Those familiar with the sometimes brilliant, often embarrassingly un-funny offerings at a comedy club's open-mic night will have some small sense of what's in store at the Gallery Project's latest offering, The Humor Show. Just as familiar will be the recognition of the truly funny and inspired, simply because it hangs so close to works not so blessed with those traits. This is not a damning critique of the 57 or so offerings here. It's more of an acknowledgment that the challenge of creating something both "artistic" and "humorous" is daunting.
Whether satire or slapstick, you've got to get humor just right for it to be effective. If you miss the mark even slightly, a thud resonates louder than if the aim were much less ambitious. Bumming people out is easy, as evidenced by the ominous scenarios taken up by many budding artists. But making people laugh or smile now that's as tough as it gets. And directors Rocco DePietro and Gloria Pritschet deserve a nod for putting a stunning multimedia show together.
Judging by what's here, the artists are pretty pissed off at Bush and company, for starters. Jack Summers presents a searing critique in six movie poster mock-ups with such titles as The Thief of Baghdad and Picture of Dorian Bush. An even more effective satire is the strangely hypnotizing and downright silly video installation by Mike Richison. "It Sucks Drinking Alone" features a video loop of Bush, in the last presidential debates, appearing awkward while drinking water, attempting to look calm and collected. It says nothing and absolutely everything about politics, specifically, the utterly banal theatrics of that world.
In a sly take on politics, Brent Fogt shows a series of paintings detailing the hair styles of the "good" Roman emperors, as well as the "bad" Roman emperors. These exquisitely drawn and sumptuously colored works are at once beautiful and horrifying, naive and cynical. The drawings are reminiscent of silhouetted portraits of children with upturned noses and long lashes, drawn at low-rent art fairs and hung proudly in America's rec rooms. But this collection details ancient Romans with the sensuous curls and sweeping comb-overs, calling to mind the vanity of total power.
Grotesquely altered animals are generously sampled in this exhibition. Clint Snider's menagerie includes a Hallmark-styled figurine of a deer with an enormous vagina, placidly gazing out of a tranquil meadow, oblivious to its own massive genitalia not a lot of politics here, folks, just a brilliantly rendered sight gag. Coco Bruner does a bit on corporate meddling with her series "Animal Merger Products," equipped with a sales pitch via a portable CD player. Horses and parrots, dogs and buffalo are put through the ringer in several pieces.
Three works meld beauty and humor, meaning and message perfectly. Chris Crowder's maddeningly detailed ink on wood masterpiece "I'm Impotent" will resonate with anyone into graphic novels. In a landscape of frenetic action almost impossible to follow, a dozen or so panels present plots without any reference point, including inscrutable dialogue balloons floating over bizarre creatures. It's the conceit of a narrative, expertly deconstructed and masterfully depicted. Mark Nielsen's "Uncle Art Destroys Time" is an anti-art masterpiece lurking in the basement of the gallery, rightly so. Its half-dozen mechanical oddities are meditations on the ticking of the clock that are equally clever and existentially nauseating.
"Church Fairy Viewing Heathen Nucleus" by Sally T. Ryan (aka SAINTRYAN) is so gorgeously rendered you'd think it was some recently discovered Renaissance work. But her message would have surely put her in the same dangerous company as Galileo and others who defied the holy-rollers. It's the most beautiful and important work in the show, depicting a cloaked figure on his knees, evoking a medieval-era bishop or pope. A set of insect-like wings sprout from his back, and a warm light enters this monastic setting, bathing the figure in buttery tones. He holds a magnifying glass out in front of him, inspecting what appears to be a "nucleus." The juxtaposition of Old World style and modern science is seamless, a surreal montage of current political and theological debates.
You get a little of this and a little of that at the Gallery Project; some of it's funny, some of it dull and worn. But unlike an open-mic night that drags on forever, taking three steps in any direction at The Humor Show ends the agony.
Through Sept. 10, at the Gallery Project, 215 S. Fourth Ave., Ann Arbor; 734-997-7012.Dan DeMaggio is a freelance writer for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org