The Buffalo News
Date: Wednesday, February 27, 2002
By: By BRUCE ADAMS – News Contributing Reviewer
Alan E. Cober: A Retrospective Afterlife
Illustrations by the late illustrator and long-time visiting artist at the University at Buffalo.
University at Buffalo Art Gallery, Center for the Arts, UB North Campus, Amherst. Through May 18.
Among the many works currently on display in the University at Buffalo Art Gallery by the late renowned illustrator Alan E. Cober are several detailed ink drawings based on stories by the Austrian author Franz Kafka. They embody an appropriately enigmatic mix of the ordinary and fantastic – a man transforms into an insect; eggs and coffee float languidly around a room; a penal colony officer submits to horrendous mutilations from his own torture device.
Like most of the drawings, engravings and sculptures in “Alan E. Cober: A Retrospective Afterlife,” these darkly humorous hallucinogenic visions can only be described as, well, Kafkaesque. And like Kafka, Cober returns throughout his career to familiar motifs and themes, incorporating into his art all manner of skulls, limbs, menacing machines, pig snouts and medieval demons. His fascination with mental and physical decay, compassion for social issues, and penchant for biological permutations form the thread that runs throughout his prolific career, including time spent in Buffalo.
Cober became a visiting professor in the UB Art Department in 1987, drawing national recognition to the illustration program with his innovative teaching approach and distinguished reputation. His award-winning work appeared prominently in publications including Time, Newsweek and the New York Times, in addition to numerous books. He is often described as an innovator for infusing illustration with modernist sensibilities. His intense linear detail, skewed figures and unsentimental approach are reminiscent of German expressionists such as Otto Dix and George Grosz.
Cober’s early illustrations were straight text depictions rendered in a jaunty linear style characteristic of the period, but by the 1970s his work began to assume an edgy quality in form and content. An ink and watercolor series titled “Assignation of Martin Luther King Jr.” is disturbing not only for its unflinching treatment of the subject, but also because of its chilling “you are there” perspective.
One example, titled “From King’s Point Of View,” has the observer looking over the slain civil rights leader’s shoulder toward the assailant at the moment of impact. So dramatic is this compositional device that it nearly prompts the viewer to flinch.
In a show that mixes illustration with fine art, the distinction is frequently clear. “Mike Milken I, II, III,” for instance, depicts the junk bond king as a money junkie inserting cash into his slotted arm until currency volcanically erupts from his head. Despite the self-contained wit, the illustration cries out for text. Conversely, Cober’s fine art stands on its own, even as it functions as illustrations for his own life.
This sense of self-revelation is reinforced by the exhibition’s thematic arrangement, which underscores contextual relationships between works. One poignant example involves “The Boys I-V,” five ceramic figurines similar to calacas used in celebrating the Mexican holiday Days of the Dead. The skeletal-like dolls incorporate milagros – healing charms – as prosthetic limbs.
Nearby is an ink and watercolor self-portrait completed near the end of Cober’s life. He wears a shirt patterned with images from his art, and paints one of the figurines as he stares earnestly at the viewer through withered features. The look says, “This is who I am.”
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