Stop Talking by Martha Rich
By day I produce comedy television (recent credits: Michael Moore's TV Nation reboot, Desus & Mero, The President Show), I watch a ton of comedy, and I’ve been thinking about the intersection of comedy and visual art. As I look at ads on the subway, book covers, or my kids’ drawings, I like to think about why they make me laugh.
When I was a kid, I was amazed to learn that high-falutin’ art could be funny. Like, on purpose. Rene Magritte painted a pipe and said, “This is not a pipe.” What!?! What a smart-ass! He did not get kicked out of art class—his stuff is in museums. Salvador Dali made a Lobster Telephone. Marcel Duchamp put a urinal in an art show and calIed it Fountain. But that’s where pee goes! Ha ha ha!
And that’s the point—don't we love art for how it makes us feel? Isn’t it amazing that a visual image can make your body and muscles and spirit have a reaction?
Answer: yes. But humor is subjective, even mysterious. I spend a lot of my workday thinking about why some jokes hit home, how to fix the ones that don’t. I don’t have all the answers, but I enjoy applying comedy logic (perhaps an oxymoron) to art. By taking a digital walk through the 20x200 collection, let me deconstruct some of the ways art is funny to me. And hopefully to others.
Game Board by William Wegman
Sometimes humor (and its close cousin, horror) comes from scenarios where the chain-of-command is out of order. Like when a little kid pretends to teach his 2nd grade class. William Wegman photographs his Weimaraner dogs with the same seriousness we give Oscar-winners and kings. And why not? His dogs are as stoic and wise-looking as any royalty. As a comedy bonus, I can’t help but think about the day he spent showering a dog with shredded paper. I bet that was ridiculous and fun.
I like it a lot by Martha Rich
Martha Rich is funny to me because she stares down the barrel of truth. A dark truth we all feel. She paints a cake and says “I like it alot" [sic]. That sounds like a confession. It has a giant piece missing and I think I know who ate it. We all feel gluttony and maybe shame along with that—but Rich made it into a painting. Yes, cakes are for happy times, but this one looks like a dangerous diabetes bomb—gorgeous and tempting like a porn star, complete with mesmerizing swirly frosting. You know what else Rich painted that’s true? A cat saying “Stop talking”. Cats don’t give a crap about us! But the cat is pretty and the cake is pretty. It’s a fun kind of tension.
Why Can't You Just Be Nice by Trey Speegle
A lot of humor comes from creating tension, then poking a hole in it to let the air out. Trey Speegle’s Why Can’t You Just be Nice works like that for me. His aggro, confrontational, controlling message (even the big capital letters are SHOUTING) is completely undercut by the adorable kittens. How can I be mad? It’s like he’s giving the finger and a big smile at the same time. That’s funny.
Manshroom by Amy Ross
Floral Shade by Leah Giberson
This one’s easy to explain, easy to spot. Like Dali’s Lobster Telephone, Amy Ross’s Manshroom juxtaposes un-alike things in a way that’s so wrong it feels so right. The naughtiness is funny like when you wear a shoe on your head to make a baby laugh (see TOPSY-TURVY WORLD). But now the grownup me looks at this hybrid creature and asks, is this where genetically modified foods will lead us? Or Veganism? Manshroom’s confident stance make me think he’s about to go kick the asses of some elves in a forest (see FUNNY NARRATIVE). I also find Leah Giberson’s Floral Shade to be funny-absurd. A mommy chair and her baby chair having a little bonding sesh in the sun. It’s ridiculous, but it creates a tiny magical world where objects are characters instead of things. The power of art!
Photographer's Dilemma by Tatsuro Kiuchi
This kind of art provokes a story. It’s the trailer and I see the rest of the movie in my head. And because it’s art (not journalism or science) no one is bound by the laws of nature or logic. In Tatsuro Kiuchi’s Photographer’s Dilemma, is the photographer getting sucked into the inner earth by aliens? He’s still gonna take some pictures, of course. Or is he drowning in bills because he chose to be an artist? Both situations are grim, but both funny! Alex Brown’s Untitled (Sad Vader), to me, is Darth Vader on his day off.
Animals I by Craig Kanarick
Obsessive whimsy, to me, is when the artist takes something delightful—like a beloved collection—and really gets into organizing, thinking, dissecting, or just collecting more, until you see a touch of madness too. It’s the sweetness/madness quotient that I enjoy. I imagine Jason Polan drawing one, then two, then three giraffes and it’s so satisfying ... must draw more … and there are 51. I think all artists have OCD to some degree. Craig Kanarick’s Animals I gives gummy candy scientific seriousness. Ditto Lisa Congdon’s perfectly-arranged Day 1: Vintage Erasers. And Kate Bingaman-Burt’s I Bought All of These is also a confession (see STARING DOWN THE BARREL OF TRUTH).
Obviously, there’s a lot of cross-pollination between categories. Obviously, I need a lot of therapy. But in the meantime I’ll keep looking at art that makes me laugh. When Jen Bekman says “Live with art—it’s good for you,” this is what she means.