In his book of essays, Trickster Makes this World, Lewis Hyde asserts that a playful sense of irreverence is, counterintuitively, an attitude that has been crucial to our evolution as a species. Given their unique place in society, artists have always been central to this thesis: their playful, experimental reimagining of our world compels us to reconsider the status quo.
Sarah Lucas is a British artist known for visual puns that underscore the absurdity of gender norms. In Eating a Banana (revisited), she documents herself aggressively “deep-throating” the fruit. The photo is funny, of course, but by challenging the norms for how a cisgendered woman might politely consume a banana, she points to unspoken rules that persist, even in a society committed to gender equity.
What can be said of Jeff Koon's Untitled (Girl with Dolphin and Monkey)? It is a pop art photograph packed with the signifiers of consumption, nostalgia and pleasure. Inflatable toys, a constant in Koons's world of kitsch, are consumed all the same as the image of the pin-up, but the artist’s aim isn’t necessarily critical, it just presents us with some wry imagery and leaves the scene.
The bright colors and the subject matter of William Wegman's witty photograph Game inspire a sense of levity. The basketball balanced on the head of one of his iconic Weimaraners is at once surreal and quite sweet. We can sense the palpable anticipation of the dog wanting to play a "game,” while the “game” also, of course, refers to the sport of basketball.
Taking a more critical turn, in Head Honcho, conceptual artist Mel Bochner uses playful typography to subvert and diminish the impact of a series of phrases that are synonyms for ‘power.’ Instead of letting these phrases breathe, he packs the words tightly together, condensing and disarming them. At the same time, the reflective surface they are printed on makes them difficult to read, perhaps alluding humorously to the obtuse nature of power structures.
In his Untitled (Toucan), Raymond Pettibon, the creator of some of the most iconic punk album covers in the 20th century (Sonic Youth, Black Flag) gives a parrot the speech of a snobbish aesthete. If the image itself would be welcome in the funny strips, there is undoubtedly a kind of humor-once-removed here. Is it a joke that’s so unfunny it’s funny, or is it just funny? The good thing is, it plays both ways.