Was Art Week Miami Joking?

Thursday, December 21, 2017

It was early in Art Basel Miami Week that I saw a Jeff Koons’ Balloon Dog on a platform way above the ground floor of the SLS Hotel on Collins. Or was it? A closer look showed that the canine was going at it doggy-style with Keith Haring’s equally iconic hound.

I found that this was the work of another artist, Michael Benisty, and it was called When Balloon Dog Meets Keith Haring Dog … Love Happens, suggesting that it had been lawyer-proofed.

It was an appropriate appetizer for an art week offering so much parody, satire, and humor, from the subtle and wryly ironical to the clownish, deliberately unfunny, and purposefully stoopid, that it seemed the kind of signal of a shift in the cultural weather that trawling an art fair can reveal. Which is that it’s high time for art to be funny again.

 Postmasters, the New York gallery, for instance, had a deftly crumpled poster by William Powhida asking WHAT THE FUCK IS THE ART WORLD? Amongst the supplied answers are “nation of sheep, owned by pigs, ruled by wolves” and NEVER QUITE WHAT YOU HOPED FOR. Also at Postmasters was the work of Canyon Castator, an LA artist in his late 20s, whose canvases pulse with lumpen-cartoon narratives wrought with immense digital finesse.

Laurina Paperina, an artist with Martina’s Gallery in Seregno, Italy, similarly uses traditional comic lore but for darker purposes, as when a King Kong stands upon the White House, Beavis and Butthead sink into quicksand and the skeleton of Snoopy lies atop his red kennel watched by a single, dolefully cute bird. There was work by Sean Huckins in the spae of the San Francisco gallery, Modernism, at Art Miami.  Huckins, a Colorado artist, makes fastitious copies of 19th Century paintings or photographs, upon which he superimposes wordage lifted from social media. Look in the gallery above for Raftsman Playing Cards, an 1847 piece by George Caleb Bingham, plus a sprightly text. 

The Galerie Internationale was at Untitled. Well, that, more accurately, is where the gallery was not, because their space was wholly empty. I met the director, Simon Asencio, and asked where they were based

“We are not based anywhere. But mostly Europe,” he said.

So what were they, um, doing at the fair. He whisked out a list of “immaterial performances” and pointed out one devoted to humor.

How does that work?

“You answer a questionnaire … it goes to the artist,” he said, adding that the artist then created a joke for the question answerer.

Well, I can always use a new joke and ordered one.

I’m still waiting but I am hopeful that it will be tremendously good.

So I wandered the fairs and while it would not be accurate to say that there were laughs galore, there were many more than usual. In, for instance, the work of Ryan Travis Christian, a Chicago artist referencing Ub Iwerks, George Condo and the Hairy Who as influences, who was at the Chicago gallery, Western Exhibitions, and Allison Zuckerman at New York’s Kravets/Wehby Gallery; she also had a full-on show at the Rubell Family Collection.

Also, this may be just a personal perspective, but when there’s some humor around just about anything can look a bit funny. Sculpture particularly so. Such as Jaime Angelopoulos, who was at the Toronto gallery, MKG127, and Hirosuke Yabe, who was with the Cindy Rucker Gallery in New York. Their work seems to have a comic aspect. Was the comedy intended? “It’s definitely intentional,” Cindy Rucker says.

There have always been strong artists in America trafficking in humor – Red Grooms and Peter Saul come instantly to mind –  but the relationship of art to humor has always been iffy. Duchamp observed in a 1960 interview, “Humor was a sort of savior so to speak because, before, art was such a serious thing, so pontifical that I was very happy when I discovered I could introduce humor into it. And that was truly a period of discovery.”

Chicago was always friendly to humor, less so the New York art world, as Francesco Vezzoli discovered when he brought Trailer for a Remake to Gore Vidal’s Caligula to the 2006 Whitney Biennial six months after he had shown it at the Venice Biennale. He told me that in Venice the audience was falling around laughing but the culturati in the Whitney were as respectful as if they had been in a church. “And that’s when I realized that when an American audience goes to a museum they do not expect to laugh. They think that that is a wrong reaction to have in a cultural realm,” he said.

So why do I sense a possible break in the cultural weather-pattern? Three reasons. The continuing attrition of the Internet being one, and our demanding, bewildering political times are another. And the third?  There’s one thing that neither AI programs using the most sophisticated algorithms nor a whole village of hyper-trained Chinese artists can replicate.

A killer joke.


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