"Cartoon Art" takes over the Goat Farm

Exhibit celebrates television's evolving animation process

The dream of the '90s is alive in 2014. Along with a new OutKast tour, Iggy Azalea's Clueless tribute in her music video "Fancy," and this weekend's opening of Dumb and Dumber To, the Goat Farm Arts Center is riding the wave of nostalgia with a new exhibit, Cartoon Art From the '90s. Featuring the production art of such discontinued favorites as "The Ren & Stimpy Show," "Beavis and Butt-Head," "Doug," "Rocko's Modern Life," and "Aeon Flux," the exhibit will take fans to new heights by peering behind the scenes of hand-drawn animation, now in its twilight.

The Cricket Gallery, a local purveyor of animation cels, backgrounds, and drawings, has pulled pieces from its own stock to curate the exhibit. Owned by Jackie Halbreich and her husband, Michael Halbreich, the now-online gallery started in 1987 as a catalog company, dealing initially in artwork from Disney, Warner Bros., and Hanna-Barbera. Cricket played the role of distributor between major studios and other galleries, but direct intervention from the former eventually diluted and crashed the market for this art. At the time, however, the gallery was also amassing a huge collection of raw material from Nickelodeon and MTV, preparing a new market for production materials from '90s cartoons once the generation that watched them grew up and started buying art.

Today, the Cricket Gallery sells 1,800 to 2,000 pieces of production art per year. Jackie Halbreich says that a lot of what they sell is work based on customers' requests for particular frames within episodes. "A lot of times with 'Ren & Stimpy,'" she says, "whatever's the grossest is what they think is the most interesting."

So "Ren & Stimpy" viewers can pause, take a screen shot, and ask the gallery to recreate the moment in animation cels and a reproduction background. Jackie Halbreich likens her job to assembling a puzzle, in which a single frame can contain multiple cels that must fit together perfectly. Every work is unique because each cel is used just once, underlining the finite nature of hand-drawn animation. "This is like owning a piece of history," she says. "You can't get the hand-painted or hand-drawn art anymore. It just doesn't exist."

One of the misconceptions about the gallery is that customers purchase this artwork for their children's bedrooms. "It's really not meant to be on kids' walls — certainly not Beavis and Butt-Head,'" Halbreich says. Instead, customers treat it like any other form of pictorial art, hang the pieces in their homes, and sometimes start collections of their own. Jackie says that this kind of relationship to production art is precisely what she hopes the exhibit at the Goat Farm will be able to foster. "It's an accepted art form," she says. "If it's in the Smithsonian, then let's have it on a wall."

Another aspect of the exhibition that Jackie hopes visitors will grasp is the sheer difficulty of the animation process. "I think people don't understand the actual artwork and how many steps are involved in animation," she says. For many of these Nickelodeon and MTV cartoons, animators would draw the initial image, someone else in the studio would outline the drawing on acetate, a team of painters would color the outlines, and then the cels would be submitted for photography. Today, computers have tremendously streamlined animating, consolidating the process and diminishing the toll of human labor. It's a development that saddens Jackie, though she recognizes its benefits: "I know economically that it had to move in that direction, but I'm a purist," she says. "I do appreciate the new things that are being done. ... There are things you could never achieve with 2-D animation."

But it also can't hurt to manage an art collection whose value increases in tandem with its rarity. "That's the other thing about the artwork that makes it so collectible — it's not being done that way anymore," Halbreich says. "There are only a finite number of good setups that you can get from any particular material that came in the box, and there's not going to be any more. So it's becoming scarcer and scarcer."

Ultimately, Jackie views the show as an opportunity for visitors to see the process laid bare and to appreciate the talent and labor invested in it. But unlike a music video tribute or a sequel to a 20-year-old film, Cartoon Art From the '90s doesn't merely showcase artwork that will make you miss the decade; rather, it displays something new, a side of animation that was never meant to be seen in the first place.