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It's OK for serious art to be funny

August 15, 2010|Sharon Mizota

Stored in a secure facility in the Cayman Islands, Mika Rottenberg's new sculpture will be sold in shares to collectors who have never seen it in person. The only public image of the work features a smiling New York art dealer, Mary Boone, holding the precious object: a raggedy cube made of raw latex, rotting lettuce and tins of blush.

Whether you think this arrangement is brilliant or ridiculous probably depends on how you feel about the contemporary art market. Rottenberg, named one of the 10 most promising New York artists by New York magazine in 2007, is interested in the mysterious mechanisms by which art's value is created. "Something that could look like nothing could be worth millions of dollars," she says. "I think that's fascinating."

Her video installation "Squeeze," currently on view at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, imagines the production of the ungainly art object as a somewhat magical process. Combining footage of real workers in the lettuce and rubber industries with staged shots of claustrophobic spaces in which women perform repetitive but seemingly unrelated tasks -- mashing, scraping, massaging -- the piece engages serious issues of labor, gender and globalization. It is also surprisingly funny.

In one sequence, field laborers insert their arms into holes in the ground; miraculously, the arms emerge in a room where they are massaged by another set of women. Nearby, the naked rear ends of other workers protrude through openings in a wall, cooled by sprays of mist.

The show is one of several current exhibitions that use humor to raise questions about the relationship -- whether estranged or entangled -- between art and everyday life. John Baldessari's wry twists on artistic convention are a recurring theme in his retrospective at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Hugh Brown's imitations of works by famous artists are on view at Robert Berman Gallery and video artist Ryan Trecartin's latest media-addled vignettes recently arrived at the Museum of Contemporary Art's Pacific Design Center gallery.

Of course, humor is subjective, and not all of these artists are trying to be funny. In fact, artworks that go for easy laughs are often dismissed as superficial entertainment -- or worse, simple mockery.

Rottenberg, 34, insists she is not trying to make fun of Boone or any of the workers and performers who participate in her videos. "Humor is just a way to help digest things," says Rottenberg, who uses it to deal with what she sees as harsh realities beyond her control. "It's like either I'm going to cry or I'm going to laugh."

No stranger himself to the thoughtful side of funny, Baldessari, 79, has been gently turning artistic and popular culture on its head since the 1960s. "The humor found in Baldessari's work stems from the way in which he calls attention to absurdities that already exist," writes LACMA curator Leslie Jones in an e-mail. One example is the painting "Tips for Artists Who Want to Sell" from 1966-68, in which Baldessari simply transposed a found text onto a canvas. The text offers advice on which colors and subjects artists should use to maximize sales of their work. "Baldessari highlights the illogical notion that paintings of bulls or roosters will sell better than paintings of cows," writes Jones. "That's funny to us, but the person who wrote it was probably dead serious."

The humor in such works depends on a bit of inside knowledge -- that the text was appropriated, not written by Baldessari. While the painting exposes the ridiculousness of the original text, it also marks a boundary between those who know and those who don't.

Brown, another Los Angeles artist, takes this idea of the inside joke to elaborate extremes. His detailed works riff on the recognizable styles of famous artists such as Jackson Pollock, Henri Matisse and, yes, John Baldessari, with a single, signature difference: each piece includes a reference to a chain saw.

An avid collector of anything having to do with chain saws -- he owns more than 150 chain saw toys -- the 56-year-old artist sees the works less as a love letter to power tools than as an hommage to the art he loves. To that end, he does extensive research into the artists he mimics: He studied footage of Pollock making his drip paintings before he attempted his own version and employed the same neon fabricator as Bruce Nauman. "If one of those artists had actually done them, it would look just like that," he says of his creations -- except of course, for the chain saw.

Brown sees the ubiquitous power tool as a non sequitur that might prompt people to question the authenticity of the works. "I almost want them to be a little bit confusing, like you weren't sure what you just saw," he says.

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