Arthur Suydam RoCKS MoCCA

mocca.montageAs I get out of the shower and throw on something black and moderately-clean, I wonder what will be in store for me this evening. I’m heading out to an opening gala at MoCCA (The Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art), who are hosting a show on my favorite comic artist in the whole world, Arthur Suydam at their new digs in downtown Soho. MoCCA’s new installation, “Arthur Suydam: The Legacy Exhibit,” is being kicked off tonight with an event titled “Arthur Suydam Rocks MoCCA.” The invite said something about live music and food, and to be sure, they have my curiosity going. And, too, this marks a rare opportunity to meet the man behind the amazing “overground/underground” stories I grew up on, the amazing but elusive comics creator Arthur Suydam.

Donning my shoes, I rush out onto the street, praying for a taxi. The clock at the corner bank reminds me that I’m already late (and I don’t want to miss out on the food). Finally in a taxi, I’m able to distract myself from the smell of frankincense and sweat with thoughts of art events I’ve been to in the past. Sure, they always sound kind of fun, but usually I’d show up and to a bunch of guys wearing faded out Crow t-shirts talking way too much about who would win in a fight between Spiderman and Captain America. Call me jaded, but these days I figure a quick in-out, then on home to feed the cat and fall asleep watching re-runs of Law and Order (my idea of meaningful adventure).

So, upon arrival at 594 Broadway, I ask the guard downstairs if anyone has gone to the 4th Floor; she rouses from her boredom with an enthusiastic “honey, it’s a full house.”

The elevator doors open to the fourth floor, and I am immediately hit by the sound of music. I do a double take at the elevator button to make sure this is the right place; it is, so I venture forth (making a mental note to ask one of the volunteers what cd is playing) as I head into the gallery.

Okay, I’m astounded. The scene is unexpected – I’m used to stuffy galleries and awkward bits of small talk about action heroes. But this – it is immediately apparent that tonight, this is the place to be, in all of New York. The music is louder, my eyes have not yet adjusted to the low light, and it’s too crowded to see what’s going on. As I push my way through I discover that what was mistaken for a “down from the mountain” cd is, in actuality, a live band. And they ain’t half bad. In the center is Arthur Suydam himself, backed up by (I get interested enough to ask) a collection of musical friends, Charlie Giordano (Bruce Springsteen, Joe Cocker), Shannon Ford (Paul Simon, James Taylor,) Johnny Alemendra (Dizzy Gillespy, Tito Puente), Marc Daine (Shawn Colvin, Cindy Lauper) and Hank Bones (Platters, Bill Plimpton films). Suydam isn’t the fat balding Chinese guy with a big fat cigar I expected. Not by a long shot. His stuff is growing on me. These guys sound, for all my life, like a Sun Studios session with the Million Dollar Quartet and Roy Orbison sitting in.

The lights are down low, the place is awash with intimate greens, reds and blue concert lighting. People are gathered around the “stage,” set at a large corner of MoCCA’s new space. It doesn’t look like any museum I’ve ever been to before. This is some serious ambience. Across the room, surrounded by the mob, Suydam is backlit in red, seated easy, making smooth sounds on a cherry red guitar (Lonesome Traveler). All around me in the dimly lit room, paintings and drawings hang on the walls, barely visible in the dark. But even squinting in this dim light, I can see that this is no ordinary comic art. There are paintings and drawings done in red chalk, sepia, gouaches and oils. Paintings and drawings that remind me of the museums I’ve seen across Italy and France. The air is thick with the smell of “Art.”

I make my way over to the bar, suspecting that it’s going to be the same ol’ same ol’ – cheap beer and flat soda – and am pleased and shocked to discover really good wine, donated for the event. I pick a small glass of red to suit my mood, and move back into the crowd to circulate. They’re surprisingly friendly (for Big Applers) and moving to the sound being laid down. This is no grungy scene (or worse, amateur jazz – which to me always sounds like a pet store burning down). This reminds me of back home – more like some old school porch party, in another part of the world, maybe down south somewhere, Memphis or Austin, with family and friends. No one is gabbing or gossiping – no one to wants to miss it.

