The Laugh at the End of the Tunnel
By Stacy Davies
RAM’s “The Art of Humor” chronicles historical snarks and snipes that got us through the rough times
When the Roberts Court handed down its 5-4 ruling on healthcare reform last week, I got a little excited. Not excited like my liberal friends who swoon over every accomplishment and ignore every error of the president, and not because, like my conservative friends, I think Satan/a terrorist/a Kenyan citizen is running our country and that the Court’s decision is a sign of an impending Apocalypse. I couldn’t wait to see the political cartoons, and sure enough, even before the ink was dry on the decision, they began popping up like rabid weeds or delirious daisies—depending upon which side of the garden fence you’re sitting.
Political satire and caricature are one of the most enduring legacies of our country, and one of those markers you can still use to gauge freedom, which, from what I’ve seen lately, still exists in spades. That’s not the case around the world, of course, and illustrative jabs at governments, majorities, minorities and anyone or anything else that might deserve a swat (and that’s probably everything), could, in other nations and in centuries past, send the artist to the slammer or even land his head in a basket. In the Riverside Art Museum’s perfectly-timed exhibition of works from their permanent collection, “The Art of Humor,” it’s clear that curator Kathryn Poindexter knows this history well, and she’s assembled an astonishing array of over 500 years worth of paintings, drawings, sculpture and mixed media that speak to the expression of disgust, dismay and glee shrouded in caricature and satire that remind us when you’re truly unhappy or fearful, short of downing a fifth of bourbon, please try to laugh.
The quickest and most universal way to register one’s consent or dissent is through imagery. In our modern American culture this most often exists in the form of a cheaply doctored photograph, or “meme,” accompanied by a brief textual pun or ironic snark (see actor George Takai’s Facebook page to get minute-by-minute updates on everything from cat wisdom to marriage equality). Throughout history, however, it has been artists, and specifically illustrators, who’ve provided us with a wealth of images meant to immediately convey concept.
Laid out in almost perfect chronological order, the exhibit begins with German woodcuts from 1495 and etchings from Francisco Goya circa 1797, with most of the pre-twentieth century work extracted from nonfiction books and novels—and everyone is fair game. In Italian illustrator Carlo Lasinio’s parody of Leonardo Da Vinci’s work, Les Grotesques, for example, Lasinio mimics a series of Da Vinci’s bizarre, deformed and distorted faces in detailed sketches to which he added his own captions, turning them from serious to sardonic and providing his audience with a good yuk at the expense of the less fortunate.
Others, such as artist-turned-cartoonist Paul Gavarni take aim at the foibles of French society, Honoré Daumier blasts the lazy middle class and philandering husbands, and Félix Vallotton’s 1893 zincograph street scenes, which point the finger at police brutality, were considered highly innovative and influential to the art nouveau movement. Heavy hitters are also in residence with several etchings and lithographs from Henri De Toulouse-Lautrec and Salvador Dali.
Modern day artist-activist Kara Walker is also included and her 1997 silhouetted pop-up book of slaves working the fields of the Antebellum South are a perfect example of mixing human horror with the beautifully benign to create an unforgettable impact. Raymond Pettibon, the brother of Black Flag founding member Greg Ginn and the artist responsible for choosing the band’s name and designing their iconic “four bars” logo, adds some punk rock with Thank You for Staying, a gouache and ink Stalin-y portrait that’s a definite anti-authoritarian coup. In another bold move, Poindexter included a collaborative piece by Pasadena Unified School District students who were asked by CAP Projects (Community Arts Partnership Program) to compare past history with a current event, and their poster, History Repeats Itself . . . déjà vu (Barbie’s Deranged) illustrates that much-maligned lady doll’s various incarnations, now with updated, twisty additions.
Each work is accompanied by extensively detailed labels that reveal pertinent highlights about the time period, creator and creation, adding an essential educational dimension to this already stunning collection that makes this the must-see exhibit of the summer—for working or prospective illustrators, certainly, but also for the everyman. This is a slice of human history, a slice of your history, and whenever we take a look backward we find ourselves less alone and less confused, for we experience the comforting paradox that we have always been the same and yet have always been progressing; it’s a soothing salve for ideological wounds, and it reminds us, once again, that the only true portend of the “end of times” is the silencing of self-expression.
“The Art of Humor” at the Riverside Art Museum, 3425 Mission Inn Ave., Riverside, (951) 684-7111; www.riversideartmuseum.org. Open Tues-Sat, 10am-4pm; Sun, noon-4pm. $3-$5. Thru Sept. 15.