A Rock and a Fry Pan Walked Into a Gallery

CHICAGO — Did you hear the one about the rock that walked into a gallery or the fry pan that got stuck on the ceiling? What about the water fountain that had a murderous streak or the self-help guru who accidentally attended an avant-garde orgy?

Actually these aren’t jokes, they’re descriptions of artworks currently on view in Chicago. The solo shows that contain them, in addition to being some combination of formally delectable, politically astute, and historically poignant, are hilarious. This is a rarity, possibly because the art world takes itself much too seriously to celebrate the funny stuff that artists make, tamping down their comedy so hard that laughter is nearly impossible. And yet, skimming my bookshelves, I spy potential giggles in volumes on John Baldessari, Maurizio Cattelan, Marcel Duchamp, Fischli & Weiss, pretty much all of Fluxus, Tom Friedman, Martin Kippenberger, Barbara Kruger, René Magritte, Yoshitomo Nara, Bruce Nauman, Martin Parr, Sigmar Polke, Christina Ramberg, Dieter Roth, Ed Ruscha, Jessica Stockholder, Sarah Sze, Tony Tasset, Richard Tuttle, John Wesley, Richard Wentworth, Franz West, and Christopher Wool. Yes, I alphabetize. And those are just the monographs with spines.

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A much-awaited Ramberg retrospective just opened at the Art Institute of Chicago, and Stockholder currently has a platform installed on the grounds of the University of Chicago, but otherwise seekers of aesthetic fun would do well to start their tour at free range, a space run by artist Oli Watt in Albany Park and currently featuring Figure Ground Rocks by Jessica Zawadowicz. A cracker-jack abstract painter with a penchant for found objects, basketball, and improvisation, Zawadowicz pushes viewers around the court of the gallery, engaging any number of possible plays. Stand over here to see the “Rocks” of the show’s name, printed backwards on the storefront window, line up with the fake stone facade across the street. Note the blob of color on that basketball up there and wonder if Zawadowicz bounced it on a wet painting. Worry about the gravity of that small picture holding up such a big rock, and question whether it came before or after the brown acrylic splotches that seem to have spread, like giant chicken pox, to the drywall behind. Is that huge branch propping up the splotchy sky blue and pink-red canvas, or is it the other way around? Were those shirtsleeves, twigs, stones, and wrappers stuck to Zawadowicz’s compositions in different places yesterday, and actually, is that a potato or a stone or a dried date? Ha!

Once you figure out the answer to those questions, or better yet, you don’t, head to Compound Yellow in Oak Park, currently featuring Manet/Degas, Gary Cannone’s solo show of mock album covers, rugs, paper sculpture, and text pieces. The artist, who lives in Los Angeles and grew up in Chicago, was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2013. Disability might not seem like an obvious comedic prompt, but Cannone’s wry take on its pitfalls makes for a cuttingly droll exhibition, from the cast iron pan invisibly affixed to the ceiling to the titular road sign, a yellow art-historical warning mounted outdoors, beside the boulevard. Watch out! Danger lurks everywhere, though thankfully not underfoot, now that the gallery has installed wheelchair ramps throughout. The largest ramp runs the width of the long, narrow space. On it Cannone has laid three doormats, each bearing a photograph of a famous artist in a wheelchair: Frida Kahlo, John Baldessari, and Lawrence Weiner. Good company indeed, though recognition and admiration kept me from walking on their images. Who’s the doormat now? 

If the art world is not your place, much of Cannone’s art needs explaining, and a joke with an explanation is not nearly as funny. Fortunately, the art world is my place, so I cackled over Albums by Conceptual Artists, dozens of mock LP covers that seamlessly smash together the likes of Joseph Beuys and Boyz 2 Men, Louise Bourgeois and Iron Maiden, Daniel Buren and the Elvis musical Jailhouse Rock (think stripes). Likewise, a parody of Nauman’s iconic 1965–68 cast of the negative space under a chair left me in stitches: in Cannone’s version, Tom, the hapless cat of Tom & Jerry cartoons, becomes sculptural material instead of concrete. 

