Garden Rant
Gardening While Intoxicated
Buffalo Spree


A year ago, Licata became the fourth member of a group of garden bloggers with an attitude. Garden Rant one of my favorites: A blend of gossip, news, crusade and, yes, raw rant, it blows the cobwebs out of gardening's mustier corners.

–Adrian Higgins,
Washington Post

... co-curators Elizabeth Licata and Amy Cappellazzo have magnificently transcended the limitations of what is, at bottom, a show of books. ...Preciousness—the bane of such exhibitions—is nowhere in evidence.

–Richard Huntington,
Buffalo News

"Garden Walk Buffalo: A Celebration of Urban Gardens," is a tour guide into dozens of gardens during the annual event held the last full weekend in July. It's knowingly written by Buffalo Spree editor Elizabeth Licata, and packed with gorgeous photographs...

–Mark Sommer,
Buffalo News

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Art Writer

Getting It (exhibition response essay)

Prior to World War II, parts of old elevated subways--torn down in New York and Chicago--were sold in the normal course of trade to the Japanese as raw material for industry. Nobody foresaw that the scrap metal would be transformed into various instruments of destruction, or that the fragments might be returned across the Pacific embedded in the bodies of American servicemen. The poet e.e. cummings mentioned this circumstance in his bitterly satiric 1944 poem, plato told, implying that the impact of philosophical precedent and direct logical address could never be as powerful as irony.

But wait. Before I talk further about the power of irony, it must be stated that this essay is in response to Faith in Doubt, an exhibition whose curators emphatically define ironic effects in strict opposition to purely humorous effects. And then it must be stated that I will continue to talk about the power of irony. Any exhibition calling forth the weapons of decorative abstraction to defuse the cacophony and confusion of endgame cultural politics may certainly be humorous but is also--to me--the essence of irony. I will also continue to use the metaphors of combat in discussing both humor and irony. As even a few minutes of exposure to one of the most prevalent forms of humor in our culture--stand-up comedy--will demonstrate, humor is at its most effective when used as a weapon or a shield.

Much of contemporary art investing in an ironic stance takes part in a sneak attack--more benign than the one immortalized by cummings--on our cultural consciousness. Rather than the deep, disruptive resonance of Duchampian conceptual gesture, contemporary referencing strategies operate at a multi-layered remove from the initial transgressive impact of Duchamp's appropriations. Now, when appropriation is the strategy, we take the gesture for granted, exploring the context/content of the appropriation for hidden barbs. When an artist such as Richard Prince tells an appropriated joke in one of his works, we analyze his practice against a background of postDuchampian strategies: the critique of pop culture, theories of simulation/replication, and a Derridean questioning of the function of language itself. Given this tumultuous backdrop, how to respond to an exhibition which surveys the function of humor/irony in the work of nine contemporary artists--an exhibition full of gentle ambushes usually hidden under a colorful, attractive veneer of mock formalist abstraction? It helps to start with a few basic questions.

What kind of jokes are these? Humor is a large and very specialized field and even within the smaller subset of humor expressed through art, there are many different categories. The humor of a 45-foot high clothespin sitting outside an office building (Claes Oldenburg) belongs in one category, the humor of Mona Lisa with a moustache and a lewd caption (Marcel Duchamp) belongs in yet another, and the humor of three dimensional baseball cards spoofing the Apollo landing (Jim Pomeroy) demands still another category. As different as these three examples are, they do share a transgressive resonance that is clearly besides the point for the artists of Faith in Doubt. Theirs is the humor of complicity, a compromise with modernist traditions made possible, one suspects, through either a reluctance on the part of the artists to embroil themselves in the culture wars or their sly conviction that a quieter wit, one--like cumming's "nipponized bit of/the old sixth/ avenue/el"--wrapped in the presumably harmless detritus of the dominant culture, will eventually prove the most effective weapon in undermining that culture's power structure. But are these the only jokes that can work now? Is transgressive humor as impotent or as irrelevant as the first critical attacks on Duchamp's urinal or Pollock's drips? In all fairness, I don't think that's what Faith in Doubt is saying.

