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Art & Art History

Laughing Matters

Monday, August 23, 1993–Saturday, September 18, 1993

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Artists: John Baldessari, Glen Baxter, Marcel Broodthaers, M. W. Burns, Steven Gianakos, Ilona Granet, Nancy Hild, Klindt Houlberg, David Ireland, Barbara Kruger, Mike Lash, Donald Lipski, Tony Mendoza, Joel Otterson, Raymond Pettibon, Erika Rothenberg, Julie Wachtel, Chris Ware, William Wegman, John Wesley, Sarah Whipple, and Andy Yoder

Freud, dismantling the machinery of the joke, proposed that humor is an effect produced by the crossing of two incompatible axes of meaning. One’s expectations, set in motion by a premise, are disrupted by a response that is inconsistent with that which is anticipated. Recognition of a new logic that binds these disjunctions results in a sense of triumph, which is, in turn, translated into laughter. Similarly in Laughing Matters, the divergent axes spun by the artists in this exhibit include the collision of “high-art painting” with popular culture, the clashing of sign and meaning, and a weird and effective mixture of materials. Caught within these incongruities are a multitude of concerns, ranging from a consideration of the fugitive workings of social systems to the nature of culture. From delicate irony to eccentric bombast, the artists in Laughing Matters provide the viewer with both a laugh and a pause.

For painters Julie Wachtel, Steven Gianakos, John Wesley, and Nancy Hild, disjunction of form serves as the latent content of paintings in which an initial dopey cartoon appeal masks a quiet provocation. Wachtel’s dizzy Disney gnome is coupled with photographic images of riot police and a religious procession, producing a discomfort akin to that of the TV viewer jerked from news to commercial. As with Gianakos’ startled puppet staring blankly from between his spruce, confident (surely adoptive?) parents, Wachtel raises questions of identification, both of painter and viewer, and the demise of the heroic subject. John Wesley’s Bumstead Homeless presents the familiar middle-class family man, still smartly dressed, snoring by a lamp-post, while Nancy Hild, maintaining the posture of trompe-l’oeil painting, chooses a rubber chicken as still-life subject.

The divergent axes spun by the artists in this exhibit include the collision of “high-art painting” with popular culture, the clashing of sign and meaning, and a weird and effective mixture of materials.

Donald Lipski and Sarah Whipple give minimal sculpture a run for its money. Overtly minimal in allowing their materials to speak for themselves, the work is covertly mimetic with Whipple ending seriality, significantly, at two, and Lipski letting the form of his elegant wall piece resonate with the previous incarnation of his raw materials—a conveyor belt from a perfume factory.

The language of advertising and forms from popular culture are the vehicle, and in some cases the issue, in the work of another group of artists. Ilona Granet, Barbara Kruger, and Erika Rothenberg all use the persuasive voice of anonymous authority to expose cultural misapprehensions. Granet’s jaunty street sign, Kruger’s double-edged photograph, and Rothenberg’s lead balloon greeting cards insert a feminist voice into mainstream media. Raymond Pettibon reduces philosophy to the banal cry of a swooning cartoon figure, while Klindt Houlberg’s folk art genitalia are pressed into service as His ‘n Hers items.

Art, or the artworld, is the subject of work by John Baldessari, Marcel Broodthaers, and William Wegman. Baldessari’s archetypically conceptual piece from 1971 was initially inscribed on gallery walls by students at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design according to the artist’s telephoned instructions. Broodthaer’s history of art addresses issues of commodification while Wegman’s dog, Faye Ray, moves into position for her museum portrait.

Some of the artists in Laughing Matters present work whose eccentric character puts an idiosyncratic slant on the otherwise familiar, as can be seen in M. W.Burns’ frantic multifamily birdhouse and Mike Lash’s drawing on found material. David Ireland’s sculpture made of wadded wallpaper sitting on a stool is given the black velvet sunshade, which in some parts of Africa signifies the presence of dignitaries. Chris Ware manipulates a traditional strip cartoon format, while Glen Baxter joins cartoon techniques to painting. Similarly, Joel Otterson’s Muscle Man Fruit Compote is meticulously crafted out of plumber’s copper tubing and handfuls of gew-gaws. And visual puns—with punch—are present in Andy Yoder’s Home Wrecker and Tony Mendoza’s Working Mother.

