How do artists use humour? A year ago this appeared to be a simple and original brief for an art exhibition. I had already curated well-received shows on drawing and the word in art. Humour, I foolishly thought, was mostly a soft thing, a sugar pill to make life better. I envisaged sheep on stilts, rocket dog, cartoons of cats and other funny animals. This would be an exhibition to cheer people up in hard times. It would be entertainment like a classic Hollywood film, Errol Flynn slapping his thighs with a grin. But something more interesting and more human has appeared. Humour is the sugar pill that lets us look at life… and death.
A big misconception about art is that it looks to the future, creating the world that will be. It doesn’t. Good art is a looking glass to its time, reflecting back what is important. Picasso painted modern paintings that reflected the angst and change of the 20th century. Hieronymus Bosch did the same for a time where religion, death and the afterlife were never far away. And humour? Without it their work would be almost forgotten.
|A Pessimist in Heaven - Alan Macdonald - oil on linen - 107cm x 119cm|
I asked how do our contemporary artists use humour and what are they reflecting? I ignored Saatchi artists, with their cult of personality and penchant for found objects, for I don’t think that is art. That is art democratised to an extent where anyone can do it, and this is a joke that’s not funny. I was seeking skilled virtuosos on a journey, looking for something profound, and I had to ask myself ‘is that funny?’
First up for the humour test were dogs cobbled together from ladies’ leather boots, called ‘well-heeled bitches’ by the Cornwall based artist David Kemp. Of course these are funny. And a chess-set made from scrap? The queen has three breasts, so Helen Denerley’s chess set goes into the show too.
|Chess set by Helen Denerley|
How about a kinemat? A sculpture that tells a story with mechanical monkeys pulling chains. I won’t reveal the end of its tale, but it had to go in. This work is by Eduard Bersudsky (of Sharmanka Theatre) and he will also lend us his powerful drawings made while surviving Soviet Russia. Much of his work will make you cry and laugh at the same time. He is an important world artist.
The show is looking to be very strong. Is a dead mummified cat and rat (cast in bronze) locked in an eternal ‘Dance of Death’ funny? It’s like a twisted but beautiful children’s tale and I had to trust my instinct and admit that I found it very amusing, in a troubling way.
And then I needed painters. Is a painting in the style of a Dutch master but with surreal undercurrents funny? It can be. The first paintings into the show were work by Alan Macdonald and I’ve put his oil of ‘A Pessimist in Hell’ onto the invitation. Pop–art and its newer sister Pop-Surrealism are by their nature amusing. To take a popular icon and change it in a way that is fun for the artist has to be good. Michael Forbes’ work went into the show. In the catalogue I put his piece where Elvis, a Burger King crown, and a skull are fused together. Another painting of Elvis, by Henry Fraser, became available and that had to go into the show too.
When people think of humour in art, they think of cartoons. Immediately, the incredible work of young artist Robert Powell sprung to mind. They’re not cartoons, but intricate ink drawings and etchings that take on the tradition of James Gillray and run with it, updating it for our century. We couldn’t miss out on the much-missed George Wyllie who died last year, so we will have some of his etchings too.
|The Learning Machine - Robert Powell - 20cm x 15cm|
Blimey, I thought, looking at all the images and names on my desktop, that’s a lot of work by some of the most interesting artists around. This subject – the Art of Humour – has brought together a band of artist and a bounty of art that is far from just a sugar pill. It had become a unique collection of work, by artists that will be remembered. Humour filtered out something very special, an under-rated tool in the armoury of an artist. If you want to find out exactly what it can do, you will have to come to the exhibition and let the works tell their own funny stories.