What is the role of humor in art? For most of human history, both fine and folk art firmly resided in the realm of the serious. It is only in the past century that artists have begun to experiment with the idea of comedy in their work. We can trace this revolutionary notion back to Dadaist Marcel Duchamp’s landmark creation, Fountain (1917). Rather than sculpt a whimsical, enchanting depiction of some goddess or river nymph, the artist simply displayed a mass-produced porcelain urinal and labeled it art. Two years later, this celebrated conceptual artist further flirted with this facetious tone in L.H.O.O.Q., a reproduction of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa (1503) complete with a penciled-on mustache.
In David Leggett and Ryan Richey: Mixed Emotions, currently on display at Hollywood’s Various Small Fires, humor immediately disarms the visitor, allowing for a profound and enriching viewing experience. The wit and charm present in these figurative paintings get to the heart of several crucial issues, including race, politics, identity, and finding meaning in the mundane. By laughing at what is traditionally taboo, both of these painters diffuse the tension and allow the viewer to investigate these topics with a renewed sense of clarity and understanding.
Although born in Springfield, Massachusetts, figurative painter and draughtsman David Leggett rose to prominence in Chicago, Illinois. Living in the Windy City for over a decade, it was there that Leggett grew to admire the surreal and often-macabre paintings of The Chicago Imagists, The Monster Roster, and The Hairy Who. Together these groups of post-war painters fused effervescent, cartoonish pop art with grotesque figuration and revealed the city as a swirling, bubbling cauldron of creative energy.
Meeting as students at the famed Art Institute of Chicago, both Leggett and Richey are deeply steeped in this tradition as their work features comedic highs alongside the bleakest of truths. While Leggett’s humor originates in the satire of Richard Pryor and deadpan delivery of Mitch Hedberg, Richey relies more on visual gags stemming from the absurdity and monotony of daily life.
Describing his work as “folk art with a gangsta lean,” Leggett’s paintings, drawings, and prints are instantly recognizable due to their highly personal, imperfect aesthetic as well as his use of disembodied heads, googly eyes, glitter, text fragments, vivid hues, and countless references to pop and African-American culture.
As one of the centerpieces of Leggett’s collection here, his collage on canvas titled Y’ll wanna see a dead body? (2018) resembles a rudimentary vision board or school presentation and perfectly encapsulates this mixture of morbidity, levity, and high and low brow art. Against a vibrant, abstract expressionist-inspired background of canary yellow, emerald green, and amaranth, we witness chaotic black scribbles made with an oil bar. Recalling both American painter Cy Twombly’s calligraphic gestures and graffiti, these desultory marks fuse the traditionally urban with the urbane. Dead body continues to explore this theme through the inclusion of the illustrious Spanish artist Pablo Picasso’s disembodied head presented alongside mainstream or “uncultured” imagery, such as pictures of Mr. T, marijuana leaves, dentures, the grim reaper, and a vintage WWF wrestling poster.
Meanwhile, Leggett’s Memorial day weekend (2018) is both a celebration and critique of the American way and all things pop culture. Against a neon yellow background, this electrifying collage features depictions of beloved cartoon characters, including Spongebob Squarepants and Porky Pig. Here we witness the innocence of youth juxtaposed with the glorification of violence and racist stereotypes in the form of a childlike drawing of a tank and a cliché African-American version of Bart Simpson. It is through the confluence of these evocative images that the viewer begins to question the ideology the nation is feeding its youth.
Also fascinated by notions of childhood and nostalgia, Ryan Richey presents an enthralling depiction of a boyhood memory in In and Out (2016). Strikingly cubist in its reliance on boxy forms, this oil on canvas painting presents a young man sneaking out of his bedroom window at night. Both universally relatable and highly personal, this wistful image highlights the child’s budding independence and adolescence. Part of what makes In and Out so fascinating is its use of double images. While the viewer instantly recognizes the brick foundation of the house, the stripe pattern in the middle of the painting could represent both the boy’s striped shirt and blinds.
Visual patterns and gags are ubiquitous in Richey’s work. He uses them not only to entice the eye but also to create rhythm and structure in an often chaotic world. We witness this dedication to cadence and flow in 2018’s Window Seat. Here the viewer gazes upon three travelers crammed into a cramped airplane row. The image centers upon the discordant, clashing patterns of their clothing and all three of them glued to their mobile devices. As a window into an infinite number of worlds, these phones and tablets allow the passengers not to need the outside world or each other for communication and entertainment.
David Leggett and Ryan Richey: Mixed Emotions leaves the viewer in a state of wistfulness and sentimentality. Acknowledging technology’s tremendous impact on humankind, both positive and negative, this striking collection joins us in longing for a simpler time, one of cartoon marathons, long, eventful summers, and sneaking out late. Perhaps these memories are not as sweet as we remember, but somehow they linger in our collective subconscious, popping up whenever the world overwhelms us with its cruelty and chaos.
Emily Nimptsch is Los Angeles Art Critic for Riot Material magazine. Ms. Nimptsch is also a freelance arts and culture writer who has written for Flaunt, ArtSlant, Artillery, ArteFuse, and Time Out Los Angeles.