Lille Carre is 29, petite, moon-faced and unassuming. She curls forward as she speaks. On a quiet morning in her Noble Square apartment, she speaks softly and gives off an air of frailty. It's not hard to picture her stepping out of one of her own creations. She is an illustrator, an animator and a cartoonist, and her characters are similarly ethereal and angular and look exhausted. They appear to be moments away from floating off into space. They are like her work: hard to pin down.
Her illustrations — in Slate, the New Yorker, Time Out Chicago — are elemental, colorful and accessible but with a hint of the grotesque. Her cover for the latest Penguin edition of "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" — Huck strolling along a river bottom littered with skulls and bones, his head cresting the water and puffing on a pipe — was both sweet and dark.
Then there are her comics, which look more like the wordless individual cells of an unspooled animated film. Likewise, her animated films seem more like art installations, and as contemporary as her subjects of dislocation and identity may feel, her aesthetic suggests cave paintings, wood carvings and tribal etchings.
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"I think of her as a bridge between the fine arts and comics world," said Michael Green, the former Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator who selected her for a recent MCA show about up-and-coming cartoonists. "She harks back to the Chicago Imagists in a way, to artists like Jim Nutt and Ed Paschke, to that whole school that pulled from comic images, except Lilli is drawing from the whole history of art."
At the moment there are two shows in Chicago that feature Carre. The first, "Where'd I Leave the Thing Itself," at the Roots & Culture gallery in the Noble Square neighborhood through Jan. 5, is an assemblage of experimental films, projects and works on paper made with animator Alexander Stewart (Carre's longtime boyfriend). The second is "Epic Something," a group show at the Hyde Park Art Center (through Feb. 24) about the mingling of narrative and image. Carre's contribution, a laser-cut sculpture made during a summer residency at the Haystack artist retreat in Maine, shows a woman standing in water and the words: "It's not so bad once you get used to it."
It's "Heads or Tails," however, her new book, a hodgepodge of short stories created for various magazines and anthologies, that best captures the range, humor and vague sense of ennui she's made her name on. "The Lagoon," her 2008 graphic novel, which is also full of images of people submerged in water, was her first major statement; "Heads or Tails," her fifth book in the past six years (including an adaptation of Hans Christian Andersen's "The Fir Tree"), strange and generous and difficult to put down, is her smartest.
In one of the book's last pieces, a surreal, nearly wordless story called "Sweet Spot," a man stands in a field. There is a drip of rain, then a deluge. The man runs through the downpour, which is drawn by Carre as squiggles filling up the panels. The man spots a literal break in the weather, an odd, diamond-shaped hole in the rain. He crawls into it, stretching out the small hole so that it fits snugly around him — until he is content and standing inside of a tear in a sheet of rain, beset on all sides by an unrelenting downpour.
"The meanings in her work are elusive," said Eric Reynolds, associate publisher at Fantagraphics Books, which released "Heads or Tails" and "The Lagoon." "There's such a seamless harmony between her images and her words that the work lends itself to subtext, to a Southern Gothic, Flannery O'Connor quality. But, at other times, to this understated and Raymond Carver-esque feeling as well. There are a lot of talented cartoonists out there who do not have a lot to say. Lilli has never struck me as someone with a shortage of things to say."
But what, exactly?
"Heads or Tails," along with her piece at the Hyde Park Art Center and "The Lagoon" and several stories in her book "Nine Ways to Disappear," is full of recurring images of people wading in bodies of water or curling into themselves then vanishing. One of the stories in "Nine Ways" shows a woman saying "Oh, well," then folding in on herself until she becomes, well, a button, which then rolls away and disappears down a sewer. Another story in "Heads or Tails" shows a man in an ocean who turns to see a huge wave bearing down on him.
Of course there's an urge to read deeply into this, to apply pop psychology and imagine that Carre has feelings of being set-upon and besieged. Told this, she said, almost too quiet to hear, "I do return to certain visual things that keep happening in my stuff, though I don't know why they keep happening."
The water, for instance.
"The water is a recurring visual, yes. The man in the ocean with the wave, that comes out of being struck by an extreme ambivalence. There's a wave coming, but do you dive under it or just stay where you are?" she said. "I think about ambivalence a lot, retracing steps, rethinking decisions, arriving back at the point where you started."
She feels set-upon then? The man standing in a storm …
"Huh, I like that something as simple as that image can be interpreted that way."
So, she doesn't feel besieged?
"Maybe in the grand sense, I suppose. Or maybe it's some absurd attempt for a quiet space in a place where there can be no possibility for shelter anymore. Or maybe I just want to carve out my own space."
Carre grew up in Los Angeles. Her parents were graphic designers. After they separated, her father became a forensic animator, making short computer-animated films to help explain how crimes were committed; he died of cancer when she was a teenager. Though Carre came to Chicago a decade ago to study sound at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago — she said she went though a John Cage phase — she gravitated to the animation program. Four years later, her first book, "Tales of Woodsman Pete," a striking combination of Monty Python-esque drollery and Chris Ware-ish antiquity, was published by Top Shelf Comics. A year after graduating from SAIC, her short "How She Slept at Night" screened at the 2007 Sundance Film Festival.