Cannone’s small text works need no such art historical explication. Two varieties are on view: word poems composed of elements on receipts from the supermarket chain Ralphs and needlepoint lists. The Receipts, also collected in a limited-edition artist book, begin at the self-checkout station, treated by Cannone as a writing machine, but the works feel like found poetry, with a rhetorical range that belies their origin as itemized groceries. Even when unfunny they’re a gas because of, say, the absurd eroticism of discovering a poem that reads “LAYS/ NAKED” amid the brand names of potato and pita chips. Needlepoint, a medium originally suggested by Cannone’s neurologist as a means of exercising his deteriorating fine motor skills, is hilariously unsuited to making lists but ironically apt for the series All the Things I Tried to Say but Couldn’t Remember. Fourteen of these are on display, each spanning a week of forgetting, and it is highly entertaining to conjure conversational scenarios involving, for example, the words “croissant/ hardhat/ lowly worm/ busytown.” It’s also no riot to imagine being unable to recall them.

The tension of being simultaneously funny and not is an excellent state for an artwork to exist within, given the productiveness of discomfort as a viewing experience. A literally gigantic example debuted recently at Art on the Mart, the seasonal art projection on the river side of the Merchandise Mart, a block-long structure that was the largest building in the world when it opened in 1930. “THIS IS A TEST OF SEVERANCE. can you let go?,” this spring’s commission, is by Nora Turato, a youngish Croatian graphic designer and performance artist, and it lies somewhere between graphics and performance, the one egging the other on. The video is simply huge words in a serif font, switching between American red-white-blue and Christmassy green-red; the audio is a woman explaining how she has made her life more manageable by setting weekly instead of daily goals. It all sounds reasonable until she starts repeating herself, her laughter escalating from light to strained to full-on hysteria. 

An unrelated but uncannily complementary exhibition is Cally Spooner’s Deadtime, an anatomy study, filling the Graham Foundation’s Gold Coast mansion. Spooner’s meta subject is neoliberalism — in particular, the insidious ways many of us, in our daily lives, perform to its standards of accountability, productiveness, and measurability. Not funny, I know, but the show can be, when it’s not too abstruse: the walls are painted a messy, fleshy rose, as if by a toddler with great reach; elegant still lifes composed of actual bright green pears are kept mysteriously fresh; a dancer contorts herself in eerily recognizable poses (selfies, squats) while her labored breathing is heard in a different room; a water fountain on a closed loop endlessly circulates highly chlorinated water; speakers project the sound of a gaggle of kids learning to count; and every 42 seconds a digital beep occurs throughout the building. You really need to read Spooner’s five surprisingly enjoyable essays in Mousse Magazine to fully grasp how Descartes, psychoanalytic theories of mothering and infancy, the artist’s own young twins, the silk industry in Italy, Michel Foucault, Margaret Thatcher, and a baleen whale figure into the whole thing, but failing that, you can hear a conversation between the artist and her mother playing in the upstairs ballroom, and like many such conversations, it’s all rather clarifying.

So maybe Deadtime, an anatomy study isn’t such funny stuff after all. When confronted with extreme esotericism or darkness, I look for the accessible bits, and for me those often have to do with beauty, children, or comedy. John Boskovich looks for these too, or at least the comedy part, in his 1997 photo-text series Rude Awakening, 12 examples of which are up at Bodenrader, a newish gallery in West Town. Boskovich died in 2006 at the age of 51, having outlived the AIDS epidemic that killed his partner and friends. He made Rude Awakening following those losses and from material he amassed at the time, notably a self-help book gifted to a pal in hospice. Boskovich silkscreens its lines of unbearably positive thinking, pairing them with Polaroids of popcorn cakes, tchotchkes, a honey bear, and a lot of naked men. No doubt there’s extra meaning if you recognize the lads or get the object in-jokes, but even a total outsider can’t miss the outrageous irony, unflappable coolness, and absolute fury of the artist’s combinations, raging at the shallowness of help on offer in the face of immense tragedy. It’s not funny, but it truly, terribly, is.

Figure Ground Rocks: Jessica Zawadowicz continues at free range (3257 West Lawrence Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through April 26. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Manet/Degas: Gary Cannone continues at Compound Yellow (244 Lake Street, Oak Park, Illinois) through May 4. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Nora Turato: THIS IS A TEST OF SEVERANCE. can you let go? continues at Art on the Mart through June 5. Projections occur nightly and are best experienced on the Riverwalk Jetty between Wells and Franklin Street (Chicago, Illinois). The project was organized by Art on the Mart.

Cally Spooner: Deadtime, an anatomy study continues at the Graham Foundation (4 West Burton Place, Chicago, Illinois) through June 22. The exhibition is co-curated by Sarah Herda and Hendrik Folkerts.

John Boskovich: Rude Awakening continues at Bodenrader (1620 West Carroll Avenue, Chicago, Illinois) through May 11. The exhibition was organized by the gallery.

Source: Hyperallergic.com

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