Staff Favorites: Director of Education Dale Fisher on Steve Buscemi's Portrait and Why Clean Jokes Aren't Funny

Interpretation of any kind about art is a tricky thing: Where is the boundary between looking at the work of art and when you are revealing glimpses into your own head or heart? The works I respond to in the exhibition of VOOM PORTRAITS are not the obvious “hey look, it’s so-and so” images, but rather the works that seem to be exploring universal themes and appear to be making an uneasy accommodation of seemingly-irreconcilable opposites in one image.

Take the Steve Buscemi portrait, which is the most intriguing work in the exhibition as far as I am concerned.
It must be that confrontational side of beef and the “oh that’s gross” factor that is grabbing me! But wait, the slab of meat isn’t exactly jarring to me. After all, Damien Hirst is a current hot commodity in the art world, and he often displays inanimate, dead things. Francis Bacon painted sides of beef surrounding screaming Popes, Chaim Soutine painted sides of beef… and so did Rembrandt. Wait, I have seen this idea before. Obviously, Wilson’s portrait has some art-historical precedents. So, why isn’t an art historical read on the work satisfying? Because it is incomplete.

Where should I look next to get to the reason I find this work s
o darn engaging? Oh, maybe it is the artists’ choice of media? Not really. Just doesn’t interest me too much. The videos are beautiful, and I am sure high-def has something to do with that, but I don’t really care enough to even be interested in finding out “how?” That must not be it…

Let me look at the work again.
Ok, there’s a still figure in front of a table with a side of beef. The beef is colored a bloody red, the table is pristine polished steel, and the floor is surgically-clean rather than kill-floor messy. The background is cool and well-lit. The draperies form strong vertical elements of light and color. As a matter of fact, the only other splash of color besides the meat is the blood on Buscemi’s apron. If the subject has art-historical precedents, maybe this random-looking painterly gesture is commenting on 20th-Century Abstract Expressionist works.
Wait. Is that what the artist intended, or is it my imagination? Would Wilson want me to be thinking of him in painterly terms? Is there a difference between light and color that comes from a camera and the same visual effect that comes from a tube of paint? Do I have to decide this now?! OK, since I am considering a work of art, I will use the language of the discipline and come to terms with using formal terms. But how satisfying is it going to be to describe what is very evident in looking at the work? Not so much.

Wait! If I look at art history to see if Wilson is making an homage to other artists AND consider why the portraits are different from paintings AND look at how Wilson has used form, I might get a better, more complete set of information to make some kind of interpretation of the work, make some sense out of it for myself.

Well, let’s see if that works. The Buscemi portrait appears to be about the incongruous juxtaposition of the dead meat with the deadpan face of Buscemi’s character. Death as symbolized by the meat happens, and it will happen to each of us, but still there’s an innate darkly comic attitude towards it---and people laugh at what is taboo or uncomfortable. It is why clean jokes are unfunny and you laugh when you see someone slip on a banana peel. Or is that only the way I see it?

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