It's not clear what Renegade Humor, now through July 8, 2012, at the San Jose Museum of Art, really wants to be. At times the exhibition seems designed to highlight pieces in the museum's collection by Robert Arneson, Roy De Forest, David Gilhooly, Bruce Nauman, Richard Shaw, Peter VandenBerge and William T. Wiley, all graduates or instructors at the University of California, Davis. In other moments, the show aspires to be a somewhat academic exploration of how unconventional approaches to humor have been used in art. Renegade Humor is a great title for an exhibition; would that it had been more unconventional itself, as well as more sharply focused.
A couple of galleries crammed with art that pokes fun at politicians and the powerful, occasionally sticking a middle finger in the eyes of its subjects, would have been timely. In fairness, when the show was being organized, no one could have predicted that the source of much of the work in the exhibition, U.C. Davis, would generate international headlines and spawn an Internet meme when a campus cop pepper-sprayed students peacefully assembled for an Occupy protest last November. But a reference to the incident is given a prominent place on the museum's wall, and surely someone must have realized that 2012 is an election year. The renegade nature of Occupy, and even the renegade style of some of the remaining candidates in the Republican primary, is the likely context for the word "renegade" for most viewers, which makes the fine pieces on view by artists like Shaw, Gilhooly, De Forest and others feel decorative and even a bit frivolous.
Melt, Walter Robinson, 2008.
Obligingly, Renegade Humor offers plenty of examples of its self-inflicted missed opportunity. It begins promisingly enough, with a cheerfully dark Walter Robinson sculpture of three glistening, melting sugar-frosted animal cookies standing pensively (if oversize depictions of cookies can be called pensive) around a puddle of blue. Melting glaciers and polar bears come immediately to mind, and we admire Robinson for his ability to pivot so deftly from kitsch to global warming.
Fire Suit, Viola Frey, 1983.
But then we catch a glimpse of Robert Arneson's Untitled (Urinal) from 1963, which calls to mind a different type of renegade, having more in common with Claes Oldenburg and his soft pop art sculptures of the mid-'60s than Robinson's work, which actually has something to say. The comparison doesn't serve Arneson well, which is unfair since his Colonel Hyena from 1985, with its phallic-missile nose, jagged teeth and blood-red sunglasses, is just around the corner. Arneson may have had his head in the toilet for a brief period early in his career, but his best pieces were unflinching, passionate and seriously pissed off. Their content, what Arneson had to say about everything from the military machine to his own battle with cancer, was far more important than the choices he made as an artist to flout this or that staid artistic convention. Does anyone even care about such issues anymore?
Their Freedom of Expression... The Recovery of Their Economy, Enrique Chagoya, 1984.
Similarly, the juxtaposition of Viola Frey's Fire Suit from 1983 and Enrique Chagoya's Their Freedom of Expression…The Recovery of Their Economy, 1984, puts Frey at a disadvantage. Her towering ceramic man, whose slight forward tilt and fiery red palette is only slightly ominous, resembles Ronald Reagan, who was President when she made it. But Frey's Reagan must stand up to Chagoya's, who is caricatured in charcoal as Mickey Mouse, that with Reagan's wrinkled facial features, painting hypocritical graffiti, in blood no less, reads "Russkies and Cubans out of Central Ame." We fill in the incomplete last word, knowing that Reagan was the chief proponent of arming Nicaragua's contras in their fight against the Sandinistas. It's simply impossible to care about Frey's unconventionality when it came to producing and assembling her figurative ceramic sculpture in the same way as we're compelled to care about Chagoya's disturbing and brilliant piece nearby. It ain't a fair fight.
Renegade Humor runs through July 8, 2012, at the San Jose Museum of Art. For more information visit sjmusart.org.