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Finding Humor in the Art World

Madness of Art

Photo courtesy of Jim Kempner

You know the stereotype: The high-brow sophisticate in a stuffy suit holding a monocle up to a piece of art while discussing the serious “meaning of life” message behind the work. This image has become a mocking point for the art world. However, in American University’s Fall Art Colloquia for Critical Inquiry series, this image could not be further from the truth.

“It’s an interesting thing right now to look at how seriously the art world takes itself, sometimes too seriously,” says professor Don Kimes, organizer of the visiting artists and colloquia series. To combat this stereotype, and to address the critique that the art world takes itself too seriously, Kimes and AU have planned the Fall Art Colloquia around the theme of “Humor.” 

Artists known for humor in their work have been invited to discuss their work and the subject with students and community members at events in October.

First up, on October 2, AU will host Jim Kempner and Charlie Hewitt. Kempner is a dealer with a gallery on 11th Avenue in the Chelsea area of New York City. He works with pieces by many high-end artists, including Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg, and Frank Stella.

The artist, Hewitt, a former visiting artist at American University, exhibits with Kempner in New York. The two of them have produced a web series called The Madness of Art. The short episodes follow Kempner as he interacts with New York’s eccentric art world and the natural comedy that ensues.

“Essentially, it’s as if the TV show The Office took place in a Chelsea gallery,” says Kimes. “That colloquia talk is something that anybody is going to enjoy. The art is functioning as the armature for the whole work, but it’s something that anybody who has ever walked into a gallery or museum will appreciate. It’s kind of fun to see a gallery dealer poking fun at himself.” In the October 2 talk, the two artists will show some of the episodes and discuss the view of the art world from that perspective.

Kempner has another connection to AU besides this fall’s colloquium, however. Having known him for some time, Kimes invited Kempner to the Chautauqua Institution, where Kimes teaches during the summer. While there he discovered that Kempner attended AU as an undergraduate student in the mid-1970s. “I’ve known Jim for quite a while now, and I had no idea there was that connection when I asked him to come down. It will be nice to get him down here to see the Katzen Arts Center.”

The second “Humor” colloquium will be held a week later, on October 9. The artist that evening will be Matt Kenyan. The Baton Rouge, Louisiana, native is interested in the convergence of art, emerging technologies, and pop culture. Many of his works feature interactive technology and artificial intelligence/artificial life as a means for displaying his thoughts on culture.

One example of how Kenyon’s art uses humor is his 2009 work, Consumer Index, which is a site-specific performance where Kenyon becomes a “Nielson Family” member. However, instead of becoming a part of the sample that supposedly represents millions of Americans, he becomes a “virus” inside the system, wreaking havoc on the market data. Kenyon takes a Nielsen Home-scan barcode scanner and fuses it with a micro-video camera implanted inside his mouth. He then proceeds to scan every single item on every shelf at his local Walmart, single-handedly overthrowing consumer profiling and tracking technologies.

Kenyan received his MFA in painting and printmaking from Virginia Commonwealth University and most recently taught at Penn State University’s School of Visual Arts in the New Media and Interdisciplinary Digital Studio programs. At Penn State he cofounded and codirected StudioLab, a collaborative space merging laboratory experiments and data analysis with computer gaming and aesthetic design. He is currently on the faculty of the University of Michigan.

“These artists’ work will show the humor within the art to the public in a very accessible way,” says Kimes. The Fall Art Colloquia will be held in the Katzen Arts Center at 6 p.m. The October 2 colloquium will be held in the Abramson Family Recital Hall and the October 9 colloquium will be held in Katzen Arts Center 201. Admission is free and open to the public.

For more information, visit the Department of Art website.

Also, check out The Madness of Art, find more info about Kempner’s gallery and Hewitt’s work, and find out more on Matt Kenyon’s Consumer Index.