American artist David Robbins left New York at the tail end of the 1980s, moving to Milwaukee to find another way of being part of a world whose central “scene” was populated by Andy Warhol, Jeff Koons, Cindy Sherman and the like. His alternative was “Concrete Comedy,” an observation of humor and stand-up comedy with participation at its very center. It was a concept that found humor in the most mundane of places, which, in turn, led Robbins to establish The Ice Cream Social, an event founded in the act of making, where a sense of ownership and production, however important or trivial, was placed back into the local community. At the turn of the century he developed this as a multidisciplinary project that, among other elements, included the very expression of popular culture itself; a “pilot” episode for an unmade television show. Located far from the American midwest, Tokyo’s Misako & Rosen gallery is host to a group exhibition that draws from such ideas, entitled “Comedie concrète”—an alternative survey of contemporary art practices featuring Robbins, alongside Scott Reeder, Sean Landers, New York-based Trevor Shimizu and Tokyo artists Ken Kagami and COBRA of XYZ Collective.
At the heart of this show is the art of “doing”—in which the body literally negotiates with the physical world while reinventing its position, action, association and relationship. Robbins one said to “take the culture where you want it to go.” In the case of his own piece, Grid and Spider (2014), this statement is taken rather literally with a video that tracks a house spider as it scurries across the floor in circles.
Fact and fiction become indistinguishable from each another. Does Sean Landers’ watercolor painting Black Bear Study (2014), of the animal standing on its hind legs against a vague background, place its setting in the wild or an outdoor circus? Back in 1995, he filmed a chimpanzee scraping at the wall of his studio, with a pencil. He named the video Singerie la Pienre—a French term that referenced the 18th century paintings of monkeys aping human behaviour in civilised settings.
Referencing art history is not only true of Landers but central to the concept of “Comedie concrète.” You can’t make a joke from thin air. It needs something of substance to hang on to, but also something of light relief that happily questions its own importance. To quote American painter Ad Reinhardt, “Art is too serious to be taken seriously.”
The question of ability and skill is more straightforward for Scott Reeder. His two paintings, LAZY LEAF (2013) and PUNK LITE (2013), consist of their respective titles spelled out with pasta. He likes putting things together that don’t necessarily fit, while purposely setting himself up to challenges—be it small or big—that he struggles to live up to, like the making of his first feature film Moon Dust (2015). This creative “resetting” always bears fruit, however poor, enlivening Reeder’s efforts without being hung up on craft or reason. As the artist has stated in a recent interview with Art Forum, “I’ve always been interested in things made by people that don’t know what they’re doing.”
Using cinema and artistic props to lead viewers through a bigger idea is a part of the works by Japanese artist COBRA. His videos are rooted in ideas of stereotype, identity and performance and, despite the videos being awkward at times, his ability to confound an audience makes them compulsive viewing. For Interactive Beauty (2015), he is dressed as a woman nervously circling the sculpture of a giant penis in an undisclosed gallery. When the urge to touch becomes too great, she explodes and her hair (his wig) literally drifts up into the ether. In BODY & SOUL (2015), he is dressed as a cross between of a sculptor and fitness guru. White clay is punched and beaten as he works the camera by repeatedly breaking into dance. His final piece in the exhibition, Structure Idol (2015), has him balancing precariously on a chair. If ever an idol were needed, surely COBRA would be it.
Ken Kagami’s ready-mades, Trash Can (2015) and Tissue (2015), are repeatedly mistaken for real-life objects. In a recent rush to clean up the gallery, one of his tissues was almost thrown out. The consistency of tissue, made from primed canvas, gave the game away. The work is so ordinary that, in one respect, it is almost dangerously subversive.
In the end, however, it is the gallery building that deserves the final laugh. A week before the show was installed, one of the air conditioners decided to drip water all over the floor. In the context of the exhibition that was subsequently installed, the water could have been mistaken for an artwork itself. Ultimately, a temporary fix was found, wherein an old copy of Art Forum was dutifully placed on the floor over the puddle. As it turned out the magazine was an exact fit—inches away from Kagami’s trash can, Shimizu’s painting of a masturbating monk (Determination, 2014) that looks on with sly eyes and a proud erection, and COBRA’s videos, one of which bizarrely features the same magazine.
“Comedie concrète” is an act of homage that takes the subtle twist of its title to self-deprecate, yet cleverly critique, the displayed works and the way they’re experienced. It is unapologetically funny and sees humor as a way to liberate ideas from the past. The exhibition demonstrates a culture of practice and production that is not simply about objects and picture-making, but the act of “doing” that invents new ways of freedom instead of looking for that which already exists.
“Comedie concrète,” featuring Ken Kagami, COBRA, David Robbins, Scott Reeder, Sean Landers, Trevor Shimizu, is on view at Misako & Rosen, Tokyo, until April 12, 2015.