How do artists use irony, goofiness, satire, and sarcasm in their work? Can an artwork be funny and critical at the same time? Do contemporary artists always take themselves seriously? Art21 documentary Humor explores these questions through the work of Charles Atlas, Eleanor Antin, Raymond Pettibon, Elizabeth Murray, and Walton Ford.
In the opening segment created by Charles Atlas, comedian Margaret Cho takes on the task of educating her audience about the subtleties of humour. Cho ironically tackles antiquated medicine rather than comedy as the subject of her lecture. Surrounded by anatomical diagrams, Cho uses Aristotle’s “Theory of the Four Humors” as her source material to examine and diagnose another’s “humour.”
In her photographic series “The Last Days of Pompeii,” Eleanor Antin comments on the affluent residents of the paradise of La Jolla, California. Antin forms a connection between the great colonial powers of ancient Rome and modern-day America. In her highly theatrical films, photographs, and performance art, Antin draws from childhood play, an infatuation with stand-up and slapstick comedy, and the tragic humour that is part of her Jewish heritage. Antin’s work generates a rich experience for the viewer of both laughter and tears.
Raymond Pettibon’s drawings and paintings pair text and image in provocative and sometimes disconcerting ways, creating a powerful comic art for adults. Pettibon describes his work as a narrative collection, more than just a cartoonish drawing with a punch line and a hearty laugh. The characters of Gumby and Vavoom are recurring motifs in his work, but so are American presidents like Nixon and Reagan. Pettibon finds subjects for satire and social commentary in a broad range of images from popular culture.
In contrast, Elizabeth Murray’s paintings occupy a shaped, colourful canvas with inflated, bulbous forms. Murray seeks to pair conflict and tension in disharmonious relation in her work. Murray has spent a lifetime developing her particular vision of zany and vibrant images, beginning with her time as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago where she was surrounded by great works of art such as the Abstract Expressionist paintings by DeKooning.
A voracious reader of colonial letters and diaries, Walton Ford is fascinated by the fear and wonder of nature that he finds in historical texts. Ford aims for his work to have a polarising effect, one of subsequent attraction and repulsion. Contrasting the romanticised tradition of Audubon with the destructive qualities of existence, Ford merges a dreamlike vision with a frenetic and comic reality.
Art21: Art in the 21st Century is an award-winning series of 24 programmes in which 100 contemporary artists explain their creations, their creative processes, and their perceptions of art. Available for the first time on DVD in the UK, Art21 covers a wide range of artists and contemporary visual art.