Periodically, we pose questions about issues artists face in their work and lives. This month, we asked: What role does humor play in your art?
View a gallery of work by the responding artists
Pelle Cass, photographer
When a work of art strikes me as funny, I’m pretty sure there’s some intelligence behind it and there’s bound to be surprise is built in, since there’s no such thing as humor without it. In my own work, I never actually try to be funny. It’s a reflex, which I don’t fully understand. I suspect that every joke, at least the kind I respond to, springs from a wound–either from a personal hurt or from the painful state of the world. An added bonus: if something is genuinely funny, it’s hard for it to be a cliche. As far as my own work goes, I avoid the expected narrative of winning and losing in my sports photos. Instead, I scramble the narrative and present a whole game out of order, making it into athletic nonsense and pleasurable confusion. I also think that my work shows that a lot happens in an hour or two that we can’t take in. The camera helps sort out all this information. The result is a giddy recognition of our limited powers of observation and understanding of the world, embodied in this old saying: The purpose of time is to keep everything from happening at once.
Louise Laplante, mixed media artist
My work concerns our relationship to the past and our relationship to other species. Our history is a constant attempt to improve ourselves. We think we are progressing while we still deal repeatedly with the same issues our ancestors did. Although it isn’t overtly humorous, humor can come into play in those pieces that address how the human species constantly tries to turn what other species do so effortlessly into an “art” – the leaps of dance, lilting song, strenuous athletic feats – all are seen as potential great accomplishments, and often those who can accomplish them are highly rewarded for them. Yet other creatures do them without thought, strain or reimbursement…. and they are probably laughing at our attempts to prove our superiority as a species by attempting these things ourselves.
Janet Loren Hill, interdisciplinary artist
For humor to work you must let it in. It sits with you. Initially, playing on narratives we have heard repeatedly and then flipping your expectation of where the story was leading. Ultimately, I think humor relies on perspective shifts and that is why I find it essential to my artistic practice. I use humor to present uncomfortable truths through the work, knowing that a shared laugh also indicates a shared recognition in that truth or even a shared experience. Humor allows me to show the tragic absurdity of tropes we propagate through our performance of gender and sexuality.
More and more I am thinking about the specific tempo of humor in the work. If we recall how comedians string together jokes, there is a threshold that they are constantly stepping over and pulling back from. An easily digestible joke might immediately precede one that challenges what the audience will accept. Since I often work in series, I am considering how placement and proximity between works can begin to construct that same sort of navigation of a threshold of what is acceptable.
Humor plays the role of subverter in my artwork. She is the narrator you share a smirk with.
Related reading: Is it a priority in your work to disrupt norms or defy expectations?
Pelle Cass (Photography Finalist ’15) recently had a solo exhibition at Camerawork Gallery in Portland, OR. In 2019, he had group exhibitions in Belfast (Northern Ireland) and Breda (The Netherlands). He’s a contributor to The Beautiful Sparkle: Optical Illusions in Art by Florian Heine (forthcoming) and was featured in the publications FOAM, Victory Journal, and Dartmouth Alumni Magazine. A feature about the artist on the It’s Nice That was among the most viewed articles on that site in 2019.
Janet Loren Hill (Sculpture/Installation/New Genres Finalist ’19) is Artist-in-Residence at the Pratt Munson-Williams-Proctor Gallery at the PrattMWP College of Art & Design in Utica, NY, where she will have an exhibition, Pulled Down Eyelids, Read With Intention (3/6-3/26, opening reception 3/6 406 PM). This May-July 2020, she will be an Artist-in-Residence at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation in Charlotte, NC.