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Humor Show' Displays a Wry Eye for Politics, Consumer Culture Gets Skewered in Gallery Project exhibit

By Roger Green

Ann Arbor News, Sunday, August 20, 2006


While it's not a thigh-slapper, the group exhibit "The Humor Show'' brings together works that use comedic devices deftly. Exaggeration is one. Irony, understatement, juxtaposition and displacement are others.


On view at Gallery Project through Sept. 10, "The Humor Show'' includes contributions by 30-odd local, regional and national artists, working in a variety of media. Paintings, sculptures, prints, drawings and photographs crowd the show, together with eccentric assemblages and inventive examples of video and multimedia art.


Not all the contributions are successful. Many rely for humor on fruitless, anatomical distortions, or else are ungepotchket - a useful Yiddish adjective meaning labored and overly busy. But look for some incisive and genuinely moving works, most skewering politics and consumer culture.


Among the exhibit's targets are the advertising media as they promote what's profitable for corporations but questionable, even insane, in life. Coco Bruner's "Animal Merger Products'' re-creates a slick, corporate presentation advancing a genetic engineering scheme. Each of the "Animal Merger Products'' or "AMPs'' combines characteristics of a dairy cow and a second parent species, among them elephants, silkworms, oysters and cockatoos.


The entire enterprise is nuts. But wily graphics, portraying the AMPs as lovable cartoon characters, cloud that impression. So does a recorded message on a CD player, combining an announcer's mellifluous voice with music.


Biological engineering also is the butt of Luke Engel's collage "Crazy Future.'' In that future, heralded by Michael Jackson, everyone will be able to whimsically remake his or her body, with designer plastic surgery, implants and transplants. Engel's collage - it's the ideal medium for referencing piecework - portrays a male figure with a white female face, and a female figure with a black male face.


Violence, another timely topic, disquiets Ann Gordon and Andrew Thompson. Gordon's painting "Horsing Around'' portrays a recumbent horse being devoured by another, standing horse. Executed with loose, bleeding strokes of red and other colors, the picture is unusually powerful, somewhat suggesting painter Francis Bacon's portrayals of ravaged or putrefied flesh.


Thompson's "Where Ya' Headed, Stranger?'' is a sculptural installation consisting of four standing figures and a supine deer. Constructed of trash, scraps of plastic foam and studio debris, the figures and deer are surprisingly believable, anatomically and in the postures they strike. However, the story the installation illustrates is the point.


According to his artist's statement, Thompson struck a deer with his car while driving near Kalamazoo. Because the collision wounded but failed to kill the deer, Thompson telephoned the local sheriff to complete the grisly job. In the installation, the sheriff points a rifle at the deer. Thompson and his girlfriend turn their backs on the sight, covering their ears. The fourth figure, arms folded across his chest, is an off-duty marshal who'd offered to beat the deer to death with a flashlight before the sheriff arrived.


Many works are blatantly political. Brenda Oelbaum remedies her perceived political voicelessness with "Osama's Been Degraded,'' a color photo on canvas. The photo portrays the cropped legs and arm of an anonymous woman - the artist? - in the act of applying toenail polish. Below, a hooked rug re-creating Osama bin Laden's face is "degraded'' by a spill of blood-red polish.


Frank Pahl critiques the use of religion as a campaign tool in Republican and Democratic versions of "In Case of Emergency Break Glass.'' Each is a shallow, glass-fronted case, wall-mounted and having a mallet or a hammer suspended from the base. Inside the Republican case is a "Holy Bible,'' inside the Democratic case a copy of "The Divine Plan of the Ages.'' The latter is a response, Pahl explains in a statement, to the charge that Democrats have no plan.


The most comically bizarre work is Pahl's "Foot Stool for Toilet Stall Reservation,'' a pair of sneakered feet supporting a horizontal plane upholstered in denim. According Pahl's statement, the stool, positioned on the floor of a toilet stall before a rock concert, will discourage attendees from entering the empty stall. The stool's inserter can then use the toilet without waiting, and so miss none of the concert.


"Foot Stool for Toilet Stall Reservation'' is an exercise in chindogu. That's the Japanese art, introduced in the 1990s, of inventing ingenious gadgets that solve particular problems, but that paradoxically beget other problems. In the case of the "Foot Stool'' those might include social embarrassment, and worse. Maybe physical attacks by "pissed'' ticket holders.


Gallery Project is at 215 S. Fourth Ave. Hours are Tuesday-Saturday, noon-9 p.m. and Sunday, noon-4 p.m. For more information, call 734-997-7012 or visit