The origins of comedy as an art form can be traced all the way back to ancient Greece, where dramatic satire played a vital role in Athenian democratic discourse. Humour and irony were employed by comic poets and playwrights to sway the political opinions of the populace, illustrating conflict in an amusing and engaging way. In effect, laughter was weaponised. The joke was proven almighty.
As humanity has advanced, comedy has evolved in lockstep. Like beauty, it is hard to define, and yet immediately recognisable. You just know it when you see it. The Comedians is a special curated online auction bringing together artworks which are, in a word, funny. Works in the sale incorporate humour in various ways, such as a literal joke, a parody, a ridiculous image, something scandalous or absurd — as the following pieces demonstrate.
Mike Kelley’s 1991 painting on paper, Yellow Banana 1, is a perfect non sequitur. The straightforward, descriptive title seems completely unrelated to the image, which is neither yellow nor a banana, but a wandering smear of black acrylic paint on white paper. The cognitive dissonance of image and title can be interpreted as a vague nod to children’s art, which is often interpreted in Freudian terms.
Haim Steinbach’s stark and enigmatic 1986 assemblage, together naturally (tri-part Scandinavian ash) V2 consists of a plastic laminated wood shelf, on top of which are perched a ceramic vase and 10 wooden trays. The fastidious construction of the shelf imbues the seemingly random found objects it supports with an aura of secrecy and elusiveness, stripping them of their original functionality.
The combination of these elements becomes the equation for an alchemical transformation that is impossible to define, even spell-like.
William Powhida’s 2010 drawing of a satirical list of accomplishments — both achieved and aspirational — is rendered in an impressive trompe-l’œil style to mimic a sheet of lined paper. The accomplishments include ‘MADE FUN OF A LARGE SWATH OF THE ART WORLD’ (check box ticked) and end with ‘DIED. WORK ESTABLISHES AUCTION RECORDS’ (check box not yet ticked).
In Arman’s 1989 Untitled painting, the the heroic connotations of Abstract Expressionism are lampooned with its all-over grid of black, blue and brown paint tubes literally stuck to raw canvas. The paint tubes in this cheeky composition seem to be caught in a state of perpetual oozing.
Richard Pettibone’s Marilyn, 1978, shrinks Andy Warhol’s iconic portrait of the ill-fated starlet to pitiful proportions of just over three square inches. By hijacking Warhol’s imagery, Pettibone pre-empts the appropriation strategies of the Pictures Generation, undermines the authority of authorship, and puts a new spin on Duchamp’s readymade.
KAWS’ UNTITLED (KIMPSONS), 2001, represents a similar pop-cultural hijacking and remix, with Maggie, the beloved baby from The Simpsons, taking the place of Warhol’s Marilyn. KAWS makes a few crucial embellishments, replacing Maggie’s eyes with X’s and piercing her head with crossbones, signature attributes of the artist’s Companion character. As a finishing touch, KAWS enshrines his painting in the plastic blister packaging most commonly associated with collectible action figures.
Diane Arbus’s startling Woman with a Veil on Fifth Avenue, New York City, 1968 presents the viewer with an extreme close-up of a grimacing woman bedecked in fur, huge pearl earrings and a web-like veil. Her towering head, shown slightly from below, all but obscures the New York skyline, creating a startling image of ridiculous ostentation.
George Condo’s Clown, 1984, like Arbus’s Woman with a Veil, assaults the viewer with an extreme close-up. A bewildering, wild-eyed face with flaring nostrils, wide orange lips, a clump of frizzy hair and a gigantic chin dominates the picture plane, glowering with a mysterious kind of intensity.
‘Your first reaction on seeing Robert Colescott’s paintings is to laugh out loud,’ wrote Washington Post art critic Paul Richard in 1988. ‘Your second — if you’re white, and reasonably sensitised — is to swallow your guffaws. If you choke upon your giggles, Colescott’s got you where he wants you.’
Green Glove Rapist, 1971, is the artist’s biting satire of contemporary American racism, rendered in the most garishly cartoonish aesthetic possible. The work depicts an imagined sting operation, in which a scantily-clad ‘police decoy’ feigns sleep with her window wide open, luring the criminal into the trap set by the hiding policeman. The scene reflects a real case in the mid-1940s, when an allegedly black serial rapist wearing green gloves was ravaging the city of San Francisco. When the culprit was finally arrested, he was revealed to be a white man.
Colescott, a black artist, depicts the scene as the media and public saw it, rather than portraying the actual white culprit, and in doing so underscores the problematic association between crime and the black community in America, while sparking conversations about race and identity that remain prescient and necessary in our current world.
Tala Madani’s Tweezed Out, 2006, depicts a similarly outrageous and uncomfortable scene of two men engaged in a bizarre ritual. The man on the left, his white shirt stained with blood, has all but submerged himself beneath the black shirt of the man on the right. The blood apparently originates from the chest of the man on the right, whose body hair is being ‘tweezed out’ one by one by the man on the left. The scene is cryptic and strangely intimate, upending conventional and all-too rigid notions of masculinity and male sexuality.