Why Isn't Art Funny More Often?
A roundtable discussion between critic Whitney Kimball and artists Jamie Warren, Jibz Cameron, and Guy Richards Smit.
Art is often described with words like subversive or challenging or thought-provoking or even disturbing, but work hardly ever gets referred to as "funny." Sometimes a piece is commended for using humor to make whatever point there is to be made: a piece of bronze turned into a cardboard box or some ironically-placed grassy knoll. But we rarely laugh. If Glenn Lowry walks into a bar, it is to drink or to network; he does not bring a rabbi with him.
So when a legitimately funny person comes along, I often want to follow them everywhere out of sheer gratitude. Those people include: Grossmalerman [Guy Richards Smit], who skewers the art world through a sitcom and stand-up performances; Dynasty Handbag [Jibz Cameron], who does grating and queerified impressions of mainstream culture; and Jaimie Warren, who remixes celebrity photos and co-runs the amazing project Whoop Dee Doo, a bizarre traveling community variety show for kids (featuring a mix of guts, poop, color guard, drag queens, members of the National Guard, hardcore rock bands, often for middle America). If the art world had its own Mr. Show, these people would write it.
And for people who most often appear in public sweating, screaming, or doing Gallagher impersonations, they're the most pleasant, un-self-promoting artists you'll ever meet. Recently, a bowl of chips and hummus in Jibz's cozy Brooklyn apartment, we discussed art humor, humor, bombing, hecklers, and taking risks in front of uptight audiences. And poop.
VICE: When you started making art, what was your concept of art? How did you start thinking about art and what it could be?
Guy Richards Smit: I was born and raised in New York City, my dad was an art historian. For me, it was really old school—I got really into 30s radicalism, murals, and just the idea of pamphleteering. But I was never very interested in [contemporary] studio art, people being so locked in a world of aesthetics. I liked the idea of commentary, satire, a certain meanness, a certain kind of anger...
Like directed at the art world?
No, I liked art that had a certain kind of meanness—not in an elitist way, but kind of an anger that was direct in a way that was not compliant.
I was in grad school at Rutgers, and I saw Mike Smith's work, an early video artist. He did this character, "Mike." He's this everyday loser. There's this video, " Go for It, Mike," and it's the saddest, most amazing celebration of averageness that's ever been made. I saw that and realized this is what I want to do.
It was so direct and so full of pathos, and you couldn't stop laughing. And then he has a character called " Baby Ikki"...he's a 60-year-old man now, and he gets into a big diaper, and he looks like a baby from the 50s or something. It's the stupidest fucking thing you've ever seen, but you're riveted; he does this thing where he'll offer someone a Snickers bar or a banana, and they'll say "No thank you"—and then he'll take it back and kind of smush it and offer it to them again. Then he'll throw it at the person, but he does the mimicry of the baby's movements so perfectly that you're completely... it's like a play. There are no words spoken, it's just this stupid thing.
And visually, he's just a funny-looking guy, with a permanent five o'clock shadow.
So I knew that what I wanted was different, and I didn't know how to do it. I kept making pretentious attempts...
I had a "sad terrorist" character. I remember making this video that was really long, I was getting into these jump cuts, and didn't really land.
I was at Rutgers, and there's this longstanding [conceptual] performance history there. And the idea of performing without acknowledging the audience in some way and what their needs might be... it just seemed lazy, quite frankly. There was never any planning ahead, and it was also slightly spiteful of the audience in some way.
I mean, I understand working with the audience in that way. I've done tons of performances where I fail miserably and there's complete discomfort in the audience, and it's supposed to be like that. I did a performance as a Dutch performance artist who comes to America (this was at Performa a couple of years ago)... a big, exciting night! And I brought a European plug for my boom box. And everyone on stage knew they weren't allowed to help me. I have tons of equipment, and it takes forever to set it up, and the boom box won't work with the music, and it was so sad, and I was sweating, and people were trying to figure out how to help. And this thing took at least seven minutes, maybe, tops.
One thing American popular culture has figured out is how to squeeze maximum pathos out of the minimum amount of time. Those are useful tools, I think.
Jibz, how did you think about art when you started making art?
