The show, "Shame The Devil" at The Kitchen gallery in the Chelsea art district, is a group exhibition examining the parallel abilities of stand-up comedians and visual artists to play the roles of cultural observer and provocateur. Curated by guest curator Petrushka Bazin, the show features new sculpture, installations, video and photography by the artists Jabari Anderson, Elizabeth Axtman, Michael Paul Britto, Wayne Hodge, My Barbarian, Huong Ngo, Jessica Ann Peavy, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Kenya (Robinson) and Jimmy Joe Roche.
In all of its various forms, including stand-up, theater, literature, television, and film, comedy has long provided valuable inspiration and techniques for artists seeking to critique society. The artists presented in Shame The Devil utilize parody, satire and dark humor to explore the socio-political dimensions of power associated with cultural, racial and economic issues. Titled after the idiom "tell the truth and shame the devil," which means to speak honestly and without censorship, the exhibition investigates comedy’s ability to survey and challenge the values of those confronted by its jokes.
The artists’ works examine the subtleties and structure of stand-up comedy routines, the mannerisms, oral and physical stage where performances take place. The agency of comedy is considered as a subversive political strategy, inciting debate and reflection. Following the long tradition of political caricature, the artists offer humorous send-ups of political commentary on critical issues like racial profiling, anti-terrorist paranoia and right-wing extremism. The works also highlight the inherent therapeutic qualities of comedy for both stand-up comics and artists who must use humor to assuage harsh realities.
Working in performance, I felt that the performance work, "Kenya Eats A Cracker" by Kenya (Robinson) was very intiguing. There were Ritz crackers, Club crackers, Triscuits, Chicken in a Biskits, Honey Maid graham crackers, and even Premium Saltines (those great objects of desire in Ed Ruscha's 1970 film Premium) sitting on plates on a table at the opening. Very much ready to eat, I was sad to learn that the fine spread was not for the visiting public, though my pain subsided somewhat when I learned that they were to be used for a performance by the artist. At least someone would be enjoying the tasty snacks.
Wearing a yellow raincoat, she walked up to the cracker–covered table, sat down, and started eating. A crowd formed around her as she grabbed crackers by the handful, stuffing them in her mouth, staring up at the crowd, and chewing in rapid bursts as crumbs fell from her lips.
A voice came from nearby speakers as she enacted her feasting. "At Triscuit, we believe less is more," the affectless narrator intoned. "That's why we bake our crackers with quality ingredients like Soft White Winter Wheat." (All quotes come from a paper available at The Kitchen, where her cracker boxes are still on view.) The narrative traveled from the production of Triscuits to the history of Carr's Crackers ("Jonathan Dodgson Carr created the first table water cracker in 1890…") to the Israelites' exodus from Egypt. Kenya kept eating. She took rapid-fire bites, then slow, long chews, and then steady open-mouthed munches, offering a full compendium of eating options.
"It's best when used by January 29, 2011, or better still on January 29, 1954, when Oprah Winfrey was born," the voice continued. "Open here. Made with smiles and a product of the USA." Kenya continued her dining as the voice continued to speak. "Open other end. Lift tab to open. Push to open. Open here." And then the voiceover ended and she got up from her chair and walked off. There was some light applause.
Kenya seems wonderfully out of touch with the times. Much of the most acclaimed or at least most visible, performance art recently has involved the glorification of long-term suffering such as Marina Abramovic's The Artist Is Present at MoMA.
In contrast, while very much present in her work, Kenya creates for herself a great and pleasurable time. She enjoys the bounty of an unusual buffet in "Kenya Eats A Cracker" , while she twists the codes that govern our basic needs, such as shelter and food, in ambiguous ways and pushes them toward the precarious point when they may break, when the house guest outstays her welcome or when the woman munching maniacally on crackers moves from a representative of freewheeling fun to an object of ridicule. And then there are the racial overtones in Cracker's title and text. What are we to make of them?