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Gallery Project takes a look at 'What's So Funny?'

By John Carlos Cantu

Gallery Project's show “What’s so Funny” asks the question the gallery grapples with on a regular basis: What’s funny about anything today?

The gallery’s artists are so motivated by their various agendas, it’d seem questionable if they could find anything remotely entertaining about 21st century America. Yet there’s a lot of amusement in these sidelong glances of contemporary art.

Many of these artists are offspring of Marcel Duchamp’s 1920s New York Dada. They’re therefore accustomed to bending art to their whimsy. The gallery statement notes that humor is “rooted in culture, so what is funny to one person might be lost on another.”

And there’s no doubt about this; because clearly, the notion of what’s funny often ends up being a question of whose ox is being gored — and there’s plenty of goring going on in this exhibit.

But the gallery also notes that humor can “overcome resistance and bypass preconceptions to make a point” by defusing “conflicts and differences to build a moment of shared experience.”

The art in this display, says the gallery, is “biting, pointed, sarcastic, broad, and oblique — direct or implicit, intellectual, conceptual, or just plain silly, even goofy.

“It can be visual, verbal, sonic, active, time based, or subtly reflective,” concludes the gallery statement, “being “personal, social, political, environmental, intergalactic, or seemingly pointless.” And that pretty much clears the board.

The exhibit has been crafted with a knowing smile by Gallery Project directors Gloria Pritschet and Rocco DePietro. A partial list of contributors: Walter Behrnes, Sarah Buckius, DePietro, Todd Frahm, Vince Mountain, Mike Myers, Frank Pahl, Tim Pewe, Pritschet, Bethany Shorb, Mike Sivak, Ryan Standfast, Malcolm Tulip, Tom Walsh, Ellen Wilt, and Robin Wilt.

Some of the more interesting artworks challenge art’s authenticity itself. Of these works, two deserve specific mention: Todd Frahm’s marble and alabaster “White Trash” and Vince Mountain’s mixed-media painting “Gone Bananas.”

A blank post-painterly mustard yellow painting with six thoroughly rotten bananas attached to its metal working surface, Mountain’s “Bananas” questions the validity (never mind the seriousness) of the artistic impulse through its perishing and non-perishable nature.

Frahm’s marble and alabaster “White Trash,” by way of contrast, is a three-dimensional tour de force focusing on art’s contemporary commoditization. The work’s impulse comes from Duchamp’s seminal 1921 “Why Not Sneeze Rose Selavy?” in which he mingled 152 marble cubes with a thermometer and cuttlebone in a cage. Frahm just raises the stakes with his ghostly life-size detergent bottle, Styrofoam cup, plastic milk jug, and beverage bottle. These faux everyday commodities just happen to be works of art liberating their medium to new heights (or lows, I suppose) as trompe l’oeil.

The most thorough-going humorous activity taking place in the exhibit falls along the lines of the Gallery Project’s specialty: installation art with a novel twist. Vince Mountain, Frank Pahl, and Malcolm Tulip’s heady “Automatic Bachelor Pad” in the gallery’s rear alcove includes a self-emptying ash tray; disco trash can; smokeless pipe with lamps and stands; automatic table with glass top and switch; and automatic toy pianos, in its self-induced multi-faceted Dionysian reverie. It’s pretty much a riot going on.

On the other hand — and whoa — flashing forward to the future of art are Mike Sivak, DePietro, and Pritschet’s color photograph series, “Sad Keanu Meme Visits Ann Arbor.” Using the “Keanu in a helmet” meme (which is itself a sub meme of the online “Sad Keanu Meme”), Sivak, DePietro, and Pritschet have relocated the actor in six local backdrops, photoshopping his image in mournful poses.

All-in-all, however, the exhibit’s colorful capper has to be Tom Walsh’s photographic “Bottle Cap.” This tiny masterwork is a tiny green face crafted out of dots and dashes artlessly nestled within a green soft drink bottle cap. Impassively peering at the viewer from its comfy confines, Walsh’s “Bottle Cap” raises the issue of art and identity through its simple gestalt. It takes a lot of talent to successfully conceptualize this kind of miniature aesthetic, and Walsh has a lot of fun pulling our leg.

“What’s so Funny” will continue through Nov. 28 at Gallery Project, 215 S. Fourth Ave. Exhibit hours are noon-9 p.m. Tuesday-Saturday; and noon-4 p.m. Sunday. For information, call 734-997-7012.