Jibz Cameron: Well, I was a theater kid– I was really into performing and I thought I was going to be an actor, I loved dance. But as soon as I hit adolescence, I went downhill fast. I dropped out of high school, and I ended up becoming a sort of an angsty punk. I left home really early, and then I wasn't going to be an actor because I was hanging out with my queer little artist friends who were playing music and whatever.
And then when I was 20, I started to feel like I had missed out on a lot—everyone I knew had gone to college. I was making a lot of these sad but funny comics, and one of my friends at the San Francisco Art Institute was like you could totally get into this school with these. He convinced me. And I got in.
But when I got there, I had such a bad attitude about fine art. I didn't understand it, and I felt threatened by it. I wanted everything to be funny, and if I wasn't funny I thought it suuucked. It was lame.
Later I kind of figured out video work... This was the early 90s, so we had Tony Labat, Kathy Acker was there for a minute, all these cool people... and it started to make sense to me that I needed to make videos. All of a sudden it all exploded into one thing. But now I think that I have a little bit of a hard time defining categories... performance, comedy, musicals, theater, activism, all kinds of things. I feel like it's so relative.
Guy: I never have any idea what [job] box to check when I apply for grants. Like, what do you need me to be?
Jibz: PS, I like art now.
Jaimie Warren: I'm still trying to figure it out, but mostly for many years I've basically been an organizer of sorts. When I was young, my thing was always organizing people to do stuff like giant capture the flag games or haunted houses or stuff like that. And I've been in the Midwest till last year, so it's always been about making your own entertainment.
When I had by first image published in a magazine in VICE in 2001, it was for an article called "Ode to the Fat Friend," and I submitted an image of myself. It was a funny self-portrait, and they asked for more. I said I didn't have any more, but then I looked through my photos and realized I had hundreds of them, I was doing it constantly for my own entertainment.
So it's still this process and I'm still figuring it out, and I'm also obsessed with celebrity. I'm really stuck in the 80s and 90s, too. I'd say that's about 90 percent of the music I listen to. I don't feel like it's being nostalgic, it's just what I like. And shows that I grew up with... So it's really focusing on stuff from pop culture. I'm not amazing with art history... I appreciate it but it's not necessarily my expertise.
But you've been making art historical murals.
I know... I pull from it, but if I have Missy Elliot in a painting, I know more about Missy Elliot than I know about Fra Angelico. [Laughs]
Jibz—have you ever been in front of an audience that you felt was the wrong audience for you? And bombed?
Jibz: Yeaaahhh... I've done regular stand-up, and that's a totally different world. If you perform in front of an art audience, they know that they're looking for many things. When when I do stand-up, it's very clear when things are not going very well. The costuming [of Dynasty Handbag] gives it this other dimension where I can just go into Weirdotown when I want to, which is good.
Guy: One thing I would say that art still offers more than any other place—if you walk into a gallery, anything is possible. If someone stands in front of you, anything is possible.
Jibz: Yeah, in art, you have to be, you know, open... but stand-up, there's one thing you have to do, and that's be funny. That's it. It doesn't matter what your message is.
As far as bombing goes, I've performed so many times in so many different situations, and I have had so many terrible shows. So yeah. It happens. I was booed off the stage once in Paris. I was at my show, doing my thing, and these fucking French hoes were like, "Fuck yooou beech get of the stage you suuck you sink you areah Peacheeez!" This was more what I was doing more music in my set, and it was early in my solo stuff, so I didn't have the nuts to deal with it gracefully. I got so upset. I was like, "You wanna do it?? Fine, come up, get on stage, you do it. And I handed this girl the microphone and stomped off."
Jaimie: She took it?
Jibz: There were like, high, and I dunno. I would never deal with it in that way now. I would just join in with them and be like, "I weesh I wiz Peeacheezz!" Or something, you know.
Jaimie: Being able to handle hecklers is a big part of being a comedian, right? You could be a master at it.
Jibz: For sure, you've gotta take it and not get mad. That's the worst, when you see someone crack from that. It's really sad. It's intense. The main thing for me is to go for it joyfully, imagine that everyone is there because they wanna have fun, they're not going because they hate you. Nobody's like, "I'm gonna go out and I'm gonna have a TERRIBLE night!" Plus, you can always be like, "I know, I do suck. This is pathetic, I know, I'm sorry, blaahh." Or you just ignore it or whatever. But if I'm too much in my own head onstage, it's not going to be a good show.
