OF THE MANY CONTRIBUTIONS to the Ithaca Post this year, one of the most unusual has been the work of Mason Speed. A fixture at coffee shops around town, the artist granted this publication a semi-regular strip called GARS through the spring and the summer, and now those pieces have been compiled in an oversized zine/comic called “Art 4 Children” along with additional related work.
The original project grew out of a collaboration with Angry Mom’s George Johann, a fellow graduate of New York’s School of Visual Arts. Ultimately a baker’s dozen of GARS were published, though Speed always intended on producing more: “The first five strips had been completed by the time I was invited to the Post,” he said. “When I was drawing them I had not anticipated that I would find an audience so soon. And in many ways I was not really prepared for doing a strip.”
“The original intention had always been to make a zine or comic book,” Speed continued, in an email interview. “I didn’t know how I would compile it. That has always been the problem. And for that reason I have always worried people wouldn’t quite understand it. Each page is something of a non sequitur.”
Speed created about 70 in the span of seven months, and “Art 4 Children” includes half of that number. Visually colorful but bleak in tone, the volume — like the strip — can be darkly humorous and quite sad, often at the same time.
Speed credits his color scheme — red, blue, yellow, green and purple — to the Bauhaus movement, a palette he considers sinister. “These colors as children are used to get your attention, gain your trust and entice you to use whatever product or toy they are trying to sell to you,” he said. “This is why I use them so heavily … as a way to gloss over the horrible creatures that lurk in my drawings.”
One of those creatures is a reoccurring smiley face. “If Jiminy Cricket is supposed to be the voice of moral reason for Pinocchio, these would be the creatures that surface when he has lied” said Speed. They antagonize you and pick at you like your worst critic.” The work channels anxiety about dissatisfaction of his generation, and turns it into “weird comic strips.”
Speed counts as his influences everything from Post-Impresionism to Pee Wee’s Playhouse, the Bauhaus movement to the Los Angeles punk artist Gary Panter (Jimbo). He cites a variety of cultural touchstones: robot toys, grindhouse horror flicks, the Space Shuttle Challenger tragedy, MTV, all as part of the background.
The result is a welcome alternative to the blandly positive decorative art so common in Ithaca. And though Speed contends that the work isn’t graphic art, skate board art or poster art, it does have an underground feel common to the work of Jim Garmhausen and the videos of John Criscitello.
“I’d like to think that people who buy my book understand that what I am doing is not some juxtaposed/hi-fructose inspired illustrative crap,” Speed wrote.
At the same time, they do have something in common with candy: “Skittles are cute and delicious if you consume 1/4 the bag, but after that, these pretty little gems of candy begin to overwhelm your taste buds and create a very unpleasant feeling in your mouth. ‘Art 4 Children’ is supposed to be like that unpleasant feeling, familiar and tasty, sure, but 100 percent bittersweet and downright painful.”
Copies of “Art 4 Children” are available at Angry Mom Records, in the basement of Autumn Leaves. Each book is signed by the artist and includes a signed insert. Editions of the first printing are limited.