As a student of celebrated French clown Philippe Gaulier said, “Once you can handle the insults, something inside you cracks and you can begin.” If the best kind of humor is crafted from inward rage, “Punchline” delivers. The group exhibition of eleven artists features works including Divya Gadangi’s Please Maintain Your Original Indian Beauty, 2014—a video game based on a disagreement Gadangi had with her mother over the artist’s changing hair color—and a video of a performance by Kalup Linzy that yearns for a freer future, even freedom from cringe.
The fantasy that ridiculing our enemies can bring them down can be subsistence for surviving dark times. A selection of posters by the Guerrilla Girls begs the question: Does public humiliation work at a fast enough pace? Their incisive criticisms from decades ago remain just as unresolved as more recent designs. Take 3 Ways to Write a Museum Wall Label when the Artist Is a Sexual Predator, 2018, an indictment of painter Chuck Close that finds release through insulting institutions and curators who, gagged by wealthy collectors, are still too cowardly to be outspoken.
Ben Sloat’s miniatures from the 2008–22 series “I’m Not Like Other Guys”—mockeries of Jeff Koons’s porcelain sculpture Michael Jackson and Bubbles, 1988—also stick it to the man. Some of these works, which render the King of Pop as 1980s cartoon characters such as Skeletor or Lion-O, remark upon the unfortunate fungibility of Jackson’s image but also restore a semblance of dignity to the icon by portraying him at the height of his success—and not as kitschy deracinated loon, à la Koons—following the release of his 1982 Thriller album.
Reniel Del Rosario’s installation Exist Through the Gift Shop (Jane Lombard Gallery Gift Shop), 2022, made especially for the exhibition (and whose title parodies the 2010 documentary on graffiti artist Banksy) provides laughs on the cheap, selling individually packaged ceramic cigarettes labeled “Artist’s Stress Relief” and sugar cubes constituting a DIY kit for Kara Walker’s giant sugar sculpture A Subtlety, 2014. Nearby, ceramics and drawings by Madeline Donahue confront the maternal body as one that is easily stretched—or even hijacked—by new children and a mother’s love for them.
In its highest moments, “Punchline”—curated by Yng-Ru Chen, founder of the Brookline, Massachusetts–based gallery Praise Shadows—shows how absurdity can become an engine and pressure point for feminist, antiracist, and queer struggle. Perhaps, as the work here seems to suggest, as we trudge through end times, nothing can be too punishing if it is embraced as a joke.