The power of humor can be profound. It can wound, divide, provoke, demean, or insult. On the other hand, it can also empower, disarm, amuse, unite, or heal. Present in and specific to all cultures throughout history, humor is essential to the lives of individuals and communities alike. Imagine if you will a fate for the human condition without the existence of humor, without the experience of laughter.
Now, consider for a moment the intersection of art and life and the importance of humor in literature, theater, and film. We have naturally come to expect the experience of reading a novel or watching a film to elicit a full range of emotions – from tears to mirth. So why is it, then, we have developed such a slight expectation for laughter and other extreme responses in our encounter with visual art.
Humor may well be one of the least recognized, undervalued characteristics in the study of art history, but the tradition does indeed exist and has continued to flourish. In fact, humor has become increasingly prevalent in visual art during the twentieth and into the twenty-first centuries. While there are more than a few factors to account for this, at least two considerations emerge for the present discussion.
First, as the world changes, so does our worldview. Along with our more global perspective is the ever-increasing need to identify and understand similarities and differences – of politics, religion, cultural identity, social behavior, and temperament. And second, even within the realm of art there are and have always been divisions and distinctions – between high and low, fine and popular, important and trivial – that seemingly favor sobriety over a lightness of being. Because of this persistent sensibility that art must be serious in order to be taken seriously, modern and contemporary artists have been compelled to reverse the expectation and allow audiences to indulge in the merriment of the comic, the mischief of the illusionists, and the shenanigans of the trickster.
The Narrative Impulse or The Merriment of the Comic
The influence of popular culture, media, animation and cartoons is evident in the works of Reza Farkhondeh, David Shrigley, and Cary Leibowitz which integrate language and often combine image and text. Artists have a knack for observing ordinary life and creating chronicles that capture a passage in time. In line with the exaggerated stylizations of caricature, the anti-authoritarian streak of political cartoons, and the lampooning provocations of social satire, these artists turn their pen on fanciful impressions drawn from contemporary life.
Seemingly lighthearted and whimsical, the drawings of Iranian-born Reza Farkhondeh— artist, émigré, and compassionate world citizen—chart the keen observations of a political system in action and document his attempts to unravel the curious nuances of the English language. These delightful, soft-spoken drawings bear sensitive and humorous witness to his experience of surmounting the barriers of language, cultural assimilation, and self reflection.
Adept and quick-witted, David Shrigley has a populist flair for creating twisted riffs on the human condition. Swift economy of means and a wicked sense of humor mark Shrigley’s prolific output of naïve line drawings, populated with distortions, exaggerations, misspellings, and crossed out “mistakes.” Like Hogarth and Daumier before him, Shrigley manages, with a few simple strokes, to evoke the relational ennui and disaffection of his generation.
In the hands of Cary Leibowitz, a picture of few words can convey a world of meaning. Author of a highly idiosyncratic brand of identity politics, Leibowitz has developed a dry, stylish flair for finger pointing that is at once amusingly critical, alarmingly charming, and immediately disarming. His take-no-prisoners manner of admonishment, directed at himself and others, calls out both the perpetrators and victims of jokes and slurs, on subjects such as race, ethnicity, sexuality, beauty, and other forms of self-identification and mass-perception.
Imaginary Incongruities or The Mischief of the Illusionists
Inspired by the venerable tradition of landscape, infinite possibilities emerge in the sly, imaginative interpretations of the very ordinary by Vik Muniz, Adriane Herman, Alexander Gutke, Yang Zhengzhong, and Jules de Balincourt. Art often asks us to believe what we see, but its truth is only a representation, reliant on the skillfulness or craft of the artist in their handling of materials, subjects, and ideas. Throughout art history, a steady progression of techniques has been skillfully mastered, passed on, and employed to fashion an artificial but believable likeness of the real world. As new media and technologies emerge, it is often accompanied by a subtle or radical shift and artists, invariably, begin to chart a new course of image making.
