What happens when a clown walks into a gallery? The title of the show (the opening for a joke which remains unfinished) is appropriate not just to the subject matter it deals with, but also to the general spirit of Blackpool – a northern seaside town with a long history of circuses, entertainment and comedy.
There is a strangeness to A Clown Walks Into A Gallery… which – intentional or otherwise – is very like the strangeness of circuses when looked at objectively. The egg portraits with which the viewer is initially confronted upon entering are as disconcerting as they are striking. Yet this unusual form of portraiture is partly explained in the exhibition handout which reveals the curious tradition – going back some seventy years – of clowns registering their unique look in this way. At the same time, the salmon pink or ‘caprice’ colour of the room brings a light-hearted, almost whimsical feel to this part of the exhibition, somewhat dissipating the potentially unsettling effects of the clown eggs themselves.
Further on, Ulla von Brandenburg’s piece ‘Blue Curtain’ (2015) fits so naturally into the show that it would be easy not to register as a separate piece at all. A curtain drapes across the main gallery space with a distinct air of informality, challenging the all-pervading formality of the modern art gallery. The sculpture profoundly alters the space of the room itself, turning part of it into a kind of conceptual stage. Indeed, hidden amongst the formality, there seems to be a certain implacable humour (or at least the suspicion thereof). Could this exhibition be allowing itself not just to drily record but to actually embody the spirit of the circus?
The arrangement of Philip Newcombe’s works certainly lends weight to this idea. Displayed well above eye level, the artist’s contribution to the show is initially hidden from view. It was only on glancing up at the ceiling that I noticed his piece ‘Manifesto’ (2013) in which a plant pot sits near the edge of a small shelf supposedly ‘teetering on the edge’ but sadly restricted in its precariousness by (one can only imagine) legally binding health and safety regulations.
Whilst this is totally apart from the intended meaning of the work, I could not help but read another layer of comic meaning into the piece. Even its strange positioning, so far off the ground, could be doubly interpreted as both a reference to the unorthodox aesthetic of the circus and the practical necessity of not leaving a piece whose “manifesto” reads: “build a shelf – go into a florist – buy a small flower in a pot – put it on the shelf – push it off” anywhere near the reach of the general public…
Elsewhere Pivli Takala’s film ‘The Real Snow White’ (2009) uses a simple, almost prank-like public performance to reveal the exact point at which childhood fantasy collides with corporate capitalism. Prevented from entering Disneyland Paris by security due to her too-realistic costume, the main protagonist is then escorted from the premises for compromising the legitimacy of the theme park’s own Snow White and – even worse – bringing joy to the surrounding children for which their parents haven’t paid.
This all begs the question; can ‘Art’ be funny? Can it comment satirically on the potential absurdity of its own position? And is there a danger of losing an element of conceptual depth or can this depth actually be enhanced by the subtle use of humour? Many of the works presented within the show give evidence for the affirmative.
The use of humour in A Clown Walks Into A Gallery… is at once a fitting development of its subject matter and a highly effective device for engaging audiences.
A Clown Walks Into A Gallery… runs until 8 September 2018 at Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool. The exhibition features work by Luke Stephenson, Helen Champion, Janice Kerbel, Laura Lancaster, Philip Newcombe, Pilvi Takala and Ulla von Brandenburg.