Laugh-In: Art, Comedy, Performance

Jan. 23-April 19, 2015, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, La Jolla

MCASD La Jolla
700 Prospect Street
La Jolla, CA 92037-4291

Laugh-in: Art, Comedy, Performance explores the recent turn toward comedic performance in and as contemporary art. The exhibition features twenty artists who engage the strategies and themes of stand-up comedy as a means to rethink questions of artistic performativity, audience participation, and public speech. If stand-up evokes the image of an isolated figure, spot-lit on a stage, this form of comedy resonates with contemporary artists precisely for its direct if uncertain relation to an audience or public. Artists today look to stand-up comedy as well for its emphatic embodiment and its ability to upend hierarchies and power relations. Indeed, stand-up offers a forum in which comics and artists alike may examine stereotypes and taboos, testing what can and can’t be said. The exhibition suggests that this format makes particular sense to artists at a moment when they—like citizens everywhere—are seeking new modes of public address (think of the widespread use of social media, for example, or the recent emergence of the human microphone within the context of the Occupy movement).

The title of Laugh-in intentionally conjures the cultural moment of the late 1960s and early 1970s and, as in its original iteration as the title of a comedy television program, resonates with the ‘sit-ins’ and ‘be-ins’ of that time—and with political currents in the present. Figures such as Lenny Bruce, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, and a generation of female comedians including Carol Burnett, Goldie Hawn, and Gilda Radner, among many others, are touchstones for the artists in Laugh-in, and the exhibition considers such comics within the context of a larger interest on the part of contemporary artists in the decades of the 1960s and 1970s. That period not only saw the rise of stand-up comedy to mainstream prominence, but also crises of political legitimation that find echoes in our own time.

The works in Laugh-in engage comedic performance as both an analogy and a lens onto the increasingly complex role artists occupy with respect to their audiences and within the broader public sphere. Eric Garduño and Matthew Rana’s installation The People v. Bruce (Parrhesia) (2011) simulates a courtroom setting to invoke the 1964 trial of Lenny Bruce for obscenity charges, drawing parallels between instances of censorship in the past and the present. Other highlights of the exhibition include Edgar Arceneaux’s nine channel video installationThe Alchemy of Comedy…Stupid (2006) featuring a performance by comedian David Alan Grier; Tammy Rae Carland’s I’m Dying Up Here (2011), a series of large-scale color photographs of female stand-up comedians captured mid-act, emphasizing the vulnerability of performance; Stanya Kahn’s absurdist, pathos-filled videoLookin Good, Feelin’ Good (2012), in which the artist wanders the streets of Los Angeles in a penis costume, and an installation of Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s visceral photographic works, for which she appropriates and manipulates images from the history of late twentieth century comedy.

Laugh-in:  Art, Comedy, Performance features approximately fifty works from a range of media including video, photography, drawing, painting, sculpture, and a PowerPoint presentation. Artists include Cory Arcangel, Edgar Arceneaux, Jibz Cameron (Dynasty Handbag) and Hedia Maron, Tammy Rae Carland, Chan & Mann, Kasia Fudakowski, Eric Garduño and Matthew Rana, Jonn Herschend, Stanya Kahn, Tim Lee, Glenn Ligon, Carter Mull, Jayson Musson, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Scott Reeder, and Michael Smith.

An evening of live experimental stand-up and comedic performance is being planned in conjunction with the exhibition. Check for details in the coming weeks.

Laugh-in: Art, Comedy, Performance is organized by the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, with generous lead underwriting support from Laurie Mitchell and Brent Woods, and additional funding provided by the 2014 Art Auction. Institutional support of MCASD is provided by the City of San Diego Commission for Arts and Culture and the County of San Diego Community Enhancement Fund.