DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park

Lincoln, MA



Lighten Up: Art with a Sense of Humor

February 3 - May 28, 2001


Come to DeCordova and laugh at art! Lighten Up: Art with a Sense of Humor is a national group thematic exhibition that explores the use of humor in American contemporary art. The show will include hilarious paintings, sculpture, photographs, drawings, digital art, video art, and multi-media installations by 16 artists/artist teams.

Lighten Up is focused on artists who consistently employ humor as an overt, rather than a subtle or veiled, strategy in their work. The types of humor represented in Lighten Up include visual and verbal puns, satire, camp, irony, jokes at the expense of contemporary art and art history, the absurd, the bawdy, the unexpected, and the utterly ridiculous. While humor -- often laugh-out-loud humor -- pervades the artistic sensibilities presented in Lighten Up, it does not thoroughly circumscribe the meaning of the artworks. Humor is not valued as an end in itself, but as a means to afford access to a myriad of contemporary issues. By using humor, artists can break down a viewer's resistance, perform an end-run around reason, and create a receptive emotional climate for the delivery of impassioned, provocative, or subversive messages. Themes addressed by the artists in Lighten Up dovetail with many of the serious concerns of contemporary art theory and practice: gender, the body, feminism, personal and cultural identity, geopolitics, art historical revisionism, mass culture and consumerism, rampant technology, and the role of the artist.

Participating artists include established figures, long known for their commitment to humor as a vital means of contemporary expression, as well as emerging artists. Lighten Up includes work by Karl Baden, Teddy Dibble, Karin Giusti, Philip Knell, Cary Leibowitz/Candyass, Christopher " Lucky" Leone, Heidi Marston, Todd McKie, Pat Oleszko, Tom Otterness, Erika Rothenberg, Jeff Smith (CEO of American Emergency Safety Co.), Peter Thibeault, Jeffu Warmouth, William Wegman, and the artist teams of Steve Aishman and Heidi Marston, and Lev and Emre Yilmaz.

Lighten Up is organized by the DeCordova curatorial team of Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, Nick Capasso, George Fifield, and Gillian Nagler, and is accompanied by a full-color exhibition catalogue; the publication has been generously funded by The Lois and Richard England Family Foundation. DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park is funded in part by the Institute of Museum Services, a federal agency, and the Massachusetts Cultural Council, a state agency which also receives support from the National Endowment for the Arts.


Statement by the Curators:

Lighten Up is devoted to the overt use of humor in contemporary art, humor that is brash, bold, up-front, and actually funny.
Humor has been an important strategy for artists throughout history. This is especially true during the last few decades when the aesthetic floodgates have opened to myriad approaches to form, style, subject, and content. This prevailing climate of pluralism has been welcoming to jokesters and tricksters of all stripes. But humor in the visual arts today is dominated by subtle, even mercurial, types of wit based on clever irony, veiled meanings, and inside jokes. The artworks in this exhibition are different. They are made to provoke laughter, not knowing smirks. In Lighten Up, humor is meant to embrace, not exclude. Humor is used as a vehicle to widen audiences, to get viewers to let down their guard, and allow people to laugh with, rather than at, contemporary art. Of course, not everyone will find everything in the show humorous, and most viewers will disagree on whether any particular artwork is a gut-buster or a real groaner. Herein lies the challenge of creating humorous art, as well as the challenge of organizing exhibitions that purport to be funny.
The 16 artists and artist teams in Lighten Up rely on a number of types of overt humor: satire, self-deprecation, visual and verbal puns, black humor, the unexpected, the bawdy, the irreverent, and the ridiculous. But as funny as all this seems, these are works of art -- not just jokes. On the formal and aesthetic level, this is evident in the high level of craft and mastery of media displayed by each of the artists. The artworks in Lighten Up tend to be colorful, bold, graphic, and in all ways visually attention-grabbing, Moreover, on the level of content, the meaning in these works goes well beyond the overtly funny surface messages. By using humor, the artists break down a viewer's resistance perform an end-run around conscious critical (and often dismissive) faculties, and create a receptive emotional climate for the delivery of impassioned, provocative, or subversive messages. These dovetail with many of the serious concerns of contemporary art theory and practice: gender, the body, feminism, personal and cultural identity and stereotyping, geopolitics, religion, art historical revisionism, mass culture and consumerism, rampant technology, power and powerlessness, alienation, and the role of the artist.
The exhibition catalogue for Lighten Up: Art with a Sense of Humor was funded in part by a generous grant from The Lois and Richard England Family Foundation.
Rachel Rosenfield Lafo, Senior Curator; Nick Capasso, Curator; George Fifield, Curator of Media Arts; Gillian Nagler, Curatorial Fellow

Steve Aishman and Heidi Marston

"When first meeting someone, it is usually unacceptable to show much more than surface emotion, but it is acceptable to tell a joke. If the other person laughs (in the right amount), then you feel like you know the person on a much deeper, subconscious level. If the other person does not laugh, then you also feel you know the other person, but in this case someone is usually embarrassed and everyone goes home.

