A Second Look at the MADman: The Work of Scott Bricher

Jackie Leahy ’14
Arts Editor 

Considering his 15 year association with Mad magazine and his consequent membership in the magazine’s “Usual Gang Of Idiots,” it can be hard to believe Scott Bricher is a serious artist – one whose work would be displayed at Smith College’s Brown Fine Arts Center in an exhibition simply titled Mad.

In one of his pieces, George Bush, Condoleeza Rice, George H. W. Bush, Saddam Hussein, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell and Donald Rumsfeld are depicted on a movie poster that entices viewers to attend the premiere of Gulf Wars Episode II, Clone of the Attack. The strength of Bricher’s likenesses of Bush and Rice, along with his integration of them into the otherworldly canvas of the Star Wars franchise, constitutes the visual joke. But in order to bring hilarity to the political, Bricher’s art becomes seamless and self-effacing: the joke’s humor requires his work to become forgettable, the background to a strong subtext.

Bricher’s work with Mad began with his friendship with the magazine’s art director. Yet, as he states in an interview with Kathryn Boughton for Passport Magazine, he was “a Mad guy” who “always read the magazine as a kid.”

“I am proud to be part of that group of artists,” he continued. “Mad is a very demanding client and they work with some awesome artists – it is a small group, but very loyal.” Of course, Boughton also quotes Bricher as acknowledging that some spreads, particularly one called “the Ducktown Massacre” in which Daffy Duck dispenses Kool-Aid to those around him, are “pretty tasteless.” Bricher’s comments make it clear that it would be a mistake to dismiss his work when the jokes aren’t funny. More than a man of humor, Bricher has survived Mad’s current decline, an event, which, in some ways, allows for the current exhibit.

The Mad era having ended, Bricher’s work can be appreciated for more than its snide political and cultural commentary; he can be recognized for his contributions to the artistic side of advertising, the cult of the image and his versatility. One of the first Mad artists to work in color, Bricher also “pioneered the use of digital art in the magazine,” helping to usher in the era of graphic design. Using skills he gained from classical art training, Bricher’s artistic range stretched “from drawings and paintings to photographic trickery and advertising mimicry,” resulting in a client list that extends beyond Mad to include PBS, Frito-Lay, Pepsi, Hasbro, Diageo and Pitney Bowes, Taunton Press and Crew Design Inc.

Bricher’s website features a slideshow of his work, which includes non-satiric portraits of people in daily life such as a woman sitting in a car or a father holding his daughter. Whether their expressions are quizzical, happy or ambivalent, Bricher’s subjects are decidedly unexaggerated. In Naya 1, a little blonde girl in a blue pinafore is frozen with photograph-like realism. In Weekapaug 1, a tranquil lake-scape swims in pastel-tone greens and blues before the next slide’s aggressive mix of  “the 50 worst things about music” – 50 unflattering pictures of pop stars, and rock stars, all gathered as if for their close-ups, their chaos fighting Weekapaug’s simplicity and tranquility.

One of Bricher’s last exhibitions was his Wunderkammer, which was displayed at the Gunn Memorial Library and Museum in Connecticut. While his oil painting Mystery School links men and minotaur-like beasts, Grecian masks and a sketch of an adobe hut beside an obelisk are connected in a disjointed vertical canvas; in his Vanitas, from the same series, a peasant girl with anime-style eyes stares out – the aloof little Match Girl. With a flaming match in one hand and a basket of matchboxes in the other, blue outlines of teeth on the bottom of the painting and tentacles on her sides trap her within the image. Bricher’s June Prince depicts a young blonde boy’s large mustard-colored halo as it is trampled by a procession of june bugs, caught partway through their journey toward the boy’s body. One can see that, in Bricher’s non-Mad work, there is still humor, but it is mixed with mysticism, seriousness and even fear.

It can be tempting to think of Bricher’s work for Mad as Warhol’s pop art gone all pop and no substance, or to make him out to be a snarkier Norman Rockwell, with his meanings carved on the surfaces of his images, often in bold, clear type. It is, however, Bricher’s other work, his work outside of Mad magazine that makes his work within it merit further consideration. The work encourages a second glance, leading the viewer to conclude that his art is less open and straightforward than they might suppose.

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