2.3 / Review

Funny Face, I Love You

By Matt Stromberg October 8, 2010

“Funny Face, I love you
Funny Face, I need you
My whole world's wrapped up in you.”
—Donna Fargo, “Funny Face”

With the current ubiquity of female comedians, from Sarah Silverman to Ellen Degeneres, it’s easy to forget that there was a time when comedy was a boy’s club. Though female comedians existed before Burns and Allen, it was no doubt a much more challenging and lonely profession for women than it is now. Tammy Rae Carland engages this history through photographs, text pieces, and sculpture in her current show, Funny Face, I Love You, at Silverman Gallery. In the gallery window the artist positioned a microphone stand, stool, and water bottle—the basic tools of the comedy trade. Cast in white porcelain, these objects take on an elegant, elegiac quality; transcending their mundane existence, they stand as monuments to a loss of self and isolation. Using the legacy of female comedians as a starting point, Carland explores larger issues of power and alienation.

Carland’s photographs, all titled I'm Dying Up Here (2010), depict bare stages curtained with black velvet, either vacant or with a lone female performer. The empty stages covered with glitter streamers and a dilapidated drum riser effectively convey bleakness through minimal means. Meanwhile, an anonymous female, her face hidden, is caught in the midst of performing a series of absurd acts. In one, she is on her knees

Funny Face, I Love You, 2010; ceramic cast and hand built objects; various sizes. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

I'm Dying Up Here, #5 (bent banana), 2010; color photograph; 30 x 40 in.; edition of 5 + 1AP. Courtesy of the Artist and Silverman Gallery, San Francisco.

in a banana suit; in another she is doing a handstand in a tutu and cowboy boots, her legs awkwardly splayed. While these images contain elements of humor, they also reflect a self-effacing quality central to female comedians’ survival. Instead of conveying a specific narrative, the photographs conjure a sense of isolation and desperation as the performers act out for the sake of amusing others. Coupled with the titles, the images hold a certain pathos, and viewers are unsure whether to pity or laugh at the performers.

Carland’s text pieces consist of framed punch lines from famous female comedians of earlier generations: Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, Bette Midler, and Moms Mabley; Mabley lays claim to the title of the first black, lesbian comedian—some fifty years before Wanda Sykes. By isolating the words from the context of the original setup and delivery of the joke, Carland emphasizes the performers’ cruelty and self-ridicule. More often than not, these entertainers used themselves as the butt of their own jokes. Comedy can be a rough business, and these women adopted the caustic, hardened attitude of their male counterparts and turned it inward—taking Henny Youngman’s famous one-liner, “Take my wife, please!” and internalizing it. As Phyllis Diller says in one of Carland’s pieces, “Without my clothes on I look like a sack of doorknobs” (Punch line [Phyllis Diller – Home Make, 1], 2010). While these women were certainly hilarious, outrageous, and strong, there is a demeaning aspect to their comedy, as well, which Carland makes all the more poignant by isolating their words.

Carland carries this dichotomy between lightheartedness and sadness through all aspects of the show. The title of the exhibition is taken not from the Audrey Hepburn film, but from a song by ’70s country singer Donna Fargo—a pleading refrain reminiscent of Tammy Wynette’s “Stand by Your Man.” As the singer expresses her absolute reliance on her lover, it echoes the desperation of Carland’s protagonists. These sweet words hide an ominous subtext—for what would happen if the singer’s lover were to indeed leave? In the same way, the punch lines and ridiculous antics in Carland’s pieces are comedic, but underlying the humor is a vulnerability and self-effacement that grants the work a thoughtful complexity.

 

 

Tammy Rae Carland: Funny Face, I Love You is on view at Silverman Gallery, in San Francisco, through October 23, 2010.

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