For a long time, I would sit at home and tell jokes to myself. I called this series my Lonely Guy series because I didn't have a girlfriend at the time. I wasn't really lonely, in fact I really enjoyed the time that I worked on that series of photographs. Then I met Heidi and on our first date I showed her my Lonely Guy series and she laughed (in the right amount). I didn't have to explain the jokes and she even wanted to help me make more. The series we've done together we call the Heidi + Steve series and they're really just us telling jokes to each other. The two series together bridge a turning point in my life, when I grew out of telling jokes to myself and grew to love the sound of Heidi and me laughing together." (left: Steve Aishman and Heidi Marston, Heidi and Steve, 200, c-print, 16 x 20 inches, Lent by the artist)


Karl Baden

"A number of years back I was interviewed by a newspaper reporter. She asked me to characterize my work. I thought about it for a minute, then answered that I was interested in humor, but also in its opposite, and hoped my pictures were both funny and a little scary. When the article appeared in the paper, she had quoted me as follows:

'I try to strike a balance between the horrible and the horrendous.' Since then, I've pretty much given up on trying to be funny." (left: Karl Baden, Badger, Halloween, 1983, silver gelatin print, 20 x 16 inches, Lent by the artist, Courtesy of Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston and Robert Mann. Gallery, New York; right: Karl Baden, Shriners Convention, Boston, 20 x 16 inches, Lent by the artist, Courtesy of Howard Yezerski Gallery, Boston and Robert Mann. Gallery, New York)


Christopher " Lucky" Leone

"My work and life have mixed into a minestrone-like soup (I don't like stew) where life inspires me to experiment with art, and sometimes art drives me to experiment with life. I am a hack scientist with a poor memory for the scientific process. Whether my work is an exercise in futility, or one of general worth, is, of course, questionable. But at least I am working on it.

P.S. If Bobo steals your heart, along with your hubcaps and car radios, I am not responsible." (left: Christopher " Lucky" Leone, Current Weather Conditions, 2000, mixed media, 7 x 6 feet, from the "fun with electricity series," Lent by the artist; right: Rockwells Updated: looking (crap art), 2000, digitally retouched image, 12 x 10 inches)

Todd McKie

"I'm often asked, "Where do you get your ideas?' The question has always amused and stumped me, for it seems to presume that there is a central clearing house for ideas, a toll-free number one can call to order ideas for paintings. I wish there were!

I sometimes resort to a couple of stock answers. 'Paris,' I'll say, or 'I buy used ideas from an outfit in the Philippines.'

The truth (and we are on a truth mission here, aren't we?) is more complicated. I look at art by Eskimos, Africans, Pre-Columbians, Mesopotamians, Miró, Picasso, Dubuffet, children, mental patients, and those nutty Etruscans. I live my little life. And I draw a lot. From this rich and messy stew, spiced with pain and pleasure, come my ideas." (left: Todd McKie, It's Alright, He's French, 1999, flashe, 30 x 24 inches, Lent by the artist)


Jeffu Warmouth

"Remember: 'You are what you eat.'

Special Savings on your favorite Jeffu parts! Tripe! Just a dollar! Sweetbreads! Only $2.99! Crushed Resolve! Free! Just 35 cents! Save on products below with with these valuable coupons! SuperJeffuMarket will not be undersold on Jeffu! We'll match any major competitor's coupon, clipless coupon or advertised price on Jeffu! Limit 1 per customer, please. (left: Jeffu Warmouth, SuperJeffuMarket, 2000-2001, detail, mixed media installation, 10 x 25 x 5 feet, Lent by the artist)

I populate a mock-supermarket by recreating myself as a series of consumer goods. These cans and boxes are media, transmitting language, photography, and cultural and corporate symbols with more vigor than their vinegar contents. In the consumer age we devour media. I want to invert this process. I want to excrete media. Rather than be re-constituted by these products that I ingest and invest in, I want to put a little bit of me in every can. You are what I eat.

Buy my Products!

Eat me!


William Wegman

"The Hardly family spends its summers at the Hardly Inn on Rangeley Lake, where the Boys play tennis, croquet, badminton, and hunt butterflies. Following in their mother's footsteps, the Hardly Boys have also become avid amateur detectives; last summer they solved the Wamco case. To honor the Boys' timely detective work, Chet's Aunt Gladiola invites the Boys to lunch. After a canoe trip across the lake to Aunt Gladiola's, the Boys find themselves in the midst of a mysterious and evil plot masterminded by the Nurse and the Caretaker. Where's Aunt Gladiola? What is happening at Aunt Gladiola's garnet mine? Why is the town water supply threatened . . ." (left: William Wegman, Spy vs. Spy II, 1996, color Polaroid print, 27 1/4 x 21 1/2 inches, Collection of DeCordova Museum, Lincoln, MA)

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