Strip District exhibit examines humor in art
Humor has long been fodder for the creation of artwork. One only need think back to the work of late 18th- and early 19th-century English satirists James Gillray, George Cruikshank or Thomas Rowlandson, or the most famous of the 19th-century French caricaturists and social commentators, Honore Daumier.
But in today's art and craft worlds, humor can be far more reaching. Today's artists tend to make fun, through their work, of everything imaginable, whether it be politics, popular culture or universal truths.
“An artist's use of wit definitely covers a lot more topics these days than in the past,” says Brigitte Martin, author of “Humor in Craft.” “Poking fun at politicians has been around forever, and artists also still like to comment on animals, human behavior and relationship issues.
“What I found new and interesting though is the use of humor to convey an artist's feelings about really serious topics, such as death and war for instance. Humorous elements help the viewer to take a closer look and enjoy the work on different levels without being turned off in advance by the darkness and seriousness of it all.”
Martin, who lives in Mt. Lebanon, is the creator and editor of crafthaus (www.crafthaus.ning.com), a social network and online community for professional craft artists worldwide. She regularly contributes blogs and articles for the website, and helps artists connect across media and national boundaries.
In addition to writing a recently published book on the subject, Martin has organized an exhibit of the same title, “Humor in Craft,” featuring amusing works by 32 artists from the United States and abroad. It opened recently at Society for Contemporary Craft in the Strip District, and, as visitors there will find, there's little in this exhibit that won't cause you to giggle, guffaw, or at least crack a smile.
For example, a life-size rear-end of a hippopotamus carefully crafted by Alanna DeRocchi of Helena, Mont., is sure to grab attention, with its wrinkled, warty flesh held high on wooden scaffolding, as if a pedestal, in the piece “Hippopotamus” (2010).
Manhattan-based stained-glass artist Joseph Cavalieri mines popular culture with his darkly humorous stained-glass piece “La Morte al Campo Giochi (The Death in the Playground)” (2009) in which Maggie and Marge of “The Simpsons” are laid to rest, this time, the artist imagines, “for real.”
And what would a show about humor be if there wasn't some political satire? That's where Russel Biles of Greenville, S.C., comes in. His piece “Nobody” (2009) features Sarah Palin and Michelle Obama flanking an undocumented worker from a chicken processing plant in the bleachers at a youth soccer field. Inspired by a newspaper photo, the work “speaks to our culture's inhumanity toward people who exist outside of our society,” reads the artist's statement.
One of Martin's favorite pieces in the exhibit is “House on Elm Street” (2010) by Chicago artist Jason Hawk. The piece, Martin says, outlines a narrative “certain to be interpreted differently by everyone who views it.”
“One of the most compelling aspects of art — true meaning — lies in the psyche of the viewer. The narrative depicted here is decidedly darker than one might guess,” Martin says. “Years ago, Jason was homeless, and this abandoned house became his stronghold. ‘House on Elm' was fabricated after Jason had found steady living quarters again, and it came together organically from memories of the actual building. This piece brought Jason closure to that time in his life, with the symbolic gesture of him pushing it from the pedestal.”
Martin says it is simply human nature to be lighthearted in times of peril, and, for artists, it is perfectly natural to express that joy and irreverence through their art or craft.
“The only difference is that the topic of humor has never been an academic topic, meaning it wasn't officially discussed in art schools and in the craft field as a sanctioned and acceptable possibility of expression,” Martin says. “Subsequently, artists were often made to feel that if they incorporated humorous elements into their work they could not at the same time be ‘serious artists.' ”
“Personally, I find this to be nonsense,” she says. “The level of ‘serious' craftsmanship and artistic expression in my book proves that to be completely wrong. ‘Humor in Craft' is the first book that takes on the role of humor in craft making, and I am happy to report that various art schools have purchased the book for their libraries.
“I have a hunch that the topic will soon become an accepted form of expression in the art and craft world which, of course, is good news for all of us. Who doesn't like a good laugh every now and then?”
Kurt Shaw is the art critic for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.