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Evil! Mad! 

Paul Friedrich takes a cartoonist's approach to fine art--and monsters

Paul Friedrich's Onion Head Monster and his band of post-hip, fully deconstructed merrymakers are animations of a technique that may be unique in the two-dimensional cartoon world.

"I write an outline for a story, then a script," says Friedrich. "I break down the script to panels, sketch a thumbnail storyboard, then, once the characters are chosen, I do pages and pages of characters in different poses in ballpoint pen on regular lined notebook paper. I then scan the characters into the computer, edit the poses, and cut and paste the drawings as needed. This is a lot different than a traditional cartoonist, who would draw the characters in blue pencil, then ink the backgrounds and then add details to the panels."

It is Friedrich's ballpoint pen difference that sticks out. Unlike the superior Rapidograph pens many cartoonists use, ballpoints have a lack of boundaries that appears boldly when blown up.

"I draw small pictures, with up to 20 or 30 on a page, and when these are expanded in the computer, the edges on the lines get all bumpy, which comes out in the final printing," Friedrich says, smiling about how his favorite methods are reaching a wide audience.

A Raleigh native, Friedrich has been a full-time painter for 10 years. He majored in studio art at East Carolina University after studying art under Bob Rankin at Sanderson High School. "Bob taught me a lot about humor in art, and has been helpful in my career since then," Friedrich says. "There is a huge low-brow movement of art on the West Coast, but I moved back here from Los Angeles because I can live better on half the money here. I can work on my art all the time without having to waste time at a day job."

Friedrich, who is known for keeping prices low, may be offering collectors a real chance to get in on the ground floor. His contribution to Hellcar, a nationally distributed comic that includes a sampler music CD, is doing well at independent music stores. After the last San Diego Comic Convention in July, he received a call from Nickelodeon, which opens up the possibility that Onion Head Monster could join the ranks of Spongebob or Ren and Stimpy. Who needs Disney cells when we have a potential comic star right in our midst?

In a new show at Bickett Gallery, titled Hang in There, Friedrich's graphic art, which only qualifies as fine art because, as he himself admits, "it's in a fine art gallery," trods the path of creative versatility. Friedrich's humorous, sarcastic stories are illustrated on tote bags, skateboards, 20-ounce bottles, flower-pots and now, Christmas ornaments.

Friedrich's work is not like that of German satirtist George Grosz, whose striking political cartoons battled for the rights of German workers between 1918 and 1923, and went on, often at great peril, to draw Hitler and many others as the monsters they were. Nor is he like cartoonist Laylah Ali, whose Whitney Biennial-acclaimed, green, masked figures assume we have some degree of sophistication and education.

Friedrich clubs us over the head with characters that, albeit funny, are often as dumb as dirt.

Where Ali uses micrometers to achieve a fanatical level of detail, Friedrich just lets his cartoons rip. This considered, it may be a combination of humor and clever marketing that keeps increasing Friedrich's appeal with young art collectors.

"I try to be a bridge for people to first try art," he says. "I like to show in restaurants where people can be comfortable with the art. Later, they might come to see a gallery show."

Friedrich sees his paintings as a tribute to the humor that will last longer than a clipped newspaper cartoon under a magnet on a refrigerator.

"For the paintings, I project the characters onto the canvas board, then trace the lines," he says. "The background colors take up to nine layers to get right, and it is in the colors that the drawings become paintings."

This technique is at least as old as the Renaissance and was used by Norman Rockwell, another illustrator who was able to market his work as fine art. In Rockwell's case, unknown but outstanding photographer Bill Smith set up models in scenes that were photographed with slide film. The slides were then projected onto canvas, and Rockwell meticulously traced and painted with the guide in place.

Friedrich's attraction to fine art can be seen in his surrealist paintings, which are meant to augment his cartoons. His decidedly not-funny vending machine series must be seen as "imagined surrealism," as they conjure no hidden agenda other than that of the viewers'. "There's no special meanings in the vending machines, but go ahead and find something if you can," he says with a sneaky smile.

And although his fine art is getting stronger, it's the cartoons that remain the most compelling.

One favorite in this exhibit is a pair of arguing monsters: The evil-looking guy is saying "Evil" and the mad scientist is screaming back "Mad"--a pair of deranged projectors. Hmmm. Maybe there's a little more current-events satire to this artist than I once thought.

Friedrich's Hang in There runs through Dec. 4 at Bickett Gallery, 209 Bickett Blvd., Raleigh. For information, 836-5358 or www.bickettgallery.com .

  • Paul Friedrich takes a cartoonist's approach to fine art--and monsters

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