Anything for a Laugh: Humor in Contemporary Art

By Dominic Molon


Now you could study Shakespeare and be quite elite
And you can charm the critics and have nothin’ to eat
Just slip on a banana peel
The world’s at your feet

”Make ‘em Laugh,” Singin’ in the Rain (1952)

Donald O’Connor’s bravura song-and-dance routine, “Make ‘em Laugh,” in the classic film musical “Singin’ in the Rain,” cartoonishly suggests the incredibly persuasive power of comedy. From the manner in which a joke can resolve (or cause) the most difficult situation to a consideration of how satire can sway public/political opinion, humor, when used correctly and strategically, allows an artist to effectively communicate with their audience in ways that are both immediate and subtle. Incorporating elements of the comedic into one’s work, however, also carries the risk that it will be easily dismissed, with the suspicion lingering in the viewer’s mind that delivering the joke was the artist’s sole purpose in making the work. (Not, perhaps, coincidentally, the commonly casual way to criticize any work of art perceived to lack depth or nuance is to refer to it as a “one-liner.”) Artists who dedicate their practice to the consistent engagement of all things humorous are typically taken less seriously overall, suggesting the similar struggles of comedically-associated actors in the movies and theater (many of whom take on ill-advised dramatic roles in order to prove themselves as “real” actors.) However, just as comedies and funny people should be recognized more readily given their far greater task of (a.) creating entertainment that holds up artistically and (b.) makes us laugh, higher praise deserves to be given to the works of art (and their creators) that shift our perspective on the world and manage to amuse us while doing so. Life, after all, is as much about the laughs as it is the tears.

The works assembled in this presentation for Art+Culture Projects range from works that address serious concerns with humorous affect to others whose intent is more purely comedic. Together, they provide an intriguing snapshot of the manner in which comic strategies manifest themselves in contemporary art.

Alejandro Diaz makes a consistent use of a wry wit and humor in work that explores aspects of his life as an artist and his sense of identity as a Mexican-American. His light-box work reading No Shoes, No Shirt, You’re Probably Rich (2015) delivers an acerbically cutting indictment either of the way that the wealthy feel entitled to defy rules of social decorum that the less fortunate are compelled to adhere to, or of the “permanent vacation” that the well-off are able to enjoy. His augmentation of the “No Shoes, No Shoes, No Service” sign one sees in many restaurants and public businesses, neatly encapsulates the sentiments many possess with regard to the increasing income inequality that characterizes life in the United States today.

The work of Stephanie Brooks typically adopts institutional or traditional formats in order to subtly subvert their intention and purpose from within.  Her deceptively modest shifts in the language or visual content one expects from the signs, nameplates, and other phenomena that structure our cultural and social experience prompt larger questions about the authoritative systems we have elected to live within.  Untitled (2015) takes the form of a metal charm typically found on a bracelet or a necklace given as a token of affection.  The text, despite its romantic sentiments, goes comedically “too far” in making the message sound sarcastic rather than endearing.  Despite its sweetly innocent appearance, Untitled quietly suggests how even the most loving relationships often possess complexity and a nuanced edginess.

Performance, role-playing, and humor are all key components of Casey Jane Ellison’s multidimensional work. Her practice is characterized by an acerbically post-feminist sensibility and a keenly nuanced appreciation of current popular culture. Her Casey Jane Ellison Personal Trimmer Internal Promo (2015) uses the style and approach featured in television “infomercials” to promote and sell a fictional appliance intended for women to remove unwanted hair from both publicly visible places on the body and those that are more …discreet. Ellison’s humorously frank presentation of the product comically criticizes the awkwardness and difficulty that corporate manufacturers often have in marketing products to women as well as the priorities placed on certain standards of an ideally feminine body image.

Liam Gillick’s Immanent Critique (2015) takes a phrase familiar to anyone who has struggled through the dense philosophical writings of 18th Century German think Immanuel Kant, and reduces it to a momentary thought in the life of a dog. The attribution of human thoughts and behaviors (walking and talking) to animals has been central to animated entertainment and puppetry for decades, yet while these images—static or moving—have largely either been directed towards children, or towards more irreverently “adult” thematics (from R. Crumb’s Fritz the Cat, to The Family Guy’s dog-character Brian Griffin), Gillick’s invocation of this trope is far more sophisticated and deadpan. It softly lampoons the tendency of pet-owners (and dog-owners especially) to bestow emotions and informed responses onto the beloved animals in their care, yet inserts a complicated philosophical notion that would be equally improbable of popping into the average human’s brain, much less that of a canine.

