Irony v. humor

One of our precepts at Upfor is to avoid artwork based in irony. This isn’t easy; irony is the coin of the realm in western culture, both high and low (see an excellent Salon article on the topic, with thanks to Heather Birdsong for bringing it to my attention).

Further complicating matters, irony is a moving target. The dictionary definition (the expression of meaning using language that normally signifies the opposite) doesn’t cut it any more. Irony has grown to encompass many linguistic and stylistic tools for emotional distancing between artist and subject, and between artist and audience. Irony is less likely to be the basis for thoughtful political satire, its best and highest use in the visual arts, and more likely to be a shortcut to market-ready cool. 

At the same time, we are in short supply of humor in contemporary art. (If you count irony as a form of humor, I would retract that statement, but why aren’t all those ironic works funny, or at least funny in a way that expands your heart?) I’m in search of artists who can make us laugh at each other and ourselves without feeling it is at someone else’s expense; or if it is at someone else’s expense, it should also be at the expense of structures of power and obsolete cultural traditions. 

Which brings me to the pitch: Jordan Rathus, on show at Upfor through May 31. This exhibition is based around two video works. You can read about the specifics elsewhere on this site, but here I just want to say that I love the off-kilter funniness of this work. Unlike ironic humor, which is usually brief and snappy and leaves a metallic aftertaste, Jordan uses humor as a form of semi-narrative momentum in the absence of traditional narrative structures. Certainly she is not above poking fun at others, but she pokes as much or more fun at herself; and somehow the joke always circles back to us as viewers and to a slightly uncomfortable sense that we are complicit in something that isn't quite as simple as it seems. Ending call to action: see them.