SAN FRANCISCO — Vladimir Nabokov once quipped that “art is a magical deception.” A show of new work by Bay Area artist Lindsey White gives the famed lepidopterist’s dictum a run for its money, using the uncanny, screwball gestures of magic and comedy. White, a recipient of SFMOMA’s 2017 SECA Art Award, spent a year considering the intersections of art, humor, and magic, culminating in a wry exhibition that artfully challenges taboos and perceptions of the ordinary, while reconsidering the nature of representation itself.
Like the kitschy shtick and deadpan stand-up that it references, White’s portion of the 2017 SECA Art Award exhibition engages the improvisational, unexpected, and haphazard. A series of large-scale photographs with compositions stripped down to their most essential elements, often set against sparse backdrops in a solitary, bold color, anchors the exhibition. Extending beyond the two-dimensional, the show also includes sculptures inspired by found objects culled from sources as diverse as costume stores, thrift shops, libraries, and hole-in-the wall museums. Objects and images with ambiguous visual cues complement and bounce off of one another in a continuous play of shifting associations. This aspect of the show is one of its chief delights.
In White’s hands, humor and magic — two fields traditionally dominated by men — are seriously amusing. But the work also explores charged issues like gender and ageism, touching on the ways in which society handles (or fails to handle) “other” voices in mainstream media. A humorous toolkit isn’t often respected in art, particularly if a woman is wielding it, and comedy as a whole has long been considered a boys’ club where women are unwelcome. White’s show nods to and contradicts this reality in a number of ways, paying homage to comedians including Joan Rivers — who makes an appearance in the show via a photograph of a Ziplock bag containing a blonde wig and a headshot of Rivers — while also pointing to the vitriol often directed at female comics who are derided for their forwardness, vulnerability, and physical appearances.
Amplifying the exhibition’s atmosphere of ridicule, White has placed a series of cast resin sculptures of small, sinister swine figurines strategically throughout the gallery on small shelves. Each of these identical, heckling pigs (based on the design of a found piggy bank) holds a sign communicating a message that seems to address the viewer directly and diffuse the seriousness of the museum space, with phrases including, “Silly Isn’t It?,” “SURE,” “Dead End,” “It Ain’t Polite to Point,” and “!?!#$+!?!.” This sculpture series, Naysayers (2017), engage in a kind of collective trolling. Dispersed among other works, they are disconnected and devoid of empathy, yet somehow authoritative in their snide confidence. Complementing these porky protestations is “Laugh Track” (2017), a photograph of folding metal auditorium chairs plainly stenciled with a uniform “HA” on their backs. White photographs them toppled over one another in a domino effect reminiscent of the slow clap of a heckler in an audience during a live performance.
Many of the works included in the show have a graphic, almost commercial tenor to them. In “Studio 8” (2016), an over-the-top, glowing frame reminiscent of a movie theater exterior contains an unexpected and ominous image, while “The Animatronic Comedian” (2016), a giant dye sublimation print with rounded corners, is drilled directly into the gallery wall like a street sign. A wooden rail system referencing the display systems of subway advertisements showcases a series of photographs that question the relationship between image and illusion, art and entertainment, and process and product. The unconventional choice of display strategy underlines the ways in which comedians, magicians, and artists deal in similar currencies.
White’s works induce a continuous refiguration of meaning in response to the motley collection of anecdotes they both conceal and imply. The show playfully activates the Latin notion of “ignotum per ignotius,” whereby the obscure is made cursorily known by way of an even more obscure reference. A powder-coated buoy doubling as a wrecking ball with the phrase “Button Up” printed across it, for instance, is inspired by a sign for button-up shirts White found at a thrift store. The oversized banner Don’t Expect Miracles, which hovers over the show from the ceiling, takes its queue from a flea market potholder. White’s clever, hyperbolic takes on such objects, which she refers to as “props,” blows them entirely out of proportion, pushing them further from contexts that were already perplexing, which seems to be the point. Her work triggers a sustained ad-lib through double entendres and hyperbolic repartee. You never find yourself so far east that you are west, but always somewhere new—not unlike a crackerjack comedic routine or deftly-executed magical illusion.
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