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CENTERPIECE | ART EXHIBIT

What's So Funny?

The comedy at 'Humor in Art' show is there, but it's not of the laugh-out-loud variety.

July 09, 1998|JOSEF WOODARD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

If you're out looking for a good time or a good laugh, the show at the Lankershim Art Center Gallery, brazenly called "Humor in Art," may not be the best bet. You may not even hear courtesy chuckles of stifled laughter in the gallery, but that's no indication of failure. This is not the Laugh Factory.

What you will find are examples of art that deviates from reputedly serious issues without sacrificing seriousness of intent. The point is, the art is not, generally, funny ha-ha. It's more funny hmm--reflections on the little subversions of reality and culture that create humor.

In effect, the 15 artists gathered in this show contemplate the nature of humor, and the ways in which deliberately whimsical materials can find their place in the world of aesthetics. Humor is no stranger to the world of fine art, especially in the movements of the past 25 years. Pop Art, Conceptualism and Postmodernism, for instance, have often adopted a comic stance of glum, deadpan irony.

What this show manages to do is point out the subjectivity of artists' views of humor content. Healthy diversity rules here. Some of the art is funny in an extroverted, broad way, such as John King's self-explanatory "Van Gogh Paints the Flying Nun," a mating of high and pop culture, which extends "the certain mad glee of unorthodoxy," to quote Dick Cavett while interviewing Jimi Hendrix.

From a subtler end of the humor spectrum come the strange, quiet works of Gerald Purdy, perhaps the finest work in the show. He shows cryptic little etchings of rowers seen from odd angles, and bodies falling off ledges, presumably into a blow-softening body of water, but we're not sure. And what we don't know and don't see piques our sense of curiosity. An uneasy sense of humor rises like a not-unpleasant vapor from these images.

From the cartoon corner comes Roberta Loach's "I Don't Know Much About Art but I Know What I Like," a gallery scene with a gaudy nouveau-riche woman and a hand-wringin', pot-bellied, cowboy-hatted tycoon holding a wad of cash.

John August Swanson's serigraph, "Balancing Act," is, by contrast, a flamboyant circus scene that has a more refined sense of levity, and Beauvais Lyons' "Gorillagallus Equichavatus" portrays a mutant, hybrid animal.

J.A. Swanson's "The Inventor" presents a comic strip-like narrative about a crackpot inventor who creates a machine capable of producing some sort of psychedelic imagery a la Peter Max. The punch line is a philosophical nugget suitable for a bumper sticker: "An amateur is someone who doesn't know what can't be done, so he does it."

Cantley O'Donnell's "Temple of Laughter" is funny by default: A set of plans for a structure dedicated to jocularity, it's the most clinical piece in the show. The temple is so serious in its absurdity, you have to laugh, at least inside. Is it a monument to laughter, or its death?

Belle Osipow's "Idiots Delight" is a mixed-media assemblage, a television-like box with a facsimile of Batman, arms flailing as if launching into song. In two dimensions, Osipow's works dwell on surreal juxtapositions, from the Max Ernst-like vision of "Fish in a Bucket" to the gently nutty "Room Service," with its shoe-fitted chair.

The surrealist spirit of irrational cut 'n' paste also shows up in "Architectural Balance," by Jay Rivkin.

The visual elements include scissors, a nude figure and an architectural rendering, tossed together with a giddiness reminiscent of Terry Gilliam's animated paste-ups for Monty Python.

A series of collages by Rivkin dance between the themes of money and art, not necessarily in that order. Shameless punning has an ulterior purpose in a piece such as "Stretching the Budget," in which Mona Lisa's face is rendered elastic.

Rivkin's thematically linked series of pieces, like others in the show, are interspersed between pieces by other artists, creating the effect of running gags in a comedy revue. Ruth Banarer, for instance, shows a series of zany images in which cultural icons are viewed in the disquieting presence of garbage, i.e. "Trash a la Picasso," "Trash a la Chagall," and, for good multicultural measure, "Samurai Trash."

Wayne Kimball wields his own silly wit, saved from eye-rolling excess by its dryness, with the piece "Evidence in Support of the Hypothesis that Ancient Romans Could Not Smell Well." To cut to the chase, the problem with the Roman busts he depicts is a certain noselessness. Further self-evident lunacy is contained in the work called "Portrait of a Man and His Horse: The Horse Having Bitten the Man."

Val Akula likes to go for an in-your-face energy with his caricatured, hyper-close-up portraits. There's a madman at the wheel in "Driving in Boston"; "Looking Into the Future" depicts a google-eyed figure, perhaps in search of meaning; and "Smoking or Non-Smoking" finds contorted faces adrift in clouds of noxious smoke.

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