Comic Future Makes Me Feel Blue
Comic Future, an exhibition curated by Fairfax Dorn and installed at Ballroom Marfa in Texas through February 2, 2014, reveals the dismantling of comedic devices by two of the artists, Carroll Dunham and Paul McCarthy.
Blue Planet (84 ¼ by 60 inches), a painting by Dunham (father of Lena Dunham of Girls fame), renders the largest form of the canvas blue in an ovoid, amorphous blob, central to the composition. Surrounding this prominent blue form, the “planet,” are seemingly violent flicks of darker grays and blacks that shoot downwards toward the edges of the canvas. Gestural markings appear throughout the composition: smatterings of gray pigment, dots, drips, and smudges, and some cloud-like formations. The color palette of the entire painting is cool — blues, grays and blacks.
Who inhabits this blue planet? Several anthropomorphic forms recur that could be called the antagonists of the painting. The figures are cartoon-like, sword-carrying “rectangles from hell,” as the artist describes in a recent interview on the Marfa Public Radio Station. The “sword-men” have no eyes, no legs or body. They look like machine-heads with exposed and grated teeth. Each sword-man has one arm outstretched behind him, as if coiled for attack; in one downward stroke, his other arm slices. Because the form recurs and seems mechanized, a video-game superhero is evoked, insinuating also the repetition of the action of slicing over and over again.
The mechanized sword-men belong in this climate of chaos, and could be the cause of the chaos. It begins to seem that the sword-men have literally bludgeoned the world, puncturing through and wounding the land to death like incessant despoilers without an off-switch.
Madness occupies the mood of Blue Planet, both through subject matter and formal execution. The artist employs incessant, crazed lines. Technique mimics the action Dunham’s cartoon characters affect, as well. Was the artist in a crazed mental state when he painted Blue Planet?
Mark Twain wrote, “Humor is tragedy plus time.” On the contrary, I begin to notice additional distressing elements of the exhibition the longer I examine the works in Comic Future, which only superficially appear humorous because of the cartoonish and childlike imagery, caricatures, and bright colors. None of the works outright “provoke laughter” in me. Initially, I experience shock, most notably in relation to Paul McCarthy’s video installation, Painter.
I recall watching Pee-wee Herman on TV in my childhood, peering at the actor’s madcap antics and through to the underlying currents of melancholy. As a child, I couldn’t take my eyes off Pee-wee. He galumphed and triumphed through set-as-spectacle in which the actor had to effectively become crazy to carry off the uncanny reality.
In McCarthy’s work, the “painter,” pacing and unsettled, enters a room muttering to himself (like a crazy person). This is the opening scene of the almost-hour-long video installation, in which McCarthy plays the main character. He wears a giant nose, a blonde wig, and a hospital gown; he has massive hands and elephantine ears. Only a few items fill the set: oversized, Oldenburg-esque tubes of paint, a table, and floor-to-ceiling blank canvas. Occasionally, as if in an attempt to address the audience, McCarthy voices animalistic grunts between intelligible statements such as, “Try to listen; try not to think; try to see things my way.”
McCarthy’s caricature resembles devices also used to attract the attention of children, like on Pee-wee’s Playhouse. Also, he seems to be setting up the content of an instructional video on how to paint, but is unable to perform this task as the character digresses into schizophrenic breakdowns. After placing his hands on his head in dismay, the character spins in circles, endlessly repeating “De Kooning, De Kooning, De Kooning”. He tries to paint, but ultimately creates nothing more than a mess of materials, covering the room and the canvas. Finally, the painter mutters to himself, “Don’t try; you can’t do it anymore. Don’t think about those people out there.” The video lives online as well, in its entirety.
When I consider the works in Comic Future being placed in Marfa, I cannot exclude the history that Marfa was put on the “art scene’s map” by Donald Judd. When relating this history to the exhibition theme of tragic comedy, I recall Judd’s fervent stance that painting was over. However, in this comic future, curator Dorn has created an alternative reality in which self-contained artwork, mostly paintings, exist in close proximity to the orthodox minimalisms of Judd. Actually, it’s this perspective that makes me laugh! How funny!