Nina Katchadourian humorously complicates our reverence for art historical tradition in her Lavatory Self-Portraits in the Flemish Style series, part of her larger project entitled “Seat Assignment” (2010-present) where all work is made in-flight. In her portraits, she depicts herself in portraits resembling Dutch paintings of the 15th century using only materials found in airplane bathrooms and working only with her cell phone. This work takes items from a space one furtively and actively spends as little time in as possible and reframes them within a visual context that strongly resonates with a sense of eternal commemoration. Katchadourian wittingly reminds us that regardless of the timelessness to which we aspire, we are all beholden to endure functions and situations that ground us in the here and now (and often with intolerable degrees of discomfort and inconvenienc

Her Sorted Books project has been ongoing since 1993. The works are presented either as photographs of the book clusters that she deliberately selects from a specific collection, or as the actual stacks themselves shown on the shelves of the library they were drawn from. This work was developed as a result of an invitation that Katchadourian received in 2010 from the Delaware Art Museum to work with the books in their M. G. Sawyer Collection of Decorative Bindings—a collection comprising over 2,000 books that were acquired on the basis of their cover design. It provided her with the chance to examine the culture and history of the United States from approximately 1870 to 1920 through literary genres and book design. This selection of books demonstrates the opportunity for humor and comedy to be found in the otherwise administrative act of ordering and categorizing based on the clever knowingness of Katchadourian’s juxtapositions.

English artist Scott King’s Marxist Disco (Cancelled) (2015) has been reconfigured for this presentation in Chicago, shifting the site of this late-70s event from the Lower Refectory, University House, in Sheffield, England, to the International House at the University of Chicago. The notion of a “Marxist “ disco at such an esteemed American institution of higher learning is both humorously plausible—naturally, a disco held by the intellectual elite could only have philosophical undertones—and circumstantially comical given the university’s connection to the “Chicago School” of economics. The notion of a “Marxist Disco” being held at school so strongly associated with a phenomenon known for its emphatic advocacy for a free market economy suggests the strong role played by irony, both in comedy and humor in general and in much of King’s work specifically.

Harland Miller’s work presents an image of what appears to be a “real” classic book for the renowned Penguin publishers’ series of books—a trope that characterizes much of his work—but is instead completely fabricated. As such, the title of the book depicted, “I’ll Never Forget What I Can’t Remember,” possesses a cleverly circular logical wit (suggesting that the already forgotten can’t be further forgotten) while ridiculing the often pretentious and self-aggrandizing titles common used in autobiographies. It also challenges the very notion of the published memoir as a faithful recollection of one’s life, suggesting how many “truths” about one’s own history are often lost and forgotten—either selectively or as a natural result of the limitations of memory.

Scott Reeder’s work frequently incorporates elements of humor in works that vary from abstract painting to feature-length films. New Kinds of Music (2015) presents a list of invented musical “genres” that range from humorous double entendre (“Foreclosed House” describing both a real phenomenon as well as, potentially, a form of “house” music) to combinations of radically different cultural entities or sensibilities for comedic effect (“Drunk Classical,” for example.) Reeder’s work spoofs the impulse of the music industry to invent new labels to better market their content as well as the way that popular music has changed from a collectively unifying experience to one characterized by obsessively minute and marginal differences.

Tony Tasset’s Cup Face (2014) recalls his previous work, Cup, from 1990, in which he tore a spiraling-section from a Styrofoam cup and cast it in bronze. This work proceeds from a similar premise of taking the idle activity of playing with an everyday object—in this case, one that is often encountered in a business meeting, seminar, or other situation characterized by boredom or distraction—and memorializing and elevating it as a serious artistic expression. Tasset’s humorous gesture strikes a nerve based on its immediate familiarity (who among us hasn’t at some point covertly scribbled in a notepad margin or re-fashioned a cup or gum wrapper as a result of “institutional ennui”), while simultaneously underscoring the importance of play, both in the flow of everyday life and as a key part of the artistic process.

Photo Credit: Tom Van Eynde