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'What's So Funny'? The Gallery Project has your answer

By Erin Steele

Mark Twain once said “Humor is mankind’s greatest blessing.” Gloria Pritschet and Rocco DePietro, founding directors of Gallery Project, share this sentiment, examining humor from many angles in their latest exhibit, “What’s So Funny.”

The jokes told by each piece in "What's So Funny" range from simple wordplay, like Todd Frahm’s bowling pin structure with a carved rabbit (titled Hare Pin) and Tom McMillen-Oakley’s long metal line with multiple protruding fists (Punchline), to heavier commentaries on hot-button topics like animal rights in Sue Coe’s Turnabout is Fair Play, a picture of a pig working in a human meat factory.

“Sometimes people call us a cutting-edge gallery, (but) I think we never try to be cutting-edge or not,” said Pritschet, adding that she firmly stands by the gallery’s commitment to acknowledging all points of view on any given topic, regardless of what visitors may think.

“There have been a couple of times (when) people suggested that we might lose patrons and it doesn’t matter, because we would totally fail ourselves if we backed down because there was something that came into the gallery that had a strong voice for the theme we chose and we turned it down because we were cowards,” she said.

Many of the pieces, however, tackle less controversial subject matter. Detroit-based artist Teresa Petersen creates kitschy assemblages and collages that address the societal expectations of women, among other topics. Some of her collages play with the idea of Mother Nature by depicting housewives cooking for woodland creatures in the mountains or forest.

“I start with a background from the thrift store, like a bad beginner’s painting, and build a story on top of it. They usually end up being kind of funny,” she explained. “(When people say) ‘Women’s natural role is to cook’ it’s like, OK, if it’s so natural there’s a stove in the woods and ladies run around in the woods cooking.”

Ryan Standfest, another Detroit artist, uses gag comic strips expressing humor as a defense mechanism and, he says, “the concept of the absurd or folly, something that’s doomed to fail.”

“It’s not the subject that usually screams out humor, but I think a lot of humor actually comes from failure and people’s attempt to deal with that failure by making a joke out of it,” he explained.

While Standfest thinks someone with a darker sense of humor will most appreciate his work, he said “everyone can relate to failure, and everybody can relate to this absurd idea that we make jokes in order to get through the day and to get through difficult situations.”

Some of Pritschet’s work is also featured in the exhibit, including a photograph titled Ursus Thermometerus globus calafacio, in which a thermometer is placed on a white wall that she believes uncannily resembles the face of a polar bear, similar to likenesses of Jesus found on toast.

“I was just taking other photographs looking at different angles of things, (and I said) ‘Oh my God, I’ve seen a polar bear in my thermometer. This is a sign of global warming!’,” she said. Her goal is to make a statement without causing too many waves.

“I’m making a point, but I would never argue with anyone about global warming because I’m not up for that kind of argument,” she said.

Another contribution from Pritschet, DePietro and Mike Sivak is the collection of photographs titled Sad Keanu Meme Visits Ann Arbor, in which a picture of a sad Keanu Reeves is worked into various Ann Arbor backgrounds. These photos, along with Anthony Fontana’s piece Sculpture Fail — a heap of broken pencils — deal with online cultural phenomena known as memes.

To extend the range of humor in the exhibit, Pritschet and DePietro also include interactive pieces, like Automatic Bachelor Pad, a tiny nook decorated with tiny pianos, flashing lights and a self-emptying ashtray, among other eclectic items. High Five 4000 doles out high fives when a foot pedal is pressed. These and other interactive works open a door for the public to connect with art that is more accessible.

 “We always try, besides getting a real geographic range and a real range of artistic level, to have a whole range of media,” Pritschet said. “Rocco and I interact with people (who visit the gallery), and we also encourage people to bring their children. We’re committed to kids being in the gallery.”

Pritschet hopes that when visitors leave the exhibit, “they found something funny here, a kindred spirit who has the same sense of humor they do, (and) that maybe there’s something that makes them stop and think.”

“You can break a barrier with humor, and I think that’s just very exciting and powerful,” she added.