Modern art reached a high point with Abstract Expressionism, and of all the very serious "isms" of modernism, Abstract Expressionism may have been the most utterly so. For promoters and practitioners, it was the very heart of reality, and reality is serious stuff. Since those days, artists and art enthusiasts have learned to lighten up.
Currently, Boise Art Museum is playing host to a show of prints by British and American artists over the last decade that succeed by taking themselves less seriously.
The show takes its title from a linocut by Kara Walker that depicts the silhouette of a young African-American girl with exaggerated Negroid features wearing a frilly, 19th century dress chasing the flailing body of a headless chicken while raising said chicken's severed head to her mouth. While it is far from funny, it does bring into relief the ridiculous outlines of some once commonly held assumptions about the savage nature of the Negro race, and the silhouette style is a reminder that these ridiculous beliefs weren't just held by Archie Bunker at the bar, they were part of "polite" society.
Hitting a completely different note is Red Grooms' three-dimensional lithograph Little Italy. Less satire and more celebration, this piece gushes color and detail. With the appeal of a pop-up book, it revels in the variety and activity of a New York intersection. Grooms' abundant ingenuity and light-hearted appreciation of life's folly and pace make this work a real delight.
Also from the realm of lighthearted appreciation comes Roy De Forest's History of Flight, Claes Oldenburg's Homage to Picasso, Roy Lichtenstein's Reflections of the Scream, and Tony Fitzpatrick's Max and Gaby's Alphabet: A to Z. Grouped together these pieces represent the sunnier side of the show. The imagination is at play. The works both embrace and poke fun at the human need and desire to imagine and create. They are works of humility and they represent the praise of folly. In these works, our folly is forgiven.
In the other half of the show, our folly is judged. In this group are works like Kara Walker's I'll Be a Monkey's Uncle, Enrique Chagoya's The Enlightened Savage, Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles, Lorna Simpson's Wigs, and Damien Hirst's Last Supper Series.
In these works, the tone is darker and more critical. Under the surface of these pieces one doesn't find lighthearted appreciation, one finds the lies and emptiness of a decadent but powerful culture.
Walker's I'll be a Monkey's Uncle depicts a young African-American woman dressing a monkey in human clothing. The monkey's tail is made phallic and there is an insinuation of a close genetic relationship between the two. As in Keys to the Koop, this piece silhouettes racial stereotypes that contributed to the character of our culture.
Chagoya's The Enlightened Savage is a parody of Andy Warhol's celebrated soup cans. However, Chagoya's recipes are a bit different. With names like Cream of Dealer, Curator's Liver, Museum Director's Tongue and Critic's Tongue, they point to a culture that has to cannibalize itself and others to survive.
Koons' Michael Jackson and Bubbles, a print based on a sculptor featuring the gaudy likeness of the pop star and a monkey--both dressed up like circus performers--might be an attempt to create mascots for nihilism.
In Simpson's Wigs, the artist combines images of wigs made for African-American women with text to create a sense of the constant struggle minorities face against manipulation by the powerful. And from Hirst's Last Supper Series, we have a large print designed to look like a label pulled from a pill bottle; only this isn't medication, it's your breakfast. As another of his deadpan statements about our increasing artificiality, the piece falls as flat as it is supposed to.
Who can resist a good print? I enjoyed the sunnier half of Keys to the Koop more and felt like some of the critical works lacked the lightheartedness that made most of the show refreshing and successful, but there's something irresistible, something finished and composed about a nice print that covers the whole show.
Keys to the Koop through February 27, Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 345-8330, www.boiseartmuseum.org.