Humor left black and blue at HPAC exhibit

By Ben Rossi

[img id=”80487″ align=”alignleft”] Between the late ’60s and mid-’80s, a number of black comics rose to national prominence by way of their ribald humor, which served as a vehicle for strident social criticism. Richard Pryor, Red Foxx, and Eddie Murphy truly shocked white audiences for a time. But that was then. Now, African-American comedy has been fully assimilated into mainstream culture. But the Hyde Park Art Center (HPAC)—and the artists in the Center’s new exhibit, Disinhibition: Black Art and Blue Humor—apparently missed that memo. Most of the works on view are failures both as art and as humor.

The HPAC website bills the exhibit as a show in which the seven artists address issues that are “typically avoided for being politically incorrect or taboo.” Humor, the description claims, will be used as a “method to forthrightly address societal taboos, prejudice, and stereotypes.” But there isn’t one thing in this exhibit that hasn’t been a common joke for blacks and whites alike for the past 15 years, and most of the works fall back on black comic tropes perfected by comedians of the past.

Take Jayson Musson’s series of posters, the first thing you see as you walk into the gallery. One is simply titled “My Million Dollar Idea,” and in a paragraph of plain text offers an idea for a new reality show about a white person, dropped off in a black neighborhood, trying to find his way to a white neighborhood. Another is a mock advertisement for KatrinaLand, which is simply an inundated New Orleans with a whitewashed, Disneyland spin. The posters are like sketches from Chappelle’s Show that ended up on the cutting room floor, and their minimal artistic value doesn’t redeem their lack of originality.

Elizabeth Axtman’s multimedia pieces run the gamut from mildly interesting to pointless. Her graphite on paper, “Ooga Booga: A Portrait of Jeffrey Lionel Dahmar,” is an arresting, concise drawing that hearkens back to the shape-shifting sensibility of Frida Kahlo. But her video “Where The Play At?”, which shows a woman dancing to hip-hop in front of a burning cross, is pretty inert. Finally, her “Mother Won’t Understand” companion pieces, in which a hooded Ku Klux Klan member fantasizes about a semi-nude, white-hooded black woman, simply grates on the nerves. Both Musson and Axtman seem to be shouting from the rooftops, “Look, I’m funny!”

The most effective works come from Tamasha Williams and David Legett, though their styles and themes are quite different. Williams makes delicate graphite sketches, sometimes embellished with rhinestones and featuring text. One piece, called “The Flyest Chain,” is a drawing of shackles with the word “Bling” spelled in rhinestones underneath it. “We Shall Overcome” is simply a sketch of two empty cartridge cases and the words of that famous civil rights hymn below. The spark of outrage in these pieces seems genuine, though humor is conspicuously lacking. Legett has a much more baroque style; his collection of twenty paintings of various sizes congregate on one wall in a jumble. Thickly daubed acrylic suggests unconnected images dredged up from the unconscious, such as a red-faced policeman and a gun. Little comments run along the top of many of the paintings, mostly concerning the artist’s sexual predilection for white women, his insecurities, and the like. A silkscreen drawing entitled “Big Black MAMA” simultaneously criticizes the comedic trope of “black mama” and recognizes something personal in it. The overall effect is a mix of Richard Pryor and Franz Fanon, a convoluted visual and textual map of the artist’s psychological landscape.

Despite these minor successes, the exhibit fails because its premise is wrong. In a post–Dave Chappelle, post–Chris Rock, post–Eddie Murphy age, blacks and whites enjoy jokes about subjects that were taboo in the ’60s—interracial sexuality, racism, and the African American family. Humor about drug use, hip-hop culture, and white bigotry is marketed to whites even more than blacks—that’s why Chappelle’s Show was so popular. To act as if these artists are doing anything outré or original is to be stunningly naïve about the state of discourse on race in this country.

The question now is whether black humor represents a form of resistance and criticism of ongoing racial inequality, or a way of distracting whites and blacks from the real issues. When jokes that imply grave problems in the black community are mass-marketed to white audiences, does that not entail a tacit acceptance of those problems? Has black humor been co-opted by bourgeois institutions such as art museums? If so, then the subject for these artists should have been whether humor can still be used as a form of artistic protest, or whether the problems are so bad, and the people so apathetic, that less agreeable means must be found.