Laughing Matters

Curated by Karen Indeck

Artists: John Baldessari, Glen Baxter, Marcel Broodthaers, M. W. Burns, Steven Gianakos, Ilona Granet, Nancy Hild, Klindt Houlberg, David Ireland, Barbara Kruger, Mike Lash, Donald Lipski, Tony Mendoza, Joel Otterson, Raymond Pettibon, Erika Rothenberg, Julie Wachtel, Chris Ware, William Wegman, John Wesley, Sarah Whipple, and Andy Yoder

Freud, dismantling the machinery of the joke, proposed that humor is an effect produced by the crossing of two incompatible axes of meaning. One's expectations, set in motion by a premise, are disrupted by a response that is inconsistent with that which is anticipated. Recognition of a new logic that binds these disjunctions results in a sense of triumph, which is, in turn, translated into laughter. Similarly in Laughing Matters, the divergent axes spun by the artists in this exhibit include the collision of "high-art painting" with popular culture, the clashing of sign and meaning, and a weird and effective mixture of materials. Caught within these incongruities are a multitude of concerns, ranging from a consideration of the fugitive workings of social systems to the nature of culture. From delicate irony to eccentric bombast, the artists in Laughing Matters provide the viewer with both a laugh and a pause.

For painters Julie Wachtel, Steven Gianakos, John Wesley, and Nancy Hild, disjunction of form serves as the latent content of paintings in which an initial dopey cartoon appeal masks a quiet provocation. Wachtel's dizzy Disney gnome is coupled with photographic images of riot police and a religious procession, producing a discomfort akin to that of the TV viewer jerked from news to commercial. As with Gianakos' startled puppet staring blankly from between his spruce, confident (surely adoptive?) parents, Wachtel raises questions of identification, both of painter and viewer, and the demise of the heroic subject. John Wesley's Bumstead Homeless presents the familiar middle-class family man, still smartly dressed, snoring by a lamp-post, while Nancy Hild, maintaining the posture of trompe-l'oeil painting, chooses a rubber chicken as still-life subject.

The divergent axes spun by the artists in this exhibit include the collision of "high-art painting" with popular culture, the clashing of sign and meaning, and a weird and effective mixture of materials.

Donald Lipski and Sarah Whipple give minimal sculpture a run for its money. Overtly minimal in allowing their materials to speak for themselves, the work is covertly mimetic with Whipple ending seriality, significantly, at two, and Lipski letting the form of his elegant wall piece resonate with the previous incarnation of his raw materials—a conveyor belt from a perfume factory.

The language of advertising and forms from popular culture are the vehicle, and in some cases the issue, in the work of another group of artists. Ilona Granet, Barbara Kruger, and Erika Rothenberg all use the persuasive voice of anonymous authority to expose cultural misapprehensions. Granet's jaunty street sign, Kruger's double-edged photograph, and Rothenberg's lead balloon greeting cards insert a feminist voice into mainstream media. Raymond Pettibon reduces philosophy to the banal cry of a swooning cartoon figure, while Klindt Houlberg's folk art genitalia are pressed into service as His 'n Hers items.

Art, or the artworld, is the subject of work by John Baldessari, Marcel Broodthaers, and William Wegman. Baldessari's archetypically conceptual piece from 1971 was initially inscribed on gallery walls by students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design according to the artist's telephoned instructions. Broodthaer's history of art addresses issues of commodification while Wegman's dog, Faye Ray, moves into position for her museum portrait.

Some of the artists in Laughing Matters present work whose eccentric character puts an idiosyncratic slant on the otherwise familiar, as can be seen in M. W.Burns' frantic multifamily birdhouse and Mike Lash's drawing on found material. David Ireland's sculpture made of wadded wallpaper sitting on a stool is given the black velvet sunshade, which in some parts of Africa signifies the presence of dignitaries. Chris Ware manipulates a traditional strip cartoon format, while Glen Baxter joins cartoon techniques to painting. Similarly, Joel Otterson's Muscle Man Fruit Compote is meticulously crafted out of plumber's copper tubing and handfuls of gew-gaws. And visual puns—with punch—are present in Andy Yoder's Home Wrecker and Tony Mendoza's Working Mother.

If brevity is the soul of wit, then a ponderous articulation of the mechanics of a joke is no fun. Fortunately, the works in Laughing Matters elude dissection, remaining thoughtfully humorous—or seriously funny.