Comic relief

Laura McLean-Ferris on whether comedy can be a form of art, from the Summer 2015 issue

By Laura McLean-Ferris

Dynasty Handbag performing Soggy Glasses: A Homo’s Odyssey, 2014, performance at bam Fisher, New York. Photo: Rebecca Smeyne. Courtesy bam, New York

“I do comedy in the artworld. What a fucking relief for you people!” So Dynasty Handbag addressed her audience during her travesty of television talkshows, Good Morning Evening Feelings with Dynasty Handbag, performed at the Kitchen, New York, this past April. In the live show, which moves through dark emotions that can plague the day, from morning fear to evening shame, Handbag (aka Jibz Cameron) plays host to a series of ‘guests’, all played by herself. Among them are Christine Smoofs, ‘lesbian breakfast chef’, who suggests that we make a fear smoothie in the morning by staring into the problem and grinding it with our mind, and ‘Womanhood’, an animated female pelvis with eyes and a mouth, who bemoans the lack of important female roles for her kind. Dynasty has makeup smeared draggily all over her face, and delivers a form of zany camp: waggling tongues, wide eyes, exaggerated gestures. There are certain elements to her show that don’t particularly require an art context. She has recently moved to la from New York, and her intro sends up the banal conversations that one repetitively has about the two cities after such a switch: “Everyone’s all: ‘New York is like this [presses hands against face as though smothered in a subway carriage] and la is like this [mimes driving, relaxed].’ You should all move to la. Except if you’re a dancer. Don’t move to la if you’re a dancer. In fact, if you’re a dancer: get a job. Quit.”

Though the subject of her show, on some level, is a form of depression and mania that pertains to contemporary life (though the narrative arcs she chooses to parody are common to artists and performers – the burned-out old actress who used to be queen of the stage, for example), she’s right that comedy is providing relief for the artworld, and not just in the traditional sense. Within the last month in New York I’ve seen three routines of what you could call ‘artist standup’, all performed by women. Each was funny and each functioned in the same way that some of the best standup does: well-constructed jokes aside, good standup says the unsayable, and ensures awkward, buried feelings can be aired rather than suppressed. And there’s a sense in which the artworld desperately needs this other language. Art’s most visible institutions, from academia to not-for-profit spaces and museums, from corporate behemoth galleries to fledgling project spaces in basements, share a deadening, legitimising formal language, sometimes so perversely voiceless that it masks the banality or the plainness of what it is actually being said.

At the beginning of a recent short routine by the painter Heather Guertin, performed at the launch of a new book about curating, she staged her blouse falling open (“Oops, I really didn’t mean to do that!”). She buttoned herself up before stating, with much gravitas, that “a mechanical engineer once said to me: ‘Heather: ceramics are the future.’” Guertin’s delivery is oddly open and sincere. “Actually, it wasn’t a mechanical engineer who said ceramics are the future. It was my ex-boyfriend from high school. But he wanted to be an engineer at the time and was often testing out being one on me. Saying things an engineer would say, like, ‘I need to polish these rims in time for the solar-powered-car contest’ and ‘Pass me some more blue cheese.’” After mourning that our oceans are full of oil and plastic, due to some of humanity’s turns away from natural elements like clay and earth, Guertin describes the moment when she found out, via Twitter, that the ex had just become a father again: “And I realised he’s wrong: ceramics aren’t the future… that baby is. And I wish that baby clean oceans full of nontoxic ceramic knives!” There’s actually a double-loading of sincerity here: think of Tina Fey’s Netflix series The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt (2015), which follows the adventures of a young woman who has been locked in an underground bunker for many years and emerges with the kind of wideeyed optimism that serves mainly to reveal the cynicism of those around her. It’s difficult, when obeying the codes expected of artists at readings and performances, to speak of things like a future for the children. (What children – right?)

Similar was the feeling during the Frieze New York talks programme this past May, when artist and comedian Casey Jane Ellison asked her female guests when they first knew they were an object. The black-lipsticked Ellison, whose painfully awkward all-female interview show, Touching the Art (2014–), was included in this year’s New Museum Triennial, offered in her signature, disaffected vocal fry that for her the moment came when, as a child, she chose a protein bar instead of a chocolate bar because it seemed more likely to keep her thin. Writer and activist Grace Dunham answered that, as a woman, she was born an object. “That hurts,” Ellison deadpans. Her truth-telling tactic is different – Ellison plays a dead-eyed, self-obsessed artist consumed with her own appearance and by being cool. She’s very funny, but she’s often just flaunting behaviours that others perform more subtly – alternating heavy attitude and gothy nihilism with the need to be found attractive and to be liked.

Rather than focus on the way the artworld drags in other genres (music, dance, fashion, marketing, now comedy) and makes them ‘art’, perhaps it’s better to think of it this way: what is, being embraced, let’s say, is a form of sideshow speech that allows artists to change the language used to talk about their work in terms that are messy, funny, absurd and uncertain. Those terms certainly describe a side of the artworld that I, for one, am happy to recognise, and embrace. 

This article was first published in the Summer 2015 issue.