Art Review: 'Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel,' Fleming Museum | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Art Review: 'Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel,' Fleming Museum


Published March 14, 2018 at 10:00 a.m.
Updated October 4, 2022 at 1:13 p.m.

  • Photos Courtesy Of Fleming Museum
  • Fleming Museum of Art

In 2018, the curated confessional is a cultural staple. We tap, click and swipe every day, allowing vague audiences to glimpse our bodies, thoughts, communities and politics. We simultaneously archive and broadcast our fragmented selves with ease. To say the least, "making visible" ain't what it used to be.

But, long before social media, Bolton-based cartoonist Alison Bechdel was honing her brand of humorous, heartbreaking auto-ethnographic narrative. Currently on view at the University of Vermont's Fleming Museum of Art, "Self-Confessed! The Inappropriately Intimate Comics of Alison Bechdel" takes a deep dive into her illustrious career of nearly four decades.

Visitors should give themselves ample time to soak in this exhibition. Since the early days of her serial syndicated comic "Dykes to Watch Out For" (1983-2008), Bechdel has done a lot. Her accomplishments include inadvertently spawning film's feminist litmus test, publishing two graphic memoirs — Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic and Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama — becoming a MacArthur Fellow in 2014, and being named Vermont's third cartoonist laureate in 2017.

Part greatest hits, part exegesis, the show is laid out in loose chronological order. It includes a wealth of materials: original drawings, reproduced panels, archival treasures, published works and video clips from the 2015 Broadway musical adaptation of Fun Home — plus a miniature model of the stage. There's so much enjoyable detail to savor that viewers should be prepared to get a little lost — and to laugh.

At the gallery entrance, Bechdel has painted a large-scale line drawing directly on the wall. In it, she depicts herself in the middle of cleaning her cat's litter box — what could be more intimate?

Nudity, perhaps. Just inside the gallery, another large-scale wall painting gives the viewer the sensation of walking into the pages of a Bechdel story. This image is of a lithe, curly-haired woman in the buff holding a pot of coffee. The caption reads: "Marianne, dissatisfied with the breakfast brew." She is the very first "dyke to watch out for," initially drawn in a 1983 letter Bechdel wrote to a friend.

Pages 32 and 33 from Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama - COURTESY OF NEW YORK: HOUGHTON MIFFLIN HARCOURT, 2012
  • Courtesy Of New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012
  • Pages 32 and 33 from Are You My Mother?: A Comic Drama

On the adjacent wall, a multipanel "Cartoonist's Introduction" gives visitors a humorous crash course in Bechdel's trajectory from early college to drawing her cartoon strip to being an adult who "forgot to get a job!"

In these panels, Bechdel is shown knocking on the door of her own archives. She recalls the entwined intellectual and sexual pursuits of her undergraduate years at Oberlin College. Reading Adrienne Rich and hooking up with girls gives way to an "MFA program of the streets" — that is, Bechdel's early encounters with the world(s) of New York City lesbians.

"And yes," the caption reads, "I wanted to have sex with each and every one of these compelling creatures." It continues: "But even more compelling was a desire to capture them somehow."

More than simple exposition, these panels serve as Alison Bechdel 101. On full display is her uncanny ability to be both astoundingly real and consciously, hilariously melodramatic. She extrapolates stories from her own life that are as highly personal as they are relatable and historically relevant. Deep and heady questions — for example, about the slippery nature of essentialism, or agency within the space-time continuum — mix comfortably and casually with daily minutiae and memories.

"By drawing the everyday lives of women like me," cartoon-Bechdel says, "I hoped to make lesbians visible not just to ourselves, but to everyone."

And, whew, did she ever. A large portion of the gallery is dedicated to the lifespan of "Dykes to Watch Out For." Original drawings for "The Rule," the 1985 strip that gave birth to the Bechdel Test, are here. ("The rule" is that one will see only movies in which at least two women talk to each other about something other than a man.) So is a map of the characters' fictional midwestern city. Exhibition text introduces the strip's core cast, and plenty of original drawings show them in action through the years.

Accompanying these selections are various ephemera, ranging from monthly breast exam stickers featuring "DTWOF" character Jezanna to a short-lived "DTWOF" catalog. Vermont is well represented, from a 1997 issue of now-defunct newspaper Out in the Mountains to an advertisement drawn for Burlington's Peace & Justice Center to a 1993 Pride parade button. Also included are more recent, Trump-induced revivals of "Dykes," including the November 23, 2016, cover of Seven Days.

  • Photos Courtesy Of Fleming Museum
  • Alison Bechdel painting

Elsewhere in the gallery, Bechdel's relationship to Vermont is explored in greater depth through reproductions of the comic essay she contributed to the 2009 book State by State: A Panoramic Portrait of America. In it, Bechdel notes that she and the von Trapp family of The Sound of Music moved to Vermont for similar reasons: "Absence of Nazis, presence of hills."

Bechdel's 2006 graphic memoir, the critically acclaimed, best-selling Fun Home, is a raw examination of her coming of age and her relationship to her father. She followed it in 2012 with Are You My Mother? Featuring select reproductions, a portion of the gallery is dedicated to the themes of Bechdel's most personal works, among them maps, archives, mirrors and literary references.

Of all the "confessions" in this show, Bechdel's description of her impulse to capture and classify seems most potent. Viewers can see that a rigorous search for self and social understanding through observation, experience and representation underlies her entire career. With sharpness and dedication, Bechdel has elevated the feminist adage that "the personal is political" to heights wholly her own.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Archiving Alison"

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