Sunday, March 5, 2023

A Show I Missed: “Wit, Humor, Satire”

If I listed all the exhibitions that I wanted to see that I missed, I could fill a few volumes, for example the Vermeer show that opens this month at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. The one I am about to write about I have no excuse for missing since it was only an hour away at the Albuquerque Museum, but so it goes. I salved my wounds by acquiring the 218- page catalog which clearly came out after the exhibition opened.

The Museum Director, Andrew Connors, reports that one of the visitors wrote in the museum’s comment book, “This exhibition isn’t very funny”. How often have you thought that someone has no sense of humor? We all literally have a different sense of humor. What one individual might perceive as comical satire, another may take as an attack on their beliefs. Just between husband and wife we find we are not always laughing at what the other finds funny.

The Albuquerque exhibition draws exclusively on the Museum’s permanent collection which is limiting, but it turns out that there was more than enough material. It must have been an enjoyable process for the curators looking at the collection and picking and choosing. Just as with my Missives, once I start with what I think is a limited subject I find that there is so much more that I had not thought of in the first place.

The Museum’s chief curator Josie Lopez, quotes the American humorist James Thurber, “The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people – that is people everywhere, not of the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.” Fro myself I prefer works that that do not require an explanation, but like, with everything else, in order to properly understand the subject, context is needed. Obviously, that is truer of satire than any other form.

I will highlight just a few of the more that 100 works in the exhibition.

Jewelry is one of the art forms of Native American culture. An unknown Zuni artist chose this medium to blend Native and Anglo cultures in a necklace of silver beads and with Disney characters in traditional Zuni inlay, including Micky and Minnie converging at the bottom. I can see it being viewed differently if it is worn by another Native American, who may see it as satire, or by an Anglo taking it just as amusement.

Patrick McGrath Muñiz, an artist I have mentioned several times over the years and devoted a Missive to his work ( titles his painting, “The Disneyfication of a Hero”. This 2010 work measures 38 x 52 inches so it is difficult to see all the detail in the image below. The classical hero Hercules is surrounded with images from the history of various cultures including Muñiz’ native Puerto Rico. There are references to violence and threats such as the censorship of books, (on the right is the 16th century Spanish prelate who burned Mayan scriptures). These disturbing images are mitigated by Disney characters scattered throughout the painting.

A drawing by Julio Fernandez Larraz satirizes President Lynden Baines Johnson speaking ata Meeting of the National Alliance of Businessmen in 1968, thanking them and encouraging them to hire more workers in order to get more people working and stimulate the economy. The President mentioned Henry Ford ll several times, praising him as a leader of the group. Larrraz responded with this caricature of a two-headed figure of Johnson with his foot in an old car and holding a screwdriver and Ford with his foot in one of his new models holding a pencil … the two united for a single purpose.

I once owned a print of the 1974 photograph by Judy Dater included in the exhibiton. It is an image that always made me smile. The revered photographer Imogen Cunningham, at the age of 90, is shown coming across the model Twinka Thiebaud in the woods. Imogen looks surprised and Twinka seems embarrassed by this famous photographer seeing her for the first time in her state of undress. Dater thought of the image as a take off on Thomas Hart Benton’s 1938 voyeuristic “Perephone” in the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Are any of these images Wit, Humor or Satire? It all depends on you the viewer, not necessarily the artist.

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