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Putting the ‘art’ in ‘fart’

‘Pull My Finger’ explores the dark vortex where comedy and poop jokes meet
By SHARON STEEL  |  July 6, 2007

SLIDESHOW: Images from "Pull My Finger"

Everybody poops. Grandmothers, priests, politicians, babies, supermodels, astronauts (whether or not they’re wearing diapers). It’s a natural, necessary, semi-voluntary, and — especially after, say, Wendy’s chili — disgusting function, one the entire human race has in common. You’re probably looking at this article in the bathroom right now. (Or maybe you’re just dropping a silent F-bomb on the T, hoping nobody will notice.)

No surprise, then, that poop jokes are simultaneously sacred and taboo in both pop culture and the art world.

As someone who has a taste for twisted humor, I can respect the grand tradition of the poop joke: where would contemporary comedy be if not for the potty? Writers like poop, too, and not just children’s authors burdened with the task of discussing toilet-training with Crayola-box clarity. Lots of art is full of shit, from the low-culture scripts of South Park to the high-culture pages of classics like Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being. And artists? They just live for slinging crap — it’s like some kind of unlimited paint supply that’s handy, cheap, and gets them controversy bonus points. Where would museum-worthy pieces like Andres Serrano’s “Piss Christ,” Chris Ofili’s elephant-dung-festooned “Holy Virgin Mary,” and Marcel Duchamp’s paean to the urinal “Fountain” be without nods to bathroom humor?

Even so, poop humor is just one small, dark, and stinky slice of the art-world pie. On the same outre track is high-concept, performance-art comedy. “Pull My Finger,” a new exhibit at the Allston Skirt Gallery (July 6 through August 4) is hell-bent on exploring the nexus between these two art tracts. If only it were as instantaneously amusing as leaving a Whoopee cushion on someone’s chair. There are giggles in “Pull My Finger,” but some of them require a little effort.

Joe Zane, a Boston-based artist and prankster who is also the curator of “Pull My Finger,” boils the theme down to a visual study of high-concept comedy, taking inspiration directly from Andy Kaufman’s performance-art work. Kaufman eschewed straight-up joke telling, preferring to rouse amusement from his often curious — and objectively unfunny — actions. One classic Kaufmanism that Zane wanted to represent in “Pull My Finger” was the “put on” gag. In such performances, Kaufman would covertly challenge the audience by not doing anything overtly funny. (Announcing, for example, that he was going to read Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, which would draw approving titters from the crowd, and then going on to actually read the novel. In retrospect, the performance was hilarious, but the audience was, essentially, the butt of the joke, which presented challenges to, among other things, selling tickets for the next gig.)

“So often,” says Zane appreciatively, “the ‘humor’ comes from the fact that laughter is the only appropriate response.”

For some of the pieces in “Pull My Finger,” that paradigm holds true. Take, for example, Tony Matelli’s Untitled (Unknown). It’s a sculpture of an anatomically correct vegetable man, staring sadly at the droopy gherkin between his legs in place of a penis. Same goes for video and performance artist Michael Smith’s weird illustrations, which seem like the kind of thing a bored kid would turn in for a grade-school art-class assignment. Among Smith’s works are a lame sketch of an unhappy, sarcastic acorn tree (I like you/You like me) and an even lamer pencil drawing of a satisfied refrigerator (Mmm. What’s in the Refrigerator). The very notion of seeing these works in a gallery is priceless, in a way.

But it starts to get a little more arty than farty when the show begins to veer further into the theoretical. One such work, So Long, a video installation by Jason Schidel, comprises footage of the acrobatic artist in a cemetery. Schidel isn’t picking his nose or anything — he’s doing somersaults in a big yard where dead people are buried. Then there’s David Robbins’s black-and-white portrait of Jerry Lewis. France’s favorite American was hardly a high-concept comic, nor was he a particularly scatological one — though he did lay the groundwork for Eddie Murphy’s famously flatulent remake of The Nutty Professor — but the Lewis tribute doesn’t seem out of place. It’s a shot of Lewis’s “famous mug,” i.e., Lewis holding a mug emboldened with a caricature of his face (read: mug). What’s surprising is the starkness of the image itself, a moment in which the actor appears to have been caught in a moment of quiet reflection. And in that light it seems Kaufman-esque.

Last February, former–Boston Globe critic Thomas Garvey suggested on his culture blog, “Hub Review,” that Allston Skirt Gallery owners Randi Hopkins (a Phoenix contributor) and Beth Kantrowitz had some kind of a vendetta against artists with a Y chromosome. “I don’t know why, exactly, these two rarely feature men,” wrote Garvey, “but I think it’s safe to assume it’s because they hate them.” Zane, whose work had already been featured at the gallery, thought Garvey’s insinuation was absurd. “When they asked me to curate a show,” says Zane, “I naturally thought to try to do a comedy show of sorts.”

John Bell’s Devil Puppet testifies to Zane’s un-premeditated decision to turn the exhibit into an all-guy show, and thankfully, the closest to popped-collar frat boy “Pull My Finger” gets. Even though it’s supposed to symbolize physical comedy, all I see is a terrifying, fire-engine-red papier mâché head, a triangular, dead-inside-grin, and a pair of shifty eyeballs that make the imp look as though he’s trying not to gawk at cleave. Unsuccessfully. He’s totally staring at your boobs. Ladies note: wear a tank top to the gallery at your own risk.

  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Jerry Lewis , Andy Kaufman , Performance Art ,  More more >
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Putting the ‘art’ in ‘fart’
Wow, Sharon - thanks for the shout-out, however irony-free! I now have yet another nomination for my ongoing Critical Darwin Award program (see the writeup on Cheers, Tom
By Thomas Garvey on 07/31/2007 at 12:49:40

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