One almost always thinks of humorous art in a detrimental sense. Humorous art, usually striving for seriousness, often appears laughable in the manner of an elderly drunk dropping his pants in public. Art and absurdity have a fraught relationship for artists who spend so much of our careers trying terribly hard to be taken seriously. We tend to funnel what gravitas we can muster (not much, in the U.S. at least) into our work, just to have something to grab onto that does not double as somebody’s idea of a joke. Historically, humor has not been a popular hook for fine artists, although Dada, Pop Art and Postmodernism take up the cause. The Dada movement, maybe the best example, used humor as a tool of dissent. Fortunately, a few among us understand what a great exploration of culture and subject humor can foster.
Last month Ryan Standfest, a Detroit-based artist whose work mines the profound root of failure, curated an exhibition at the Paint Creek Center for the Arts in Rochester, Michigan, Eye Teeth: A Satire on the American Way of Life. As a medium for political commentary, humor perfectly tips such work away from being propaganda, sapping it of its ideology while holding up a deceptively light-hearted critique. Eye Teeth offered coloring books for urban children (featuring murder and house fire scenes) and Motor City Panhandler All Stars trading cards by Stephen Schudlich. Each engaged the theme of urban blight (Detroit sees a lot of art about that) in a way no less disturbing for being hilarious. The show revealed how powerful poking fun at heinous political and social institutions including war, instant celebrity, and alcoholism can be when elevated to the craft and subtlety of really good art. The show stood as an accurate manifestation of a passage in Standfest’s artist statement describing his own work, “They present a model of flawed, decentralized consciousness – an incongruous and absurd universe resulting from misperception.”
Misperception can uncover many truths, especially in the world of socially lauded standards of beauty and physical perfection. Along with Standfest, Michelle Morris, another Detroit-based artist utilizes humor in the world of absurd societal norms. With a fascination for media and its various overlapping discourses, Morris constructs collages of dismembered clippings from weight-lifting magazines, hyper-articulated biceps, abs and other oily, tanned male body parts at their bulkiest. Reassembled seemingly at random in the finished work, the body parts become twisted, many-limbed, mutant life forms that manage to be both seductive and grotesque. Morris aims to create beautiful work that dissects beauty, and the kernel of her interest in physical beauty lies in shame. The extremes people willingly endure in the pursuit of their idea of perfection find root, in Morris’ work, from shame of the natural body. The bloated, energetic collage forms represent obsession with arbitrary and questionable ideals as well as the absurd vanity involved. Striking a fine balance in her work, Morris consciously presents a virile but deeply skewed confidence as she simultaneously takes pride in its beauty while critiquing it. The seriousness with which the work presents itself increases its sly sense of humor.
Clara DeGalan is an artist and writer working on an MFA at Wayne State University in Detroit. View more articles by Clara DeGalan.