Monday, October 16, 2006

Situation Comedy: Humor [sic] in Recent Art

The MacKenzie Art Gallery
October 7, 2006 to January 1, 2007
Organized by Independent Curators International (iCI), New York
Curated by Dominic Molon and Michael Rooks

Situation Comedy: Humor [sic] in Recent Art is a deftly-titled exhibition currently at the MacKenzie Art Gallery. It is a large group show put together by iCI of New York and incorporating various media, although one might not be blamed for noticing that this touring, American show of works by contemporary artists boasts a larger proportion of video- and media-based work than one is accustomed to seeing at the MacK. In this show the televised image, it seems, is everywhere--but this is not the only reason that “Situation Comedy” is appropriate as a moniker.

The curators’ focus here is clearly humour--a predominantly adolescent humour to which I’ll return later--although it employs also the pretense of academia, where any title not consisting of the formula “Clever Pun: Didactic Explanation of Actual Subject” is almost unthinkable. Indeed, some of the works included here are genuinely funny, which, I suspect, is not exactly the same as being “humourous,” if for no other reason than because people say “humourous” when they want to sound fancier than when they say “funny.” The point is that art-world pomposity is not gone from this show, it is merely thinly-veiled as proletarian comedy.

The popularization of art may seem an admirable objective. The logic goes like this: if more people attend a gallery, then more corporate and governmental spending will be allocated to cultural (gallery-based) institutions, which will in turn be able to afford to bring in larger shows and further expand collections, thereby providing needed sustenance to greater numbers of artists. The trouble with this contract of reason is that apparently no one has bothered to tell the cultural funders about it. For even though gallery attendance in general has been steadily on the increase, the Federal Government recently announced massive cuts to the cultural sector, including the Museum Assistance Program--a facet of cultural spending which funds large, crowd-pleasing institutions like the MacKenzie Art Gallery. It would seem, then, that government views popularity among a mass audience as a sign of independence and sustainability. “If you’re so popular,” as it were, “then why do you need our money?”

Nevertheless, like a curatorial Dr. Faustus, this show’s organizers seek to play both sides against the middle in an effort to appeal to existing and potential gallery-goers alike. I heard a number of viewers--"art-savvy" and otherwise--claim that it was great to see that art could be entertaining. It is curious that it takes a show based on humour--rather than fear, romance, etc.--to prove that art can “entertain.” Furthermore, this transmogrification of art into entertainment begs a necessary question: does art even work as entertainment, or is entertainment-art merely the shadow thereof; the cheap imitator; the fashionista who is unaware that the punks she seeks so desperately to emulate as she slums it with her $500 plaid pants are, in fact, ridiculing her?

Take, for instance, Block Watching, one of the exhibited works by Luis Gispert. A video work, it shows a woman not unlike a Fly Girl from “In Living Color”--itself a showcase of false costuming and the pretense of hip-hop--in an odd cheerleader/schoolgirl outfit accessorized with large gold chains and assorted jewelry. She stands in front of a green wall, picking at her artificial nails and grimacing until a car alarm begins to sound. She suddenly mimes as though the sound were coming from her; she is lip-synching with the alarm. This continues for a time as she performs a cartoonish dance which, along with the lip-synching, ceases when the alarm ends. She grimaces some more, pouts, and the performance begins again.

Gispert claims to be a hip-hop artist, though I’m not sure what that means. But there is a critique that is barely hinted at by this work, a critique of the objectification of women so prevalent in the mainstream of hip-hop culture (disagree if you want to--exceptions like Queen Latifah and Dead Prez only prove the rule). This critique remains a vague suggestion on the periphery of the work and even if one is looking for it, it remains elusive. In fact, the work doesn’t interrogate this tendency within the culture it samples, but seems instead to celebrate it.

As Jullian Stallabrass described the work of the Young British Artists, it "puts opposing elements into unresolved opposition."

And if the tone of Block Watching is irresponsible, the tone of the work which became colloquially-known as Discoboobs, Gispert’s other work included in the show, borders on the exploitative. The piece is in video and consists of a closeup of a pair of breasts in a white shirt. The breasts move--or more accurately they are moved by an unseen manipulator--to the beat of the disco music which plays over the headphones attached to the monitor. If there is cleverness in this work or in Block Watching, it is because it seems as though they were designed to attract the yet-untapped contemporary art gallery market of 13-year-old boys. Regardless of their age, the point of this work seems to be that viewers can laugh at the silly woman singing along with the car, or the silly tits “dancing” to the disco.

The exhibition is not without its highlights. Bob and Roberta Smith’s carnivalesque, text-based paintings instruct viewers to “Make your own damn art,” and caution us that “Artists Ruin It For Everybody”. It can only be assumed, because of the bluntness of their gesture, that they recognize the irony inherent in making art as a refutation of the status of art. It is a further irony--likely also intentional--that these works are included in a large, international touring exhibition.

And so the curators of Situation Comedy have tried to assemble and exhibit work which is both art and entertainment, in an effort to sit between these and reap the benefits--mass appeal and high-culture cachet--of both; in theory, the effete will be distracted by the illusion of street-level, vulgar authenticity, and the commoner will be satisfied that they have found art that is recognizable and not totally unlike an episode of South Park or The Simpsons (with the exception, likely unnoticed, that these latter two are far more effective in their subversion than any gallery exhibition).

If Faustus is their model, then perhaps they did not finish the story; I don’t remember exactly how things went for the Doctor, but I don’t recall them ending well.


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