Go Ahead, Laugh | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Go Ahead, Laugh 

Three shows at the Cultural Center feature artists who aren't afraid to have a little fun with their subjects.

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Inventing the World

Chicago Cultural Center

Situation Comedy: Humor in Recent Art

Chicago Cultural Center

Preston Jackson

Chicago Cultrual Center

Modernism was a period of manly grandiosity in American art: gritty realist vistas, vast splattered canvases, massive steel cubes, and expansive murals extolling the might and dignity of labor dominated the mid-20th-century visual subconscious. Despite this fixation on the common man, John Q. Public seemed generally unmoved. In the 1960s, pop art introduced Americans to colorful work using familiar images. Fluxus followed up on this in the 70s with performances and interventions outside the gallery context. Since then an increasing number of artists have made use of popular culture and public spaces, producing art clearly aiming for the simple, attractive, and/or lighthearted. Three shows at the Chicago Cultural Center give an overview of art that aims more to entertain than uplift.

Los Carpinteros ("The Carpenters") are three artists who began working in the early 90s in Cuba, during its "special period"--a time of unprecedented hardship in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse. The collective's midcareer retrospective, "Inventing the World," features seamlessly crafted sculptural objects derived from furniture and product design as well as large watercolor sketches of variations on their ideas. In a classic Dada gesture, they transform familiar functional objects by juxtaposing them. The cast-resin sculpture Piscina Olimpica/Olympic Pool (2004), a miniature swimming pool set on sawhorses and lit from within by shifting colored lights, makes a political comment--pools are apparently illegal icons of bourgeois decadence in Castro's Cuba--and also embodies a straightforward pun, the "pool table." Panera/Breadbox (2004) is a lovely wooden model of a cruise missile with roll-top drawers, and Sofa Caliente/Hot Sofa (2001) is a shiny white steel "couch" with stove burners and dials instead of cushions. The combination of verbal and formal gags, domestic design, and menace recalls American contemporaries like Matthew Barney and Charles Ray. Though Los Carpinteros's work tilts at both U.S. cultural hegemony and police-state repression, it seems to take pride in its Cuban context. It's slick, it's glib, but the touch is gentle and the effect is charming.

The multimedia group show "Situation Comedy: Humor in Recent Art" is a more explicit celebration of the contemporary ironic tradition, which some critics have derided as "Conceptual Lite." In this exhibit by 30 prominent artists--some cracking jokes about personal and cultural self-absorption, others about the monotony of modern life through absurdist performance--the political art is the most cutting. In the series "Black Domestic," African-American artist William Pope.L documents his brilliant public performances calling attention to Americans' contempt for and guilt about men of color. One of his photos, Foraging #1 (The Funk), shows Pope.L in bunny ears and white briefs, wearing a look of intense concentration and a sign that says "Mr. Mau Mau" while holding a red toilet brush and a spray bottle reading "Funk." Sometimes, Susan Smith-Pinelo's take on music videos, loops a tight shot of her Lycra-interred breasts jiggling along to the Michael Jackson song "Working Day and Night," her cleavage crowned by the word "Ghetto," spelled out in a glittering necklace. The best verbal gags can be found in David Shrigley's verbose doodles and Erika Rothenberg's gleefully pessimistic church-bulletin sign for a sermon in January 2100 called "Another Century of Progress." Some pieces do fall into the unfunny categories of flat one-liners and inside jokes that require laborious reading of the wall texts. But by and large the show is good fun.

Of these exhibits at the Cultural Center, the most likely crowd-pleaser is Preston Jackson's sculpture installation, "Fresh From Julieanne's Garden," which fills two galleries. His fanciful bronzes suggest allegorical vignettes featuring fictional characters of the antebellum and reconstruction south, usually amply proportioned females who seem heroines, victims, and earth priestesses, accompanied by unusual props, curious animals, and occasional men. Each piece is paired with a short text. While Jackson refers to African sculpture, his work owes its biggest debt to Kara Walker's magical art-nouveau-esque silhouette dramas--though Jackson's fables are less surreal. His grim narratives evoke the pedagogy of Toni Morrison and Alice Walker more than they do Mark Twain's uncanny bleak irony. Many contain blunt generalizations, some obvious, as in "All women . . . experience the same subjugation to the whims of a man's pleasure," and some dangerously patronizing, like "Most people of her race and class knew well the earth and all its beautiful gifts." Jackson's figures offer little beyond a decent degree of competence in portraiture and composition. But his imaginative mini-morality plays are enough to draw most viewers into an hour or so of contemplation.

Tom Friedman's small untitled photo in "Situation Comedy" epitomizes the snide masculine arrogance buried in aspects of these three shows. Picturing a giant hole in a hillside in the shape of a man (or Wile E. Coyote), it appears to refer slightingly to 1970s earthworks artist Ana Mendieta, who would dig out huge silhouettes and often light the area on fire. It seems no accident that about the time that women artists began using the "grand gesture," formerly the province of men, male artists began to take up "minor" female-dominated forms--miniatures, crafts, fiber art--always with tongues firmly in cheek. Fluxus and pop artists opened the door to many things, but among them was the opportunity for men to cynically or unconsciously undercut women artists' newfound authority.

Still, it's heartening to have these largely warm and whimsical offerings on display, encouraging people to come out and laugh at or along with art rather than ignoring it or occasionally snickering at it behind its back.

Inventing the World

When: Through Sun 4/2

Situation Comedy: Humor in Recent Art

When: Through Sun 4/9

Preston Jackson

When: Through Sun 3/26

Where: Chicago Cultural Center, 78 E. Washington

Hours: Mon-Thu 10-7, Fri 10-6, Sat 10-5, Sun 11-5

Price: Free

Info: 312-346-3278

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