What about you, Guy and Jaimie? Have you bombed, and was it because of the audience?
Guy: Yeah it was because of them! [laughs] No, I first started doing Grossmalerman in '96. And I was doing it live a lot. And he started off very antagonistic. He'd show up sweaty...
He's always kinda sweaty.
Well yeah that's his whole thing. Basically, when I first invented him, he was kind of this Julian Schnabel character. Everything I hated about painters. I love painting, but I've never been, like, a tech head. I've never cared about brushes. Being like that is somewhat laughable to me. And so I'd come out and do these things, and some of them I would do so well that people were offended by my jokes.
Because he was such an asshole?
Yeah, he was an asshole, he was this sexist jerk. This is in the mid 90s. Art school was really different. There was alternative comedy, but I feel like you can get away with a lot more now. People would be really angry.
I was living in Greenpoint at the time, and I was in this building full of alcoholic artists. I'm probably a lot older now than they were then, but I was 25 and they were just ancient to me. There were all bitter, male, they wanted to be [Richard] Diebenkorn, they wanted to walk around in Carhartts. I hated them. I had no sympathy for them. And now Grossmalerman is a slightly more sympathetic character. I remember it was Deborah Kass who defended me, got up in front of this bunch of kids who were going off on my work, and she was like...
At Skowhegan, the artist residency?
Yeah, she was there... and Martha Rosler has defended the work to kids, too. But it was literally at a time when the work had to be defended.
Were you in character during the whole residency?
No, no, not at all! Which was probably, actually, worse because I'd show these videos and people would be like, Why do you want to make these... Why do you want to make the world a little worse? Who's this shitty person, and why do we have to watch him?
But one of the reasons I made them as videos is because I was terrified to do them live. In the first videos there would be no laugh track, just these awkward pauses. And I'd be alone in the room doing this stand-up, like Stand Up in Defense of Painting. And the funny moment actually happens in the pause, you're just like luhhhuguugh.
Jaimie, have you ever bombed?
Jaimie: Well, um, performance stuff is still pretty new to me–in that it's something I lead and do myself. I think I've done it a dozen times or so. I can't watch video of myself, still. I'm just starting to be OK with it. I still have to drink a little bit.
So what I did with Jibz a year and a half ago...
I was terrified and very nervous, and I can't really see the audience when I was doing this. I did a performance as Little Richard, who transformed into GG Allin and then... first, I was a head on a plate of food and then everyone would eat the food, and then I would bust out of this table with all this food on it and underneath there was a piano with Little Richard, and then I'd rip off all my clothes and underneath I was naked GG Allin. I wasn't naked, I had a nudie suit on.
Guy: The little G-string he used to wear?
Jaimie: No, just tighty whities with poop stains all around. Fake poop. And a fake little tiny pee-pee.
Jibz: The Little Richard costume was so incredible. That's the thing about your work, it's just like the dedication to the aesthetic is so fuckin' fantastic.
Jaimie: Well, that was made by Lee Heinemann.
Jibz: Yeah, but you brought all this shit with you from Kansas City, and it was just a four-day tour.
Jaimie: Yeah I brought a lot of stuff.
There was one time when I was curating a performance series, and Jaimie had me pop up from the audience as the girl from The Exorcist. Jaimie had a full makeup kit for me. She was teaching me how to put blood on my face, and she was like, "Well you wanna put on this red face paint and then you get some Vaseline to make the blood really stand out." I was only standing up for five seconds, in the pitch black.
Jaimie: In case someone takes a picture!!
My last question is if you could sum up one inspiration or humor thing that encapsulates what you find funny, what would that be?
Jibz: This is always such a hard question for me, about the influences. It's all in there. All those people, all those books, all that music, all those films, all the celebrities.
Jaimie: Roseanne Barr singing the National Anthem in 1990.To me, that's the greatest moment in history.
Jibz: [Laughing] That is fucking incredible, Jaimie Warren.
See Jaimie Warren's Horrorfest 2015 from this month's VICE magazine
Follow art critic Whitney Kimball on Twitter.