La Jolla, California
Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In made television history in the late 1960s and early 1970s by translating the social and political upheavals of those years into sketch comedy. Deliberately invoking the TV program, “Laugh-In: Art, Comedy, Performance,” assembled by MCASD’s associate curator Jill Dawsey, ostensibly examined humor’s function as a social corrective. Unfortunately, its focus never quite crystallized.
With pieces by 20 widely exhibited artists, some working as collaborators, the show ranged from art that addressed the subject of comedy to art that was itself comical. The former category included The People v. Bruce (parrhesia), 2011, an installation by Eric Garduno and Matthew Rana that looks at First Amendment rights in the context of Lenny Bruce’s 1964 trial on obscenity charges. Featuring a cardboard judge’s bench lit with theater spots, it also incorporates photo documentation of work by Bruce, Allen Ginsberg, and Dick Gregory, among others.
No one else so directly paid homage to a moment in comedic history, but references to specific comics abounded in the show. A strong case in point: Edgar Arceneaux’s The Alchemy of Comedy . . . Stupid (2006), a nine-channel video installation—paired here with a handsome drawing by Arceneaux of Richard Pryor—that tracks a recent performance by comedian David Alan Grier.
Works with a humorous component included Stanya Kahn’s video of herself wandering the streets of Los Angeles in a foam penis costume. Michael Smith was the “old master” in this regard. In his video Famous Quotes from Art History (2001/03), he poses as an urbane guide to modern art and reads Matisse’s famed lines about dreaming of an art “something like a good armchair” from an armchair.
If the show didn’t cohere, at least its eclecticism was dynamic. Such energy was welcome at a museum whose recent exhibitions have largely displayed a “play it safe” sensibility.
A version of this story originally appeared in the May 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 120.