By Danica Willard Sachs June 9, 2015

There is a moment in Kate Rhoades’ video Required Skimming (2014), on view in Tongue-in-Cheek at di Rosa, where the artist cries out, “We need to get out of here, we’re trapped in the art world.”1 In this particular scene, Rhoades tackles Pamela M. Lee’s 2012 book, Forgetting the Art World, depicting Lee’s critique of the sprawl of the art world by setting two characters in an art-star-filled world from which they cannot escape. The two characters struggle to bash through a Richard Serra sculpture, attempt to cut their way through a Takahashi Murakami painting, and run across a field of Ai Weiwei porcelain sunflower seeds. Required Skimming is an ongoing series of short videos in which the artist comically summarizes theoretical texts that are touchstones for art history and art criticism. Rhoades’ exclamation “…we’re trapped in the art world” is characteristic of these short vignettes; through humor and her use of the first-person plural, she makes viewers into accomplices of her critique. Required Skimming is particularly incisive because Rhoades turns the language of art criticism against itself, a strategy also employed to varying degrees of success by the seven other Bay Area artists and collectives in this tightly edited exhibition exploring humor across varied media.

Like Rhoades, Tammy Rae Carland and Bessma Khalaf use humor to comment on the role of the artist in the art world. Tongue-in-Cheek includes two chromogenic prints from Carland’s series of photographs of empty stages, Double Spot (2013), depicting two spotlights on a rich scarlet curtain, and Smoke Screen (2013), with a set of velvety blue curtains with smoke creeping through the center opening; she pairs these with her installation Funny Face, I Love You (2010), which features a glossy white ceramic microphone on a stand and a stool with a water bottle perched on the seat. Like the luminescent chromogenic prints, the installation has an expectant feel: We as viewers wait patiently for an artist to step through the curtains, claim the stool, and speak into the microphone. Carland reveals the relationship between audience and performer as tinged with vulnerability and anxiety on both sides. Bessma Khalaf’s video In the Woods (2014), installed kitty-corner from Carland’s Double Spot, similarly problematizes artistic labor. In this short, thirty-seven-second looping video, a woman ceaselessly beats a large tree with a wooden branch. Khalaf offers no narrative explanation, only the sounds of her exertion and the endless, futile thwack of the branch against the tree trunk; the loop makes her task Sisyphean. As in Carland’s artworks, after the initial laughter fades away, a queasy feeling arises as we come to terms with our complicity as viewers, never releasing Khalaf from her tedium.

The weaker works in the show played more like one-liners next to these sophisticated reflections on artists and labor. Chris Sollars’ film The Swimmer (2013), adapted from the 1964 John Cheever short story with the same title, induces a good deal of laughter, but lacks the sharp subtext prevalent in artworks by Carland and Rhoades. In Cheever’s short story, the main character, Neddy, hops from one neighbor’s pool to another, tracing a new route from a friend’s home to his own. In the film, Sollars follows Neddy’s lead, donning a Speedo, goggles, and a swimming cap and plunging headlong into the fountains, public and private pools, and ponds dotting San Francisco. Traversing the city from bay to ocean in nothing but a swimsuit, Sollars is unnoticed by the pedestrians he passes as he jogs from one body of water to the next. Cheever’s story is commonly interpreted as a metaphorical reflection on changing social relationships across a lifetime. While Sollars’ film does showcase the unseen public, semi-public, and private spaces in the city, it falls short of the poetic quality of the story on which it is based. Rhoades, Carland, and Khalaf each succeed in letting the viewer in on the joke, using collusion to problematize creative labor. The Swimmer, however, never transcends the spectacle of the performance. Sollars keeps us in place as viewers, instead of transforming us into his conspirators.

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Tongue-in-Cheek is on view at di Rosa, in


, through June 19, 2015.


  1. Excerpts from Required Skimming can be viewed on Rhoades’ website:

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