Art with Laughs

If you've ever found yourself cackling at contemporary art, you will likely bust a gut at the latest ArtCenter/South Florida show.

But this time, rather than a response to artistic opportunism or obscurity, hilarity is the point. "What Are You Laughing At?" features nearly 30 outrageous mixed-media works by David Hevel, Abby Manock, David Leroi, and Scott Listfield. The artists employ humor to let the air out of highbrow windbags.

Curated by Gallery Diet's Nina Johnson, the exhibit invites viewers to laugh at the absurd vagaries of life at the expense of the art world. The works use parody, satire, camp, irony, and jokes to break down barriers of taste and audience resistance. It's loaded with biting visual puns that are as unforgettable as they are utterly ridiculous.

"The intention behind the show was to attract people who might be intimidated by conceptually based work to enter inside," Johnson explains, "and experience art that is still smart but laced with enough humor and satire to allow viewers to let down their guard."

The four artists she chose explore themes that address everything from postapocalyptic alienation and celebrity culture to mutant sea life, rampant consumerism and technology, and art theory meta-mumbo jumbo.

"I wanted work that was funny but not dumbed down, and with relevant themes to art and everything else in general," Johnson says.

Frenchman David Leroi appears to be the class clown of the bunch, poking authority at every turn. He clobbers spectators with craptastic sculptures cobbled from crude materials, and has given these works artsy-fartsy French names.

On the floor near the gallery's entrance, one piece, fashioned from wood, tape, cardboard, and wire, gives the impression an unsuspecting snorkeler is about to be attacked by a shark. Leroi has created the illusion by crafting the top of the swimmer's head and rump, in proximity to a shark's fin, placed at intervals and appearing to bob just above the surface of the murky concrete floor.

Leroi's quirky Parfum d' Opportunisme (Perfume of Opportunism) features three industrial cleaner containers perched on a black and white checkerboard square. The plastic jugs are labeled "Arrogance," "Cynicism," and "Pettiness," suggesting art world honchos need to be douched with heavy-duty degreaser or soap.

The scatological references abound in Leroi's hilarious Intronisation (Enthronement), an installation crowned by what looks like a spaceship housing a giant extraterrestrial turd. The loopy ship's plastic bubble sits on a spindly tripod, from under which a tapeworm-shape udder spews alien mucous onto what appears to be a raw hamburger patty. A hastily scrawled sign trumpets, "Emerging artist kit included inside."

To hammer the point home, his spacy turd opus is priced at six grand.

On a nearby wall, Scott Listfield seems more interested in the edges of reality, where the facts never gibe. His oil-on-canvas works depict the quixotic journey of a solitary astronaut in simple yet remarkably evocative scenes that exude a weird 2001: A Space Odyssey vibe.

In Post-Nuclear Guggenheim Visit, the landmark New York museum is tagged with graffiti as bombed-out cars rust in front of the building and two cougars and a Tyrannosaurus Rex roam the desolate streets. The bewildered astronaut hunches his shoulders in angst as a man turns a corner unaware of the danger.

Another scene finds the flummoxed astronaut contemplating Damien Hirst's famous sculpture of a rotting shark in formaldehyde. The pickled predator has been placed as public art in a subway tunnel in which a lone woman appears boarding a train. A Starbucks sign on a wall heightens the sense of a civilization near collapse. Moody green, yellow, orange, ochre, umber, purple, and gray hues punctuate the eerie Twilight Zone appeal.

Perhaps the goofiest work here is Abby Manock's Elusive Jellyfish Project, in which the artist unleashes a swarm of the creatures from papier-mâché and yarn. Manock's ratty yellow cupcake-size invertebrates dangle from the ceiling on fishing line.

Signs explain the creatures suffer from sugar shock when fed peanuts, marshmallows, lollipops, or gummy bears.

Although real jellyfish lack brains, her fictional mutant flying jellyfish had to be isolated from sweets to prevent "psychotic hyperactivity," the text explains, warning viewers not to feed the ornery critters lest they fly into an "uncontrollable rage."

In a delightfully wacky video, the artist twirls hypnotically in her studio with an Elusive Jellyfish Viewing Helmet strapped to her head. The video jumps to an upscale supermarket where the swirling squids are seen dipping their tendrils into the chocolate and cookie bins. Collectively, the artist's warped sculptures, video, and drawings deliver quite a sting.

David Hevel steals the show with his uproarious C-prints and mixed-media sculptures that skewer America's infatuation with celebrity, using taxidermy forms, gaudy baubles, snazzy hair weaves, and faux fur.

Armed with a glue gun and a ribald imagination, Hevel channels Liberace and Norman Bates to create sumptuous, grotesquely baroque concoctions. He even trumps The Donald with a Bambi-brained, rug-draped doe.

Timberlake Bringing Sexy Back is a mixed-media scream that represents the pop heartthrob as an emaciated Dalmatian perched on a hollowed-out tree trunk. The end of its stumps burst with orchids, periwinkles, wild mushrooms, and prickly fruit. The twinkle-toed pooch wears a platinum Chanel collar over his scrawny neck bone.

The artist obsessively ladles on the kitsch in Katie's Silent Screams. He depicts Tom Cruise's saner half as a fanged mandrill, jaws agape as she lays her Suri egg. The figure nests atop a tacky black urn brimming with blood-red gladiolas, beaded curtain tassels, plastic strawberries, and scarlet rhinestone hearts. A flock of blue glitter butterflies buzz the snarling monkey's gob, her tawdry hair weave accentuated by a delicate flower web.

An image near a window that froze passersby in their tracks during a recent visit was Hevel's celebretard homage to Anna Nicole Smith. He framed the late Tinseltown train wreck as a blue-eyed, harlequin-pelted, raw-boned bitch. The savory C-print depicts Smith as a scrawny whippet languishing on an ivory fur throw, suffocating under the weight of golf ball-size pearls, beaded pink curtain tassels, and an awful fright wig.

Like his fellow cutups, Hevel mocks the value of art with aplomb and leaves the spectator convulsing.

The works in "What Are You Laughing At?" use subversive humor to not only yank the rug out from under the viewer but also break down barriers of taste and audience resistance. And that's no laughing matter.

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