“I don’t know if this is fun.” This came as a mumble from one of the stand-up comics performing to a tough crowd on the opening night of WE ARE: Chelsea Haines and Eriola Pira, an exhibition at NURTUREart that, in the words of the eponymous curators, “set out to explore, create and appreciate comedy as a form and an attitude.” The guy wasn’t exactly getting booed, but just a few minutes on stage had taught him that an art opening, despite a similar concentration of drunken individuals, is no comedy club.
The show sought to examine “concrete comedy,” a term invented by artist David Robbins to identify physical or object-based humor. Tackling a tradition that seems, confusingly, to include comics from Andy Kaufman to Buster Keaton (who made an appearance via DVD) is a tall order, and gallery-goers regularly see elements of it in figures like Rachel Harrison or even Ryan Trecartin. What was different about this show, which ran for three days as part of NURTUREart’s WE ARE series, organized by gallery director Marco Antonini, was the divide it highlighted between the mostly narrative standup of the opening night’s public program (there were more than a dozen comics on the roster), and the object-based work in the exhibition. Though both were intriguing, they seemed at odds, and the question emerged:
What does the specific notion of “concreteness” add to our understanding of contemporary art, or of comedy?
It might have something to do with the idea of practical use – something that both comedy and art have long been adept at subverting. For example, in this show, Stephen Truax – who also serves as BushwickBK’s art editor – offered Stacked Canvases arranged face-down on the floor, functionally mute yet seeming to radiate an obscure curatorial/artistic “meaning.” Scott Lawrence’s Pants Sculpture IV and Pants Sculpture VII were exactly what they sound like: brightly colored trousers with flat wood inserts, arranged in graceful and impossible poses, with knees bent backward or zigzagged. Here, the most utilitarian of garments was made fanciful. Bulgarian artist Anton Terziev’s Modern Implements of Labor was a handsaw with Halloween-style plastic teeth added along its metal serrations, rendering this plainly useful object suddenly functional in a metaphorical sense: biting wit, anyone?
Terziev’s piece, with its blurring of the actual and the imaginary, is perhaps the most compelling, given the show’s curatorial conceit. Haines and Pira are both invested in social practice; here, they invited visitors to add their own comedic objects or videos to the exhibition, and considered the opening night’s performances open mic. In a longer-running show, the participatory element might have been further developed, given the context of artworks that play with interpretations of use. Locating the roles of metaphor and myth-making within social projects is often difficult, but all the more valuable because of this; humor’s ability to act as a bridge between form and function is under-examined territory. WE ARE: Chelsea Haines and Eriola Pira hints at what the art context might offer comedy: a way to make that link visible.
NURTUREart’s WE ARE: series continues throughout the summer, opening a new exhibition every Friday night. WE ARE: Rachel Budde opens Friday, August 12, from 7 to 10pm. NURTUREart is open Thursday – Monday, 12 – 6 PM.