Contemporary art is rarely, if ever, laugh-out-loud funny. So it’s no surprise that a raucous atmosphere does not exactly prevail at the Francine Seders Gallery, in spite of its hosting a show devoted to humor in art. KUOW art critic Gary Faigin does his report cracking a few broad smiles while walking through the exhibition, and he joins us now with a serious look at some amusing and not-so-amusing art.
The fact is that much contemporary art shares with humorists, satirists, and cartoonists an ironic, even jaundiced view of contemporary life, including a willingness to exploit stereotypes to make a point (Roger Shimomura), to inflate pop icons to heroic proportions (Scott Fife), or to turn old artistic conventions on their head (Michael Brophy, Charles Krafft). Any of those artists, and many others, could have equally well fit into the current show. Humor may well be one of the traits that distinguishes recent art from the many eras which preceded it, eras in which art celebrated shared values, channeled the sublime, flattered the powerful, or otherwise treated of subjects where humor was a marginal, even unwelcome, consideration. We like to think that Goya was making fun of the bedraggled-looking royals when he painted the "Family of Charles IV," but it’s highly unlikely that either his titled sitters or their contemporaries saw it that way.
But if current artists have so much in common with current humorists, why isn’t anyone laughing? While it’s true that much of the art here on view has a dark undertone, death, disease, and disfigurement are classic subjects for jokes, which often serve as relief valves for our anxieties (“I’ve looked at your tests, and the bad news is that you have two months to live; the good news is that I’m getting it on with the nurse!”). A more telling reason that art doesn’t get us going as easily as other forms of humor is that it’s much more oblique, especially in contemporary practice. Of the art in the current show, only a few pieces are of the “what you see is what you get” school, and interestingly, it was those that brought the easiest smiles. When the work was more nuanced or ambiguous, we’re not nearly as likely to feel amusement as our most direct response. With such work, there’s also the anxiety of not “getting it”, a sure-fire way to dampen that all-important laugh reflex, which comes much more easily when we feel included, one of the knowing.
With artist Barbara Noah (and only with Noah) being funny is the very first thing we notice. That’s appropriate, since it was Noah along with galleryist Seders who conceived of and organized the current show. Her images are immediately accessible and appealing, equal parts high tech (NASA satellite imagery) and low-brow (rubber toys and silly hats), merged with impeccable digital technique. "Acme" features a cute (cute=funny) little (little=funny) blue toy balloon (toy balloons =funny) in orbit like the space shuttle, with its free end untied and presumably providing rocket power, as well as a link to human breath. Starry Night suspends a red rubber ball and silver jacks against a spiraling nebula, with the ball standing in for a giant planet, the jacks for stars (the title is a reference to Van Gogh, whose sky Noah’s closely resembles) . In "You Better Watch Out," a tiny Santa hat hovers – convincingly – 50 miles or so above a coastal metropolis. Noah skillfully contrasts the overwhelming space and colossal scale of her borrowed astronomical imagery with the childish, everyday, and diminutive objects that have somehow died and gone to heaven, an uplifting narrative indeed.
Such upbeat sentiments aren’t exactly shared by her fellow artists, especially not the other women in the show. Jennifer McNeely, for example, may reference bunnies and elephants in her striking and provoking plush toy sculptures, but they are anything but cheerful. I took away a sense of psychic bruising, conflicted intimacy, and sexual anxiety. "Funny Bunny," for example, sprouts pubic hair from the seam where two minimalist soft rabbit heads are joined – the messy truths of the adult body colliding with a with disembodied reminders of childhood. "Quite a Pickle" is a saga of co-dependency, with two highly expressive, disembodied limb-like structures joined by handcuffs while suspended in a huge medical sling. Little fleshy bits poke out through holes in their prison-stripe fabric covers, a disturbing detail like the crack in a crouching plumber’s behind. Other sculptures contrast the cute with the creepy, suggestions of body parts poking out randomly from squishy fabric tubes and balls. If humor is a primary element in the work of Noah, here it’s only one small part of the mix; it’s much more like funny/weird, with the emphasis on the weird – these would be hard pieces to live with, reminding us of corporal secrets, and unfinished business.
The team of Dawn Cerny and Alice Tippit has created a series of diminutive watercolor drawings with a similarly offbeat sensibility. They’re done in the spirit of a twisted children’s book (Santa shooting an Easter Bunny; a skull emitting a cartoon thought balloon) and many don’t really work. The "Baby Nobody Liked," however, hits that sweet spot between the bizarre and the absurd, and inspired my biggest smile. Who can resist such a thuggish infant with a heart tattoo and the arm of Captain Hook, sitting besides a sinister-looking pile of chemical-green baby bottles? Note to artists: deep six the “Nice Tits” caption in the upper left corner – the image doesn’t need an extra, sordid twist. In general, the work of this duo would benefit from better editing.
The contribution of the remaining three artists is less ambivalent, less fraught. Joseph Park has intelligent fun with suite of drawings of his trademark elephants and a terrific film noir painting of an artist’s tomb; Stephen McClelland is likably goofy with his big doodle/cartoon abstractions. Eric Geschke keeps it simple with three strong sculptures monumentalizing clouds, and treating a set of human arms like a giant floppy pincer hung up to dry.
In the humor department artists will always be at a disadvantage alongside their funnier counterparts in the world of clowns and comedians. Curly, Moe, and Larry could amuse us free from the burden of also concerning themselves with meaning and social significance. Most “fine” artists, on the other hand, see themselves primarily as probers of experience and makers of compelling forms. For them, being seen as funny isn’t nearly as important as being seen as smart.