Where Madness Reigns: The Art of Gris Grimly
by Gris Grimly
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
It's hard for me to know what to do with an art book. Even when the pictures are gorgeous, I can only look at them for so long before I think, Too bad there isn't a story here. In Where Madness Reigns, the artist Gris Grimly's work is so vivid and exquisitely macabre that every image feels like a story.
The best shot I have at describing Grimly's artwork is to suggest it's inspired in equal portions by Edward Gorey, Tim Burton, and early-20th-century pop/comic art. If that doesn't give you a decent idea of his style (and it really doesn't, because Grimly's work is so much more than that), then you should go to his website and peruse the gallery.
Here's a litmus test to determine if Grimly's work is right for you: if the notion of a sweet-faced girl with a pink ribbon in her hair, porcelain doll features, and exaggerated cartoon skinniness (not to mention hearts hovering around her smiling visage) lovingly embracing a giant, sour-faced ghoul with rotting flesh and flies buzzing around him tickles your fancy, climb aboard.
If you just made the biting-into-lemons face, then run. Don't walk. Don't look back.
A phantasmagoric celebration of the dark and all the things that dwell comfortably within it, Where Madness Reigns is a terrific primer for Grimly's artwork. In these sometimes disturbing, often funny, always darkly enchanting images, he finds beauty in the grotesque, whimsy in the horrific, and empathy for the unwanted and unlovable (even the Bush administration).
Grimly delights in taking beloved traditions and giving them dark, malevolent spins. There is a section of Christmas pictures with evocative titles like "Red Stains On White Snow" and "Walking in a Freaky Wonderland" that will dampen anyone's holiday cheer -- in the nicest possible way.
Violence isn't always directly pronounced in his work. Grimly's "Santa Bat" is a seemingly innocuous, leather-winged variation of old Kris Kringle -- but damned if the bulges in his sack of "toys" don't look more than a little like struggling captives. The facing page offers a lovely portrait of a delicate, wide-eyed doe in a forest meadow framed by sunlight, with a shadowy creature in a Santa hat lurking in the foreground. You have to look closely to spot the claws behind the creature's back. The title, "Dinner Lit by Rays of Light," completes the story.
Grimly's art is never better than when he dips into the well of nostalgia. "The Harrowing of Paradise" depicts a depraved inferno called "Hellwood," where screaming, panicked, naked humans wait in flames for their chance to be eaten by a hugely fat creature with four sagging man-breasts wearing the American flag for a diaper. The image represents the best and worst facets of Grimly's art: while his stab at political commentary is thuddingly obvious and sort of trite, the artwork itself is extraordinary. In particular, this picture features a cartoonish demon with a tooth-filled grin wider than his face, and a number of pitchfork-wielding devils, all drawn in the style of cartoons from the 1920s and '30s (think of very early Felix the Cat and Mickey Mouse before he had pupils).
That period recurs often in Grimly's work. His masterful illustrated version of Washington Irving's The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (safe for all ages) is drawn and laid out in the style of early-20th-century comic strips, even colored in sepia tones to suggest the yellowing of newsprint paper. A great many of the exaggerated flourishes of the period that have disappeared from pop art in the ensuing decades are brought vividly back to life in Grimly's work.
If comic and pop art is your thing, Where Madness Reigns will be irresistible. It's impossible for me to look at the motley crew of "The Adventures on Halloween Island" -- including ghouls, witches, skeletons, a monster with a smaller monster's head growing out of his scalp, and cute cartoon mice dwelling in the corners -- without imagining the delirious circumstances that brought them together.
If you fail to see the appeal in any of the above, don't even open the cover of this book. I could try to defend it as satire, or explain how some people cope with the frustrations and disappointments in life by laughing about the darkness that so much of civilized society tries to cover up and ignore, but what's the use? It's like trying to talk someone into appreciating porn: if it doesn't turn you on, no amount of explaining will change that.
For some, however, pop art titles don't get much more thrilling than "Lou Lou Escapes the Valley of the Zombies on Her Noble Lycanthrope." If you're one of us, then step this way, down the creaking stairs into the cellar... the light doesn't work, but I'm here to guide you... just step over that hump on the ground; it's no one who will be missed. Now, go get the Grimly book -- it's straight ahead, in the corner, from which those perfectly harmless sounds of heavy breathing are emanating. Just a few more steps... you're almost there...