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The Laughing Paintbrush

Is there really no major current, no predominant style, are there really no recurrent themes in contemporary art? Do we really live in an "era of diversity"? Forget about romanticism, minimalism, postmodernism. The poker-faced earnestness of twentieth century art is being firmly debunked in a flood of fun, believes Ben Lewis, and he explains why humor is the new ism of today.

Maurizio Cattelan, La nona ora, 1999
Courtesy Galerie Emmanuel Perrotin, Paris-Miami

Nowadays I can't seem to keep a straight face when I look at contemporary art. Every time I go to a gallery, there is something that brings a smile to my face, makes me emit an embarrassingly loud chuckle or occasionally produce an involuntary snort of derision. It all started one day in the early nineties, when I literally and metaphorically turned a corner in an exhibition portentously titled Apocalypse, and there was Maurizio Cattelan's Pope Struck by a Meteorite, a lifelike waxwork three-dimensional cartoon that made a joke of the certainties of religion. I think that was the first time I guffawed in a gallery. Soon I felt surrounded by permanent hilarity at fairs and biennales - I saw hyperreal sculptures of monkeys vomiting in disgust, pigs tattooed with Walt Disney characters and the Louis Vuitton logo, tribal African figurines clutching McDonald's burgers and photographs of men with French fries stuffed up their nose or lying down on watermelons.

Erwin Wurm, One Minute Sculptures, 1997
Centre Pompidou Collection, Paris, © VBK, Wien, 2006

People often say that there is no common theme, no dominant style in contemporary art. Instead, we are told, we live in a postmodernist era of diversity. Artists work across all media - taking photographs, using readymades, producing drawings, sculptures, and paintings, and going for walks (strollology is the technical term). Painters are simultaneously figurative and abstract. They may work in neo-expressionist, photorealist, or pop modes and follow Kippenbergerian or Tuymans-esque models. The conceptual artists take photographs and the photographers make conceptual art. Our theory is that there is no single theory, the theorists say. But what, I ask you, do the following artists - all well-known - have in common: Maurizio Cattelan, Fischli & Weiss, Jeff Koons, Felix Gonzalez Torres, Wim Delvoye, Bruce Nauman, Doug Fishbone, the Chapman Brothers, Martin Kippenberger, Duane Hanson, Claes Oldenburg, and Erwin Wurm?

Erwin Wurm, Carrying Edelbert Köb (Be nice to your curator), 2006
Photo: MUMOK/ Beatrix Fiala, © VBK, Wien, 2006

Answer: they've all made hilarious works of art. Call me an old-fashioned disciple of Woelfflin, but I believe that every age inevitably has its own style… mannerism, romanticism, neoclassicism… and today Humor is the new ism. The word "ironist" already exists, so why not coin Ironism? Or Sarcism. Or perhaps we can change the ism, after all we've had so many, to an asm, and just have plain old Sarcasm. And when the era of laughable art is followed by one obsessed with sex, we can have the subsequent term of…..

Jeff Koons, Balloon Dog (Blue), 1994-2000(Jeff Koons
Courtesy of The Broad Art Foundation, Santa Monica
Photo Douglas M. Parker Studio, Los Angeles

Never has so much art been so funny. This is not just a question of art-ertainment. We are at a historically humorous juncture in the evolution of our culture, and consequently, if we start to look at contemporary art from the perspective of comedy, its apparent pluralism begins to cohere. The poker-faced earnestness of twentieth century art is being firmly debunked in a flood of fun which began in the 1990s, when gags about art's pretensions multiplied like mirrored stainless steel rabbits. Felix Gonzalez Torres' arrangements of foil-wrapped sweets are generally regarded as moving pieces about sharing, but I believe they are also comic masterpieces. He lampoons the heavy metal plates of Carl Andre's floor sculptures with his rectangle of silver-wrapped sweets. And when Torres poured a pile of candies into a corner formed by two gallery walls, he satirized the phenomenology of the "actions" that underpinned the molten lead thrown by conceptual Rambo Richard Serra into the same type of location. I can't look at Jeff Koons' balloon dog without thinking gigglingly of the spiritual aura that is meant to surround the super-smooth curved forms of Henry Moore and Anish Kapoor. Damien Hirst also has a product line which mocks the vanities of art - the cigarette butts, piled high in enormous ashtrays, cynically placed on office tables in over-sized vitrines or carefully displayed in cabinets like a geological typology. Just as Manzoni canned his own shit, Damien presents his fag ends as comic symbols of the myth of the artist, and, unlike Manzoni, who presumably produced all his Merda D'Artista himself, Damien probably got his assistants to smoke his cancer sticks for him.

Claes Oldenburg, Mistos (Match Cover), 1992
Vall d'Hebron, Barcelona
Photo Attilio Maranzano
© Claes Oldenburg, Coosje van Bruggen

The twentieth century is dotted with prototypes for this phenomenon. The first was Duchamp's Fountain, an urinal, conceived by the artist as work of art that galleries would refuse to exhibit. No such luck! Duchamp's scatological readymade had no successors for half a century, until Piero Manzoni canned his own turds. Warhol's piss paintings surely belong to the same tradition.

But humor takes many different forms - irony, derision, ridicule, satire, parody, sarcasm, slapstick, not to mention the more general areas of mirth and wit. As we attempt to define the unifying Zeitgeist of contemporary art, we should be careful to delineate the different types of humor employed by artists today.

Claes Oldenburg opened up the avenue of a kind of comedy far from a critique of modernist myths. His pop sculptures drew on the humor that can be obtained from exaggeration (make a claim that's large enough, and people will laugh - right now you are probably wondering if this article's ambitious thesis is meant seriously). He monumentalized the mundane (the giant matchsticks) or created oversized 3-D cartoons (the knotted gun outside the United Nations). Belgian Marcel Broodthaers came up with a third kind of visual wit, relabeling cows as automobile brands and parodying the monochrome with his rectangles of inky purple and black mussel shells, the remains of a delicious Belgian national dish.

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