Adept at absorbing all that came before them, twentieth-century artists such as Picasso, Magritte, and Man Ray initiated an exercise in curiosity and expansion, overturning notions of material, illusion, and perception. A sense of theatrical, subversive play has ensued as artists continue to explore ideas of reality and representation, commingling fact with fiction, questioning our patterns of perception and thwarting our expectations of visual information.
As a viewer, I have a vivid memory of the first time I saw a photograph by Vik Muniz. It was the image of an open book, easy to believe at first glance, but a double take slowly convinced me that the artist had fabricated the object’s likeness in wire and captured it with the lens of a camera. The simple surprise of this discovery suddenly gave me a very clear vision of the awe-inspiring wonderment visual images can provoke. I pondered then how an act of such deceitful trickery could result in sheer delight, but since that time I’ve been continually amazed and amused by the way art and artists can surprise and conjure, as if by magic, new ways of imagining or seeing something quite ordinary.
According to Muniz, a light-hearted, intelligent fusion of the physical land interventions, typified by Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty, and conceptualism without a frown informs his whimsical pictures of temporary, monumental drawings of Clouds and Earthworks, which exist now only as photographic documentations.
Both fascinated with and critical of a highly evolved consumer culture, Adriane Herman mines the processes and layers of printmaking as she appropriates the image of a famous lighthouse somewhere along the coast of Maine, commemorated in its original form upon the surface of a collectible, decorative plate, and then subjects the plated image to multiple exposures and a succession of newly-imagined contexts. Time after time, Herman creates a new illusion, capturing a new image of the plate – suspended by the hands of the artist or an accessory in front of the actual lighthouse – in fall, winter, spring, darkness, and finally, in the rack of a rusted, dilapidated dishwasher.
Alexander Gutke seizes the low-tech capacity of new technology, capitalizing on the odd possibilities of a sculptural juxtaposition of a projected image and commonplace commodities. The static surface of a vintage postcard, featuring an image of downtown Caracas, is imaginatively recast when subtly overlaid with a filmic projection of a moving cloudscape. A stack of plain, white photocopy paper stimulates a banal fantasy and, through the power of digital animation, the illusion of an infinite supply of paper is simulated with the addition of another layer, throwing the image of an endlessly turning page onto the surface of 500 stacked sheets.
An inventive artist whose cunning photographs and films document the changing physical and sociological characteristics of contemporary China, Yang Zhengzhong conceives a dramatic, theatrical inversion of the Shanghai skyline balanced precariously, via clever digital manipulation of the image, on the tip of his own finger. On the surface it is a playful image; however, it seems to furtively suggest both a past rife with necessary concealment and a future that will reckon its own price for progress.
Similarly subversive but with a different attitude toward materials, Jules deBalincourt comments on the depressingly contemporary era of heightened surveillance and the ongoing suspicion we all endure in the desperate attempt to feel safe and achieve “homeland security.” Armed with construction paper, glue, and sharp, pointed scissors - or a box cutter perhaps - deBalincourt fabricates a lie in the form of a standard, mass-produced surveillance camera. The camera’s watchful eye is installed strategically, so it can gaze deceptively upon the gallery’s innocent visitors who, oddly enough, never look twice or question its role or appearance. Just as there are many ways of seeing in the twenty-first century, so are there numerous anticipated, covert, and corrupt ways of being seen. And if you really think about it, what’s so funny about that?
Acting Out or The Shenanigans of the Trickster
The performative actions and events created by artists who question social and artistic conventions along with individual and cultural perceptions celebrate the legacy of Marcel Duchamp and many other artists whose endeavors playfully explore the role of the artist –
as subject, model, prop, trickster, joker, and fool. Duchamp, who created and exhibited art under the witty guise of Rrose Selavy, an alter-ego, or with the pseudonym R. Mutt, loved to shift meaning through action, context, image, and language.