I’m being introduced as more people show up. I keep my ears tuned and find a good spot to check out the action. Behind me, a couple of music industry cats (they like to be called “cats,” I’m told) are here to listen to Suydam play. Next to me, MoCCA’s director, Lawrence Klein, is busy, personally greeting each new person that comes to his place. There are art dealers and publishers and musicians everywhere.

As I turn back to the stage, a huge flash goes off in my face. A little guy with about four cameras around his neck goes “thanks!” and walks quickly away in search of another victim. Damn. The paparazzi are here.

When I can see again, I make my way over to the other side of the room (MoCCA’s new space is a far cry from the old one) where an extensive spread of assorted delicacies beckons. I’m not hopeful – I’d settle for cheez doodles and maybe, just maybe, cured meats. But, voila – this is a real catered affair with a serious spread.

I feed my face with some great little stuffed things, just as Suydam calls for the audience to come join him for a rousing sing-along that people seem to be excited about. I try to swallow my mouthful of food as fast as I can to get a chance to go up there, and end up at the front of the stage in the thick of it all with the crowd. I find myself singing with everyone to a song that I thought was Dylan (but somebody says it’s one of Suydam’s) called “I Don’t Wanna Go To Work,” one I can relate to. The crowd jumps onto stage. The woman next to me is with the guy who started the New York International Fringe Festival, who is singing along and getting down on his triangle. Others soon follow. The band is tearing it up. The crowd is in a frenzy. The guy on my left is working it on a French washboard with a pair of wrenches. Where in hell did that come from? Now, this is a party!’

Now the band leaves the stage and the applause dies down and the lights come up, signaling the beginning of Part Deux of the evening. I look around for Suydam’s artwork, and it’s the stuff I saw when I first walked in. Of course, I’ve his stuff in print since I was a kid, but seeing the originals is a different story altogether.

Though I do love comics, the great thing about seeing original art is that it allows us to almost put ourselves in the same room with the artist when he’s creating the work. Up close, I can see brush strokes and little bits of tape, places where the artist decided to take another angle; food stains and phone numbers, something that looks like a blood stain, little bits of brush hair – you get the idea. But most of all, what I see is the absolute poetry with which Suydam approaches his subjects – from a guy wielding a sword to a frog in a sports car.

MoCCA has so many of Suydam’s works on display – there’s not enough wall space to hang them all. There are so many in so many styles – homages to Suydam’s influences, Rockwell, Frazetta and DaVinci – as well as Death Dealer and Mudwogs pages, and illustrations from The Wind in the Willows.

I have to admit I’m feeling pretty smug at this point, proud of my good taste and my expertise with Suydam’s body of work. There’s so much to look at, and the overall thread of inarticulable brilliance that sets this artist so far apart from everyone else in comics.

I move from wall to wall admiring the work, and turn a corner and see the empty stage, where the cherry red guitar sits on its stand. It hits me that the guy I just saw on stage doing this terrific music is the same guy that painted all these things. Suddenly I’m not so smug anymore.

The museum is buzzing with activity – somewhere in the background Hank Williams is playing, and his lonesome twang escorts me through the rest of my tour. I’m floating. Somehow it all ties in.

There’s a lot going on, raffles and giveaways and auctions all going on at the same time. Suydam signs autographs and collectibles. Witterstaetter appears with a big cake she made with a Suydam painting on it – painted in right in the icing. The little guy with the five cameras is on a roll, blasting away like it’s open season. There are MoCCA volunteers out in force, garbed in white weasel t-shirts, taking care of my every need.

I’m having more wine, more conversation and am feeling…warm. Everyone seems to be having a really good time. I fantasize that everybody feels the same way I do – this is a real downtown New York happening, like the ones with Keith Haring and the gang at CBGBs and the Mud Club, in the gallery glory days.

The evening is drawing to a close. The barrage on my senses is taking its toll. I want more of everything; more wine, more food, more cake, more conversation, more music. But mostly, I just want to stay here and have this keep going for a while longer.

I catch a taxi on Broadway and roll down the window, this time to get some fresh air. All I can think about is how great this evening has been, how unexpected. How I had always longed to be a part of the great gallery scenes that seemed to end just as I came to the city. As taxis whiz by, I think of Keith Haring and Andy Warhol, and the great downtown happenings of eras gone by. But most of all, I think about this night, and about how New York could really do for a heavy dose of a lot more just like it.