Sketchy: Herblock could be biting

When it comes to the dour, farcical invention that is politics, a dose of humor is certainly welcome. This spring, the UVA Center for Politics hosts a symposium on humor in politics, and in conjunction with that event, the UVA art museum presents a completely appropriate– which is to say, both funny and political– exhibit: the work of cartoonist Herb Block. 
Though “A Tribute to Herblock” includes only a modest sampling from Block’s Library of Congress archive, the exhibit still manages to reflect Block’s unbelievably long career. He’s hung around long enough to harpoon 12 administrations, starting with Herbert Hoover and ending with Bill Clinton. 
Like any political cartoonist worth his salt, Block plays no favorites and spares no sucker punches. Democratic and Republican presidents make frequent appearances in his cartoons, and they aren’t flattering cameos.
In the work on display, Block is particularly hard on Nixon (here depicted with beady little eyes) and Carter (with sagging face, acting befuddled and sad-sack). Block’s style, often based on exaggeration and comic mis-proportion, comes heavy in detail. 
In fact, it’s hard to imagine looking at these cartoons in tiny newspaper proportions, rather than the blown-up versions on display. His sense of humor is biting rather that outright funny.
Block doesn’t really feel the need to leaven the healthy misanthropic streak that runs right through his cartoons. In one particularly mean example, Block depicts a convertible careening out of control on a very busy city street. The car actually runs over a man’s leg (!) and forces a young woman against the front of a building.
The trunk of the car reads “Committee on Un-American Activities,” and the man leaning out the back says politely to the shocked young woman, “It’s okay. We’re hunting communists.”
Not every cartoon is all that sharp. One particular example shows Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. He’s walking a tightrope, balancing the budget on the finger of one hand, and what must literally be Lewinsky on the other hand. 
The visual gag isn’t particularly funny or pointed, but was probably included so that the exhibit could stretch from the beginning to the end of Block’s career. On the whole, however, the exhibit is a worthy and funny one.

At the University of Virginia Art Museum, “Political Humor: A Tribute to Herblock,” runs through May 4. Rugby Road. 924-3952.

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