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Sudden Glory

Sight Gags & Slapstick in Contemporary Art

Who among us has not watched a teetering toddler trip and guiltily laughed? Personally, I laugh from the second I see the kid start to go down. But even for those of you who don't, you must admit that there is a moment, after they fall, that is true comedy. The most violent and dangerous part is over, but the kid has only just realized something is wrong and for a moment, as he looks down at his newly smarting hands, you can literally watch as he decides that it is time to cry. The face crinkles, the moan starts, and you laugh at the kid. Even if you are his mother and you have to quietly laugh as you hoist the leaky angel-monster in to the air and whisk him off for some apple juice. You laughed because the kid was okay and you felt good you weren't the one falling.

Entertainers have guffawed their way to the bank for years with this brand of comedy, but while the artists in the CCAC Institute's current exhibition speak Slapstick, their use of it does not compel simple amusement. The overriding tone of the show is ominous, even while employing a humorous language. The works in Sudden Glory: Sight Gags and Slapstick in Contemporary Art never allow you to fall for the joke because they never perform it. The works have a distant, removed quality.

Marjike van Warmerdam's Le retour du chapeau (1998) seduces the viewer with questions and then floats the punch line along beside the Panama hat that never touches ground. Gelatin's nellanutella (#1-9) (2000) keeps the viewer intensely focused on the loaded moment right before the punch line, the moment just before the members of the group will end up "all wet." Steve McQueen's Deadpan (1997) employs the opposite approach by giving us the offending moment from every angle in raw black and white. John Pilson's Mr. Pickup gives us punch line after punch line until it becomes almost too terrible to bear the pathetic man's inability to collect himself. Each piece forces the viewer along a trajectory to or from humor in such a way that all but eliminates the chance for sustained laughter or levity. Mirth is not the desired result of these works; instead they work toward magnifying and dissecting humor. Through careful study and the skewing of a ŚKeatonian' iconography, the works in Sudden Glory utilize the politics of funny to convey meaning and effect on to the viewer. Divorced from the humor of themselves by a crucial moment, they enlist you to complete them, collapsing the space between maker and viewer and forcing you to take responsibility for your smile as you sober from the unfulfilled expectation of laughter.

Sudden Glory: Sight Gags and Slapstick in Contemporary Art can be viewed from January 19 - March 9 at the Logan Galleries at California College of Arts and Crafts, 1111 Eighth Street in San Francisco. Gallery hours are 11 am ­ 8pm Tuesday and Friday, 11am - 6 pm Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday. Admission is donation only and more information is available at 415.551.9210.