If brevity is the soul of wit, then a ponderous articulation of the mechanics of a joke is no fun. Fortunately, the works in Laughing Matters elude dissection, remaining thoughtfully humorous—or seriously funny.


Laughing Matters is supported by the University of Illinois at Chicago School of Art and Design’s College of Architecture, Art, and Urban Planning.

This exhibition is also partly supported by a grant from the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency.


Postcard: Laughing Matters


John Baldessari

I Will Not Make Anymore Boring Art, 1971
Lithograph on paper, 22 1/2 x 30 in.

Glenn Baxter

It’s the Fourth Time Daddy Has Fallen for the Exploding Fork Trick, 1984
Silkscreen on paper, 23 1/4 x 31 1/4 in.

Marcel Broodthaers

Museum, Museum, 1972
Silkscreen on paper, 33 x 23 1/4 in.

M. W. Burns

Birdhouse, 1993
Painted wood, 18 x 18 x 18 in.

Steven Gianakos

He’s Our Only Child, 1986
Acrylic on canvas, 54 x 54 in.

Ilona Granet

Curb Your Animal Instincts, 1987
Silkscreen on metal, 24 x 24 in.

Nancy Hild

Fowl, 1990
Acrylic on canvas, 36 x 30 in.

Klindt Houlberg

His and Hers, 1989
Wood and paint, 26 x 16 x 5 1/2 in.

Whose There, 1989
Wood and paint, 48 x 9 x 5 1/2 in.

David Ireland

Elephant Stool With Shade, 1978–91
Wallpaper, wood, wire, and velvet, 47 x 13 x 13 in.

Barbara Kruger

We Decorate Your Life, 1985
Lenticular photograph with red frame, 20 x 20 in.

Mike Lash

Actual Size, 1993
Acrylic and enamel on wood, 12 1/4 x 37 1/2 in.

Donald Lipski

Building Steam #243, 1984
Conveyor belt, 41 x 11 x 18 in.

Tony Mendoza

Bad Cat, Bad Cat, Bad Cat, 1991
Black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 in.

Cat Film Noir, 1991
Black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 in.

Short Stories (I Was in Columbia)

Black-and-white photograph, 16 x 20 in.

Working Mother, 1987
Black-and-white photograph, 20 x 30 in.

Joel Otterson

Muscle Man Fruit Compote, 1992
Mixed media with fruit and candies, 47 1/2 x 10 x 10 1/2 in.

Raymond Pettibon

Untitled (Meaning, it always quickens my pulse), 1987
Mixed media on paper, 17 x 12 in.

Erika Rothenberg

Greetings, 1993
Silkscreen on paper, 8 1/2 x 6 x 1 1/2 in.

Julie Wachtel

Untitled #7, 1990
Oil, flashe, and lacquer paint on canvas, 60 x 101 3/4 in.

Chris Ware

Lonely Comics and Stories, 1993
Printed matter, 13 1/2 x 10 1/2 in.

William Wegman

Untitled (Faye on Stairs), 1987–88
Pola-color on paper, 24 x 20 in.

John Wesley

Bumstead Homeless, 1993
Acrylic on canvas, 43 x 42 in.

Sarah Whipple

Balls, 1992
Fake fur, 35 x 17 x 17 in.

Andy Yoder

Home Wrecker, 1990
Chainsaw and wool, 14 x 36 x 12 in.

Karen Indeck Head ShotKaren Indeck has been the curator and director of Gallery 400 and the Visiting Artists-in-Residence Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago since 1986. She has curated numerous shows, including FAXART (1990) and Influx (1993). Indeck received a BFA from the University of Illinois at Chicago.