The Fine Line Between Laughing and Crying: Accessing Art through Humor
When I was young, I was terrified of the circus. In fact, if we’re being completely honest here, it still makes me a bit uneasy.
So you can imagine my relief when I heard at an artists’ talk that others hold similar recessed feelings. It was one of many layered themes that emerged during the moderated artists’ dialogue at the BITE: identity and humor (http://www.pinklineproject.com/event/8573) show this past Monday, July 11th.
It’s possible, and perhaps even usual, that things whimsical, fanciful, and otherwise thought to be humorous can have a deeper, darker, and fearful layer. The circus, for example, is a giant spectacle, but how deep are the layers of reality beyond the humorous front? What’s hiding? It’s all very Alice-in-Wonderland.
The same goes for folk tales and nursery rhymes, which are actually quite violent. In Rock-a-bye Baby, the baby’s cradle falls from a tree. In Peter, Peter Pumpkin Eater, the wife is neglected. The Old Woman who Lived in the Shoe? The kids are starved and whipped. The subject matter doesn’t seem very child-friendly to me.
Does what scared us in our childhood ever truly and fully leave us?
For the BITE show, Ed Bisese (http://www.edbisese.com/) painted four huge canvases whose illustrations all stemmed from the Tale of Peter Rabbit. His Peter Rabbits are no Beatrix Potter-sketches; they are huge, bold, bright, exaggerated figures layered upon new narratives of his own.
“Folk tales,” he said, “can be kind of terrifying. There’s a fine line between what scares us and what makes us laugh.” He experiments with the levels of imposing both real and imaginary characters atop his artistic narratives, he explains. His theory is that people have an easier time investing in an art narrative if the characters are less realistic—the less specific, the easier it is to impose oneself upon them.
His are the watered down versions of fairytales. Meaning viewers have this ability to place themselves in them, making it personal and relatable. Art becomes a way for viewers to delve into their own humor—but also into their fears.
Such layers are unexpected, but run deep. This is a show about the complexity of humor, not just surface-level wit. Pieces chosen also portray some sort of angst.
Eighteen artists participated in the show, and the mediums ranged from photography and video, to painting, sculpture, and even performance. Surprising, then, that similar threads should emerge when artists and audience sit to talk.
All used humor and identity to address the world, whether that be their internal insecurities or external factors and set stereotypes. Humor served both as a barrier—and a way in.
Art usually mimics reality in some way, whether literal or abstract. But then an internal element is applied, the artist’s personal take on the real world, which uses reality in a different way. Layers are created—layers for the artist and subsequent personal layers for the viewer.
But talk can only do so much. The language of art is visual. And this shifting visual language is used to show the unexpected.
“Talk spoils its beauty,” says Bisese. “Paintings work when they show us images that we relate to before, or faster than, our minds translate the imagery into words. We know that nothing kills a joke faster than explaining it.”
Maybe these recessed feelings of fear and angst and even odd absurdity are reflected most accurately in a visual language. With fairy tales and nursery rhymes, even with the circus, it’s tough to put your finger on exactly what it is that doesn’t sit right. It’s funny, yes, but also weird and frightening.
This way of confronting reality allows the artist to expose those fears and frustrations, and then take back control of them. And shows like this make these odd feelings a bit more accessible for everyone.
Get out to the Greater Reston Arts Center (www.restonarts.org) before July 29th to see the show BITE: identity and humor. Gallery Hours: Tues – Sat, 11a.m. – 5p.m.
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