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What's So Funny at the Cultural Center?

By Justin Sondak in Arts & Entertainment on Feb 17, 2006 8:46PM

An exhibit that makes you laugh sounds good enough. But we grew skeptical about the Chicago Cultural Center’s Situation Comedy: Humor in Recent Art, after reading this description from Cultural Affairs’ monthly e-newsletter:

These works employ various strategies involving text and image using parody, satire, slapstick and practical jokes to inject humor into the normally staid art environment.

We dreaded the prospect of seeing mildly funny work paired with belabored explanations draining what little humor the work had in the first place, written by those same folks who made the art environment so staid. Fans of TV sitcoms and comedy clubs know too well that any good joke dies in the wrong hands.

comedyesteem.jpgSo we checked it out and discovered, thankfully, this exhibit was assembled with a lighter touch. We didn’t laugh hysterically, but we weren’t groaning much either. In fact, the best thing about this collection is its breadth, exploring clever wordplay and broad physical humor (our favorites) along with the surreal, the subversive and the just plain dumb. Cary Liebowitz cleverly mocks the self-help culture (at left). Olav Westphalen and David Shrigley’s crude, playful drawings provoke the double take for a better payoff (i.e. Westphalen’s “Big Book of Book Knowledge”). Erika Rothenberg’s fake church bulletin board is subtle and brilliant. Erwin Wurm’s "Looking for a Bomb" series is modern paranoia tempered by slapstick. Film director and master of camp John Waters pokes our preconceptions of 50s and 60s pop culture in his "Self-Portrait" and fictional ad for Marfa, TX (“the Jonestown of Minimalism”).

Then there’s the work more about humor than it is humorous. Entering the gallery, you’re assaulted by an annoying car alarm mouthed on video by an overeager cheerleader in Luis Gispert’s "Block Watching." Certainly meets the definition of comedy, but it’s overlong and not all that funny. Worse yet is Laura Nova’s comedy-club-as-karaoke-bar installation piece inviting anyone to read jokes and groan-inducing punch lines off a screen. Andy Warhol didn’t inspire too many belly laughs, but he somehow inspired Dave Muller’s drawing of the “peeing Calvin” figure on his Oxidation Paintings poster and Peter Lund’s 17-minute sequence of mundane comic pratfalls.

lamano.jpgGood, effective humor doesn’t have to be announced. It’s funny or it’s not. The Carpinteros, a Cuban artist collective featured in the adjacent gallery, incorporates sly humor as effectively as the Humor people. They capture the tension of an evolving Cuban culture by placing hidden meanings in everyday objects—picture a stovetop on your sofa or a street grid on your sandals. The woodwork is so fantastic in works like "The Creative Hand" (at right) that you’re really tempted to cop a feel. Watching visitors try to negotiate with gallery security, now that’s good comedy.

Situation Comedy: Humor in Recent Art is at the Chicago Cultural Center, Exhibit Hall, 4th floor, through April 9, and Los Carpinteros: Inventing the World/Inventar el mundo is at the Chicago Cultural Center, Yates Gallery, 4th floor, through April 2. Admission to each is free. If you go this Sunday, stick around for the free “Day of Opera,” 1-5pm throughout the building. More information at 312-744-6630.

Images via the Dept. of Cultural Affairs.