Hard to believe, but the Unvarnished blogsite has now been up and running for three long years which, I guess, means your humble scribe must have tapped out somewhere approaching a quarter of a million elegantly crafted words and posted around a thousand slightly blurry images. So, how is this landmark occasion to be marked? Well, what better way to start the day’s commemorative celebrations than by standing at a bus stop with the rain crashing down while muttering a mixture of expletive curses in an attempt at a talking cure designed to ease the gouty twinges that are spiking round the joints in my right hand and ameliorate the gentle throbbing rumble of discomfiture that has settled around my lower back and feels as if someone has been punching me in the kidneys when I wasn’t looking? And did I already mention that it was raining? Well, it still is. And it’s not that pretty little small-hand kind of e e cummings stuff but the great big chunky blobs and lumps that crash out of the sky with the kind of interminable Niagarific falling that steadily erodes the desire to…but then the bus finally arrives and my clinging clothes slowly start to dry out as I head towards the South London Gallery in search of something to cheer me up.
And what better than the thought of a show called Knock Knock: Humour in Contemporary Art? At which point the grumbling curmudgeonly old cynic in me thinks – You’ve got to be kidding. For the odds must surely be sky high that any show with such an awful clunky title is bound to be no laughing matter. And – spoiler alert – that’s a foresight that proves to be all too presciently correct, so that out of an exhibition containing works from around thirty artists I think I managed only two small laughs, and they were fairly tiny titters at that. Then again, I guess that’s about the same kind of success rate achieved during the hours and hours I spent binge watching my way systematically through the entire collection of black and white comedy capers enclosed within a bumper shoe-box sized box-set of Laurel and Hardy DVDs. And it’s certainly two more laughs than the entire total gained after watching innumerable stand-up routines on Live at the Apollo – although, since I usually gong them off by switching channels after the first few minutes, maybe that’s not such a fair comparison.
But back to the art, and what is actually on offer here? Well, the South London Gallery is one of those slightly trendy grant-funded spaces that takes itself pretty self-consciously seriously and where I can’t help thinking that the curatorial staff’s concept of the comic is less likely to involve a great big custard pie fight than a suitably subtle double entendre about a pair of Proustian madeleines. You know, it’s the kind of place that’s happy to: ‘interrogate socially ingrained norms and hierarchies’; ‘expose the friction between system and spontaneity’; and ‘query notions of authorship and authenticity by navigating performative interactions’. And, yes, all of those felicitous phrases really do appear in the current show’s useful little accompanying booklet that seeks to explain each and every humourous entry by each and every humourous artist in the show. Of course, successful, truly laugh-out-loud funny jokes and witticisms don’t need to be accompanied by a written dissection and analysis. Indeed, if you’ve ever been in that uncomfortable position of having told a zinger that didn’t manage to zing, then offering up an explanation as to why is was so clever and funny must be the very best way to kill it stone dead and alienate your audience. In short, I don’t suppose anyone visiting the show here will really be expecting many belly laughs or to end up rolling in the aisles. In which case no-one will be very disappointed. But, to be fair to the Gallery, the show is not uninteresting, it does manage to provoke a few smiles and groans, as well as offering quite a lot to think about, and is sufficiently well-staged to offer a smidgeon of aesthetic balm to ease the ailments of this particularly soggy blogger.
At which point it’s perhaps time to start a run through the bill of varieties, starting off with a nod to the two teasers referred to above that actually did manage to nudge my funny bone and tickle my ribs although without ever really getting very close to splitting my sides. So, first off is a rather clever visual pun in which Ceal Floyer draws a nearly completed circle on the Gallery floor and then stands the sharp end of an upright saw next to where the line ends. Ha ha ha and tee hee hee. No? Ok, I’m not sure that I’ve managed to explain the set up very well and, having already highlighted the problem with trying to deconstruct and analyse why something may or may not be funny, I’m certainly not going to fall into that trap (pun intended) and terminally spoil the fun by offering a tediously longwinded explanation of why it made me chuckle. Suffice to say that the gag harks back to the golden age of cartoon slapsticks enacted by the likes of Tom and Jerry, Bugs Bunny, Wile E Coyote and a dozen other Looney Tunes characters, and evokes those happy childhood memories where anvils, canons, exploding cigars and the like were all speedily delivered by that most enterprising of precursors to Amazon, the Acme Corporation of America.
Moving on to laugh number two, this comes from something slightly more subtle but again, I kind of think that by giving away the punchline – which I’m just about to do – I’m at risk of killing the very thing I liked. Consequently, anyone who is seriously thinking of seeing this show might want to look away now and comeback in a couple of paragraph’s time by which time the laughter should have subsided. And for those still reading on, well, this time the humour similarly relies on the creation of a fanciful illusion but also has the added factor of surprise, at least, it did to me. So, once more, it’s a fairly simple little conceit but with an equally amusing pay off as Ryan Gander affixes a pair of large cartoon eyes to the Gallery wall. These are no ordinary pair of plasticated orbs, however, but special animatronic ones such that when anyone passes by and looks at them, they appear to be looking back and suddenly, and very unexpectedly, come to life, with eyebrows arched and eyeballs rolling about and following the visitor around.
Elsewhere in the show there are various cartoon parodies, ranging from the fairly straightforward replication of something you might have seen in a daily paper, right up to the more intricate mash-ups that are perhaps trying more seriously to make a point and generally subvert the genre. So, included in the first category comes Roy Lichtenstein’s titular tribute to a million Who’s There? gags; Yonatan Vinitsky’s men carrying a non-existent plate of glass; and Hardeep Pandhal’s rather crude political cut-outs that satirise race, religion or something or other though not, for God’s sake, one hopes that great Islamic prophet. As for the more radical stuff, well there’s Joyce Pensato’s scratchy drawing that seems to show a trio of bloated Mickey Mice being pursued by Huey, Dewey and Louie; Amelie von Wulfen’s anthropomorphised fruit cocktails that look to be in search of some speech bubbles to give them purpose; and Barbara Kruger’s man about to make a lunge at a banana that only has one of her gnomic captions for protection.
As for the rest of the displays, well I think I spotted one rather laboured pun coming from Tom Friedman’s heavy metal guitarist that’s wonderfully constructed from the lightest of aluminium foils but I think it’s fair to say that the rest is irony, but not just any old irony. It’s that special kind that is so very prevalent in today’s artworld and that includes all those ugly Sarah Lucas sculptures of stuffed tights; Ugo Rondinoe’s chubby recumbent clown; Lucy Gunning’s video sequence of whinnying women horse imitators; Judith Hopf’s football made of bricks and Martin Creed’s parade of cacti that I suppose must be saying it with flowers, although I’m not quite sure what it is.
To be honest, if all this last lot of artworks were to be gathered together in another group show – which actually wouldn’t be all that unlikely – I don’t think any visitor would immediately think the connecting theme was that of humour. Indeed, I think the typical audience reaction would not be an outburst of laughter nor yet a suppressed smirk or stifled snigger. No, I think the typically cool artworld response would just be the usual knowing wink or shrug of the shoulders.
And, frankly, this strikes me as being an entirely appropriate reaction to this fairly facile, fairly glib style of work that in many ways represents what now passes for the consensual norm of Post-Modern artistic practice. Which, I suppose in the final analysis is neither particularly funny ha ha nor funny peculiar but perhaps just a bit too funny familiar.