In works by Ghazel, William Pope.L, Tamy Ben-Tor, Jon Pylypchuk, David Hammons, Peter Finnemore, Joe Sola, and Erwin Wurm, the noble occupation of being an artist is capriciously exercised, the results of which frequently exceed the limits of social or artistic acceptability as we know them.
Throughout the exhibition, many of these artists eschew the notion of making didactic political art but still manage to tackle real issues by making art politically. An Iranian-born artist who now works in France,Ghazel takes on the identity of displacement and cultural perceptions and misperceptions in a series of video self-portraits that feature the artist dressed in a full-length chador, performing real and imagined tasks. It feels like a voyeuristic and awkward game of cultural dress-up is being enacted especially for the viewer. William Pope.L seizes one of the myths of racial stereotyping by strapping himself with an unfeasibly large, below-the-waist appendage that is ironically not black, but white, for a street performance of endurance in Harlem.
A loose adaptation of the genre of portraiture and self-portraiture and a delicate balancing act between assuming identities and presuming to play or project a role characterize the work of many of these artists. Their wise recommendation and the moral to most of their stories, it seems, is to poke fun and laugh along with us, at themselves.
In a series of witty impressions, Tamy Ben-Tor enlivens the characters and conjectures the problems of primadonna, contract laborer, and earnest artist-in-residence, envisioning the very real need we all have to be understood and just get along in the world. In clever, rebellious, and child-like drawings and tableaux, Jon Pylypchuk fashions the most mundane of discarded materials and imaginative, boyish pranks into creature-filled vignettes.
A possible subtitle for a selection of works by the remaining artists might be The Doing of Things You Just Don’t Do. David Hammons, one of the original tricksters of contemporary art, recasts the street culture of ordinary city life and the hawking of wares into a performance of selling hand-fashioned snowballs to passersby.
Peter Finnemore, dressed in camouflage and dark spectacles, casts himself and the most susceptible of his pets and family members into a farcical medley of highly unlikely episodes of real life – from a re-enactment of Vincent Van Gogh’s The Potato Eaters to the hyperbolic spectacle of an entranced karaoke performer.
Inspired by Hollywood and tricks of the entertainment trade, Joe Sola apprenticed with professional stuntmen to glean a working knowledge of props and actions with the express intent to shock and surprise a most unsuspecting parade of victims. In sequence after sequence, the serious-minded artist explains his work to a bevy of captive, attentive contemporary art curators only to conclude each studio visit with a sudden, dramatic departure, as he crashes loudly and headfirst out through a window.
Erwin Wurm has dedicated himself to creating a highly unusual body of work that elevates political and social incorrectness into art. The absurd documented performances of Wurm may be a farcical recreation of a terrorist-inspired bomb search or the individual enactment of a temporary sculpture—one of which, for example, is made by sticking and holding the stick-end of a broom horizontally between one’s legs. These works tend to elicit either one of two responses: head-scratching or the most cunning of smirks.
Somehow, and against all odds, the audience is left all the richer from the contrary, ludicrous conduct and actions of the artists in Humor Me.
On a more individual note, Humor Me is in many ways a very personal and poignant project. The exhibition and essay are a mere reflection of my own grasping search for and sincere appreciation of humor – a legacy I inherited from my beloved, ever-laughing grandmother. Everyday I appreciate the ongoing collaboration I dare to undertake with the many women and men in my life. I honor each interaction that serves as a powerful reminder of laughter’s healing properties, and the soothing balm that laughter offers to our attempts of coping compassionately and gracefully with difficulties, be they personal hardship or global conflict.
Art, like humor, can bear influence on the way we see ourselves, consider the world around us, and find meaning in our experiences. And so, Humor Me is a reminder to the sober, serious-minded tendency in myself and others – and you know who you are – to indulge at every chance, dare to have a merry heart, and enjoy the ride. It may just make a difference in how and when you reach your destination. And like your mother always said, you’re lovelier when you smile.
Dedicated to Aldean Kerchner (April 14, 1908 – February 17, 2006)