18 Artists Make a Case for Humor in Art

Artsy Editorial
Dec 19, 2015 2:00PM

Charlie Billingham, Bum 18, 2015. Installation view of “The Funnies” at MOT International, Brussels. Courtesy of MOT International and the artist.

Fresh, wry, and not as easily deconstructed as a joke, art can be an ideal medium for humor. Maybe it’s something’s ugliness or bawdiness that’s funny, or perhaps it’s a work’s outlandish  or irreverent attitude. And sometimes it’s a simple yet complex matter of making the viewer uncomfortable. “The Funnies,” a current exhibition at MOT International in Brussels, is made up of a selection of work by 18 modern and contemporary artists—from Philip Guston, George Condo, and Mel Bochner, to Sarah Lucas, Raymond Pettibon, and Charlie Billingham—who have a particular aptitude for prompting laughter (or furtive smiles) through their art.

For Bochner, language comes in handy in the service of humor. Blah, Blah, Blah (2015) is a red canvas bearing that ubiquitous phrase in white paint. Right away it gives the viewer pause. Is this a painting or a critique of painting? By the time your mind twists around in every direction thinking about the ambivalence of imagery, you’ve forgotten that the phrase means nothing. And that realization usually comes with a bit of a smirk.

Guston’s Door (1981), meanwhile, is a different sort of funny. Sure, there’s a door in the lithograph, but there is also a massive jumble of a figure, legs in the air, twisting, holding onto metal manhole-like discs. Are we to look at the door in hope that someone will burst in and save this tragically misshapen beast? Or is it a red herring? Either way, Guston’s got you in an ironic bind.

Like much of Lucas’s work, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (2014) finds its humor in the unforced exploration of the gaze. The work consists, in part, of two pairs of drooping “breasts” constructed from fluff-filled skin-toned pantyhose and attached to chair backs so the nipples graze the seats.  “Here they are,” Lucas seems to be saying about the disembodied, sausage-like, cartoonish forms.

The Sweet Smell of Excess, 1998
MOT International

More than anything, for the works featured in “The Funnies” the artists have let humor drive substance and form. It’s an easy, approachable entrance into real provocation—and that’s what makes these works so strong.

—Maxwell Williams

The Funnies” is on view at MOT International, Brussels, November 20, 2015-January 30, 2016.

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