Dana Schutz, "Sneeze 2," 2001, Oil on canvas, no dimensions available.
SITUATION COMEDY: HUMOUR IN RECENT ART
Winnipeg Art Gallery
June 10 — Sept 10, 2006
By Amy Karlinsky
Situation Comedy is a surprisingly abstruse and alienating experience. Consisting of over sixty works culled mostly from American sources, the exhibition was curated by Dominic Molon and Michael Rooks for Independent Curators International based in New York. In brief, Situation Comedy is a circulating exhibition with a catalogue, or — to be blunt — it's an exhibition that moves around like mobile capital or cultural imperialism. Its itinerary has already included The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu and the Chicago Cultural Center. After Winnipeg, it moves on to the MacKenzie Art Gallery in Regina and the Museum of Art in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.
There are many problems with this type of exhibition, beginning with a too-broadly brushed theme that tries to be too many things to too many people. In this instance, it's about humour in art. A coherent and valuable exhibition should be more than the sum of its parts; otherwise, why bother stringing things together? This show never transcends its multiple pieces.
The ideas about humour conveyed in the catalogue are overarching and simplistic. We learn that parody, satire, slapstick, practical jokes and so on are useful in breaking down barriers of taste, questioning authority, establishing rapport, and enabling critical engagements of everyday life. But as we move from catalogue rationale to objects on display, the works of art serve merely as so many illustrations. They never expand on how ideas of satire or parody or jokes actually work. The saturation point for any one of these devices never reaches a critical mass. The selection of work is simply not profound enough and the diversity in media ( from painting to video and installation) distracts and prevents an analysis. Instead, viewers get visual musings on a variety of rhetorical devices involving humour.
This is not to suggest that there isn't good work in the show. There is. Once or twice I laughed out loud. I also stared in disbelief, unconvinced. In between these extremes, there is lots of mediocre and arbitrary work, including a piece by Richard Prince, an early practitioner of anti-consumer satire. A show of this scope needs better historical anchors than his Good News Bad News (1989).
For me, the best comedy is the stuff that punches you in the gut, takes your breath away, or catches you unawares. Novelty, the unexpected, timing, audience expectations, and local culture can also be funny, but recognition or a common frame of reference is necessary for satire or parody. The gyrating cheerleader moving and mouthing to the sound of a car alarm in Luis Gisbert's single-channel video Block Watching is funny because of its novel and absurd juxtaposition. Cary Liebowitz's house-paint-on-wood checklist, Please Check One, is funny because of its deadpan list of Seinfieldesque options. William Pope L's photographs from his Black Domestic series use mimicry to startle the viewer into a recognition of racialized precepts. In one photo, the artist appears as a crazed animal foraging for food. Dana Schutz's colourful and small impastoed paintings, such as Sneeze with the extruded paint from the tube as the literal line of snot, is grotesque and fascinating in an anal-expulsive sort of way. Erwin Wurm's Looking for a Bomb 3 is a politically charged absurdity that conflates homo-eroticism with the climate of fear and anxiety. The otherwise highly realistic streetscene photograph shows two male subjects with impassive expressions. One of the men is being "searched" with the searcher's arm, elbow to fingertip, incongruously descending into an open fly. The plots of these diverse cultural objects are worthy of attention and elaboration but not necessarily because they are a variant of situation comedy.
Situation Comedy feels like an unintended bit of propaganda. Yes, there are a few Canadians in this exhibition — Kelly Mark and Rodney Graham — but that is not the point. Winnipeg audiences expect more rigorous curating. Without a wince of irony, I was reminded that after WWII, the United States sent out exhibitions of American art as part of its "aid" to post-war Europe.
My sense of alienation turned to elation upon entering a second comedy-themed exhibition in an adjacent gallery. Organized by Winnipeg Art Gallery curator Mary Reid, Funny Papers, Marvel Comics, Canadian Political Cartoons, and Contemporary Art? draws upon the WAG's permanent collection. Here was a set of Royal Art Lodge member Drue Langois's stuffed dolls, a Jordan Van Sewell clay sculpture, cartoons by Peter Kuch of The Winnipeg Free Press, a Micah Lexier graphic work, and a range of other interesting objects. Their collective visual vocabularies said something about humour as a particular visual form, the institution that had collected them, and the specificity of place. That these artists are more interesting, and that their work is better than many of the artists in Situation Comedy, indicates both a diminishing need for traveling exhibitions from New York, as well as the thriving, sophisticated visual culture in this mid-sized prairie city.
I'm now dreaming of my own funny show — Shawna Dempsey and Lori Millan, KC Adams, Brenna George, Bonnie Marin, Cliff Eyland, Paul Butler, Les Newman and others — and I'll be looking for a venue in Newark. Or is that New York? We are nobody's colonial outpost.