What makes a joke funny? What makes a pun witty? What makes a political cartoon biting? Albuquerque Museum’s newest art exhibit starts off by asking these very questions. And the answer lies—much like art—in the eye of the beholder.
Wit, Humor and Satire is an exhibit that digs into the museum’s permanent collection to unearth unusual artistic treasures and present them with a wink and a smile. Paintings, sculptures, etchings, even jewelry are displayed, running the gamut from Francisco Goya’s late-18th century caricature etchings of “Los Caprichos (The Follies)” to Andy Warhol’s Pop Art silkscreens of Chinese dictator Mao Zedong. In between, visitors are treated to works by artists both local and international: Keith Haring, Bob Haozous, Frederick Hammersley, Steve White, Fritz Scholder, Delmas Howe—even cartoonist Chuck Jones. Zuni necklaces are festooned with Disney characters, The Simpsons are transmogrified into religious icons, Mexican calaveras poke fun at universal human foibles and visual puns are freely dispensed on canvas and in clay.
The exhibit is right in the wheelhouse of museum curator Josie Lopez, who did her PhD research on satire in art. For this exhibit Lopez and the rest of the museum staff dug through the extensive archive to find works that were “fun and funny, that demonstrate the hypocrisy and ridiculousness of human nature.” It’s surprising what treasures lurk in our city’s art collection, and Wit, Humor and Satire is a perfect opportunity to glimpse some rarely exhibited works from some genuine masters.
The artwork is grouped in a number of broad categories. One section, for example, features works that lampoon other works of art. An ASCII-printed image of the “Mona Lisa” and a sculpture borrowing elements of René Magritte’s 1929 surrealist masterpiece “The Treachery of Images,” as Lopez sees it, “tap humor to make fun of the elitist way we look at art.”
But it’s not all fun and games. Another part of the exhibit contains cartoonish 1960s civil protest posters. Still another part makes light of how women’s bodies have been exploited by mainstream art. There’s an examination of how Indigenous people have “used humor for survival and transcendence.” Lopez says these more darkly humored sections point out how comedy can serve as “a reflection on tragedies as well as the lighter side.”
Patrick McGrath Muñiz’s “The Disneyfication of the Hero” is one of the exhibit’s centerpieces. It looks, at first glance, like a traditional Spanish colonial painting of the mythical hero Hercules. A closer look finds him surrounded by the trappings of modern capitalism and being blessed on high by Mickey Mouse himself. Art, history and mythology are all wrapped up as an easy-to-sell commodity. In a similar vein, Crow artist Wendy Red Star’s quartet of large-scale photographs—located just around the corner from the Muñiz oil painting—speculates on the mythologizing of the American West, twisting Edward S. Curtis’s famed, early-20th century photos of stoic Native Americans into patently false tableaux of badly painted backdrops and cardboard animals.
In assembling the 100 or so items in this exhibit, Lopez and her colleagues considered, “How are these works in conversation with one another?” As you wander through the exhibit, connections abound, inviting viewers to forge links between styles and content. At first glance, Roy Lichtenstein’s 1969 image of France’s Rouen Cathedral might not seem exactly “funny”—until you read the accompanying plaque and realize the comic book-style Ben Day dots are imitating a classic painting by Monet, rendering the entire thing a cheeky update on a historical art movement.
Lopez feels that humor is a time-honored method of “tackling big ideas” and that the exhibit is an interactive one that “demands that the viewers participate and bring their own meaning.” She is also adamant that a good sense of humor is particularly important in “the current moment that we’re in.” In other words: We could all use a good laugh right about now.
Wit, Humor and Satire will be on view at Albuquerque Museum (2000 Mountain Rd. NW) June 25, 2022 through January 29, 2023