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             Unclear On the Concept by Jennifer Wolff

  Joe Martin with some of his paintings at Buckin' A coffee house. (Tribune photo by Gerald West)
Unclear On the Concept

     Cartoonist Joe Martin can't take anything seriously. Not even the first public exhibition of his oil paintings, which he sardonically refers to as "a retrospective of my most profound work."
     Although not a single person expressed interest in buying one of his canvases at the opening May 11, Martin is convinced that by the time the show closes at the end of May, he will have sold every one.
     "This is fine art," said Martin, 44. "It will take a while for people to appreciate it. And when they do,   these walls will be empty."
     Pretty doubtful. His paintings cost $12,000 to $28,000 and, though thoroughly entertaining, amount to little more than single-frame paintups in the vein of his cartoon strip "Mr. Boffo," which is syndicated in hundreds of newspapers, including the Tribune.
     The show appears at Buckin' A, a hip but obscure Bucktown coffee house at 2119 N, Damen Ave.
     "The hardest thing to do in art is to price a painting, Martin said, deadpan trying to reason the scarcity of sales. "You never know how much money the customers have."
     The exhibit includes 10 large oil and acrylic paintings, some portraying comic repartee too ribald for publication in family newspapers.
     "I Think Carlos is Quitting," a work painted in a combination of cool greens and warm oranges Martin said are reminiscent of Toulouse-Lautrec's "At the Moulin Rouge," pictures an elderly couple sipping coffee on their veranda while their gardener mows a large "F" in their lawn. "This is my most misunderstood painting," Martin lamented about the work, in earlier version of which graced the

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Cartoonist Joe
Martin mounts
a Boffo exhibit
of 'fine art'

cover of his first "Boffo" book, published before the strip was syndicated. "He's only saying, 'Farewell.'"
     "Captain Billy's Whiz-Bang," a parody of the first comic book ever printed, stirs some other amused analysis.
      "I just love her smile," said food industry salesman Hans Van Over- beek of the painting,


'I can paint as fast as [Picasso, Miro and Matisse] can, and I'm
a lot funnier.'
-Joe Martin
   


which shows an undressed woman, sitting on her bed amid Captain Billy's rumpled blue uniform, watch- ing his boat sail across the horizon.
     "Fine art elicits many interpret- ations," Martin said of the Captain Billy work.
     Like his cartoons, Martin's artwork depicts the absurd. While Gary Larson's "The Far Side" parodies humanity by placing animals in human situations, Martin taunts sensibility by manipulating one's orientation by having his characters express unreal reactions to real, often macabre circumstances. In "Making the Best of a Bad Situation," Mr. Boffo sits, dumbfounded, wired to an electric chair, a slice of bread in each hand. "The bread really would have been toasted with that amount of electricity going through his fingers," said Joe Stewart, a lawyer who said he is impressed by the painting's realism, but not enough to buy it.

     Although the painting is priced at $22,400, Martin said he thinks its timeliness deserves a higher price. "It's really a statement about conserving energy," he said, flashing his long, radioactively white teeth while apparently reevaluating the oil rendering of the published cartoon, which was recently made into a T- shirt. "I could have made a killing on Earth Day."
     Martin's irreverent attitude toward art is perhaps best expressed through "Speed Painting Competition," a portrayal of 20th Century painters Picasso, Miro and Matisse sitting in a row, each displaying a signature work. "I can paint as fast as they can, and I'm a lot funnier,' Martin insisted.
     Pointing to Miro, who sits in the middle with a painting of his noted squiggly lines enveloped in a solid background, he asked, "Do you really think this took a long time?"
     Regardless of how long it took Miro to paint, Martin's general intent is to mock any norm or social concern that takes itself or is taken too seriously.
     In his cartoon portrayals of Mr. Boffo, Martin's fascination with alcoholics and execution borders on the obsessive, and the same may be true for his perceptions of the business of art. He questions why Soviet artists, who last year earned no more than a few rubles for their 'work, today command prices upwards of $400,000.
      "I'm oppressed too," said Martin, a . Chicago native now living in Lake' Geneva, WI., with his wife and their teenage son. "We pay 30 percent taxes... for our boats." "If it weren't for the prices, we would have sold them all," said Peggy Marino, co- owner of the coffeehouse. "Seriously."

Jennifer Wolff is a Chicago
free-lance writer.

Sneak in the back door of the
Art Gallery
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