Rather, artists like Carl Ostendarp and Tom Moody are working in the familiar and, yes, subversive tradition of exposing the false dichotomies and bland assumptions of both popular and high culture, although their deconstructions may be more visually pleasurable than those of previous generations (depending on your taste). I'm reminded of the work of the artist Charles Clough whose first critiques of mass media representation and replication in the early 1980's involved the juxtaposition of photography and finger painting. He soon decided that his critique could be more effective if he discarded the photographic machinery and pretended to engage in all-out orgy of Greenbergian painterlyness. His work became funnier, but, like that of some of the artists in Faith in Doubt, also ran the risk of being charged with complicity to the point of blind or openly cynical allegiance. Another artist who came to prominence through questioning representation, Cindy Sherman, is mentioned in Faith in Doubt's curatorial essay as part of the first wave of such conceptual criticism, but her works are referred to as reproducing media-produced identities. Like many other critiques and revamps, in the rush to affirm a new paradigm, the previous one is sold a bit short. As anyone who has looked at one of Sherman's eerie "self-portraits" is aware, she is engaged with an ongoing psychosexual dramatic interplay that can never be completely conquered or defined by representation. Her critique is really a serious and transgressive exploration of representation's possibilities, possibilities which her audiences find increasingly disturbing.

Which brings us to the second question, a simple one. Who is supposed to get these jokes? As I recall, the one work which seemed to draw immediate and appreciative feedback as an a brilliant and outrageous goof on 60's environmental art and 70's kitsch was Sylvia Fleury's room filled with a blindingly pink shag rug and a TV. And that was mainly because the room was so big and so pink. Like Oldenburg's clothespin, it was resoundingly there-you didn't need to know about Smithson or De Maria to enjoy it. Nothing else in the exhibition offered such instant gratification, and we do need to ask if this is problematic. Should a work of art containing such in-jokes be subjected to a bi-polar critical evaluation, one assessment critiquing the work without its possibly obscure references and the other treating it in its conceptual entirety? A question that could be applied to much of conceptual art, and thus one that many of art's "in-crowd" will find very tedious, I admit. But in the context of this exhibition, which raises a point of confluence so universal as humor, the question gains some obvious relevance. Whereas Oldenburg's clthespin entices first for its surface humor and secondly for bonus giggles such as a formal reference to Rodin's The Kiss and an all-encompassing critique of modernist monoliths in general, most of the works in Faith in Doubt beguile through their formal qualities, remaining poker-faced about the royal flush of cross-cultural hilarity they may be holding close to their chests. These are the types of questions that will inevitably be raised when you use the words "humor in art" in an exhibition. Ultimately, the most flamboyant gesture in the show is the curators' bold-faced defiance in reversing the flow of such thematic shows, suggesting that if you think formal qualities of color, pattern, media, and composition are enough to base an exhibition on, then the joke will always be on you, but you may as well have a good time not getting it.

One final dumb question. Is humor important in art? Certainly irony and subtlety are essential tools for artists who want to be players rather than victims of the various cultural arenas. But jokes are equally as important. In "everyday life," jokes are how we personalize events, transform them from generic pronouncements to intimate reality; through jokes we create meaning. But too often in the art world, we¹re afraid of jokes, even ones as subtle and savvy as those made by the artists of Faith in Doubt. Art audiences resent when they suspect they¹re being made fun of and artists usually refuse to be laughed at. Artists are hyped as "serious" artists rather than just regular ones and the yearning towards dignity above all is carried to ridiculous extremes. It's partially how the art world becomes vulnerable to attacks by aesthetic reactionaries and the far right, and partially a result of those attacks. The curators and artists of Faith in Doubt have created an essential forum for reinvigorating and reconsidering the possibilities of humor in a climate that can really use it.

University of Buffalo Art Gallery, 1996

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