with, so I hope he would understand.
Moments after finishing the interview, Vonn sent in a bonus response. . .
I’m still thinking about those questions and wanted to pass along some thoughts spurred by our conversation.
We are wired, it seems, to want to think of the world as stable and knowable—but of course it’s not. Everything is changing all the time, and we actually seem to know very little. Krazy Kat seems fine with that changability, that instability. I’m trying to learn from Krazy, in a way, trying to absorb that ability to accept and navigate the instability of life. Humans like to convince ourselves that we know what we’re doing and we make all kinds of laws and rules and systems to reinforce that illusion; which, of course, is the human-folly that Herriman was commenting on in a very sophisticated way, with humor and affection and almost unparalleled inventiveness. That is very appealing to me, that kind of theater of the absurd. I loved Beckett and all of the more contemporary things influenced by his work, including Bugs Bunny and Charlie Brown. The Great Pumpkin is like Waiting for Godot for children! So I do think that very serious and profound ideas can be approached through things like cartoons and comics and paintings. It’s all about the human-scale, the intention. I’m wary of getting too pretentious, and it’s also probably folly to ask too much of paintings, but these are some of the things I think about. Albert Camus said something to the effect of “humans are the only animal that doesn’t know what it is”—Krazy Kat is like that, somehow. The tension is that humans seem very uncomfortable with that uncertainty, while Krazy Kat seems perfectly fine with it.