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A black, square Sony Trinitron TV. Headphones. On stage, a woman in her thirties holds a mic. Three men watch from a table. “The only smile in the history of art that we know is the Mona Lisa’s,” she says, “and we all know what kind of smile is that: it’s the smile that you put on when you wake up and your parents have shaved your eyebrows” (my transcription). Kasia Fudakowski’s Smile (2011) occupies a central space in the first gallery of Laugh-in: Art, Comedy, Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego (MCASD). This video documentation of Fudakowski’s performance is paired with Camuflage (2011), an installation by the same artist, which is composed of a vertical brick-wall pattern canvas, mounted on wood, with audio. Driving to the museum, I was mesmerized by the landscape’s normative whiteness, a stunning winter sunset over the Pacific Ocean, and high-end cars parked outside high-end fashion stores. It made me wonder if humor is always contextual, and hope that the show finally brings to town laughter’s ability to examine “questions of race, class, gender, and power inequalities,” as the exhibition brochure promisingly states.
Artists’ vulnerability and the exposed nature of artistic processes are the two main subject lines of Laugh-in. An at times deadly propinquity with spectacle haunts both practitioner and artworks through the show in the form of common tropes such as public self-shaming, role playing, sex jokes, cross-dressing, or family awkwardness. Broader social commentary is limited, and works safely refer to the artist and her or his circumstances as targets in what seems like a conscious pursuit of neutrality by the museum. This extensive exhibition features pieces by twenty artists in diverse media, all produced after the turn of the millennium, brought together along with MCASD’s call to our complicit laughter. Such is the case, for example, of Tim Lee’s photograph Untitled (Steve Martin, 1972) (2004), a commentary on masculine racial stereotypes and their media presence. Also in this line are Scott Reeder’s series of punchlines: paintings in which iconic hashtags bring acidic cultural attributes to the gallery.
Laughter’s therapeutic power breathes through the majority of the pieces. Chan & Mann’s New Fantasy (The Video) (2013) narrates the relationship between a green caterpillar and the two members of the collective as they cruise the streets of Los Angeles. In their video they make some provocative smirks at the history of painting, like the duo’s self portrayal after the French sixteenth-century canvas Gabrielle d’Estrées and One of Her Sisters (artist unknown, Fountainebleau school, ca. 1594). In a similar line, Tammy Rae Carland’s I’m Dying Up Here (Strawberry Shortcake) (2010) depicts the artist in the spotlight, head and torso under a pink blanket, impersonating a dick joke. In the next room, Stanya Kahn’s comic drawings depict one snake asking another: “So I said why don’t you get a fish with a blow drier?” to which the second replies: “Cuz that’s always a great first tattoo.” Unfortunately, her video Lookin’ Good, Feelin’ Good (2012) fails to provide a fitting pairing for them.
But the absurdity of comedians often speaks the truth. Buffoons have been a constant in Western art and literature, as their role was to utter the forbidden through performative breaks of social decorum. Advisers to King Lear, street clowns, sketchers of political vignettes, contemporary artists—all comedians conceal with humor dry hard truths for those ready to hear. In sixteenth-century theater, this figure evolved from a sort of demon who, with a whip of his wand, would change the curse of plotlines and characters’ fates. From Baroque companies to modern solitaries, the role of comedians remains unaltered: they still unveil the concealed, sometimes through subterfuge and self-deprecation, sometimes through direct denunciation. Laugh-in tries to bring a bit of everything, sacrificing substance for breadth.
Edgar Arceneaux’s immersive installation The Alchemy of Comedy . . . Stupid (2006) revisits the common trope of family drama’s situated absurdity. It shows actor and comedian David Alan Grier in a staged analysis of his relationship with his father, and included a drawing in which the artist presents himself as the comedian’s father. This work is an example of how punchlines work by splitting narrative logic. In a sort of surprise borrowing from corporate language, the unexpected also plays a role in Jonn Herschend’s Self Portrait as a PowerPoint Proposal for an Amusement Park Ride (2010). There are many comic episodes in Western art history’s canon: Dada’s soirees, William Hogarth’s caricatures, Francisco de Goya’s royal portraits, Pipilotti Rist’s pop covers, Samuel Beckett’s nonsensical dialogues, etc. Each in their respective mediums make audiences laugh at society’s worst. Relatedly, Michael Smith’s Famous Quotes from Art History (2001–3) reminds viewers of the historical nature that art shares with other cultural products, and that absurdity can come easily to them when displaced from their context. However, in Laugh-in, it is Jayson Musson who provides the real funny deal. In his testimonial series ART THOUGHTZ (2010–12), originally made for YouTube, his alter ego Hennessy Youngman speaks from experience and shares with young art wannabes the tricks of his trade. In perhaps the exhibition’s most amusing piece, Hennessy confides his secrets regarding the nature of studio visits, relational aesthetics, MFA programs, and the aesthetic category of the sublime; my favorite is his episode on institutional critique.
The exhibition lacks a catalogue. Instead, the museum’s brochure provides a succinct curatorial essay with brief descriptions of the artworks and some images. Curator Jill Dawsey explains that the exhibition “reframe[s] questions surrounding artistic performativity and audience participation.” As a visitor, I see the first question, but I’m missing the second, which was what brought me to the show. How is the role of audiences—stand-up comedy audiences, museum audiences, broader art audiences in general—questioned here? If we agree that “stand-up comedy offers a model of audience engagement that . . . opens up to more direct and perhaps intimate conversation,” how is that defended in the works? Laughter can be complicit and just as readily act as a gesture of legitimation—and repression—rather than critique. However, jesters are agile: they juggle, they jump, and they bend. Like artists, they are masters of plastic language games that disguise critique as flattery. For instance, Glenn Ligon’s serial repetition of Richard Pryor’s well-known punchline “No room for advancement” in his series No Room (2007) reinvigorates the comedian’s 1970s denouncement against structural racism, a very pertinent remembrance in the present state of affairs. The risk of speaking the truth is sometimes high. Eric Garduño and Matthew Rana’s The People v. Bruce (parrhesia) (2011) honors comedian Lenny Bruce, judged and charged for his anti-establishment politics—and language—in the 1960s. This strong piece is located in the last gallery, where it loses some of its potency as a result of its vicinity to more lightly joking works.
In an effort to break MCASD’s frequent overlooking of the political dimension of art practice, Dawsey valiantly attempts to include works blending social critique with humor. The selection’s range might jeopardize the exhibition’s concept, though; a smaller but blunter insight into one of humor’s distinct facets would have been more telling. As Arceneaux’s installation proves, jokes work as they break the logic of narratives in unforeseen ways. But choral punchlines need a tight conceptual framework to be funny.
As if in response to the gravity of other types of social commentary exercised by art, the pieces in Laugh-in take language games as an accessible space in which to engage with drama. While this is not new to art production, sublimation of the critical still succeeds sometimes. After all, as Hennessy Youngman says: “romanticism never fails.”
PhD student, Visual Arts Department, University of California, San Diego
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