Jennifer Zwick is one of the funniest artists I know. I used to work at a frame shop where she was a regular customer, and I enjoyed her visits. She has a sense of willful absurdism I find rare outside of comedians—she can “riff” with the best of them. Not surprisingly, that nimble wit is also evident in her work, which ranges from playfully imaginative constructed tableaus to quietly madcap documents of naturally-occurring incongruity. I’m a big fan.
One time I framed some of her photographs on a tight deadline, and a few days later, she came into the shop and presented me with a small trophy haphazardly painted white. Over the plaque part, she affixed tiny letters that said “EXPEDIENCY.” It was the only time I ever received a trophy for doing my job.
Despite being in her third trimester, Zwick agreed to answer some questions about humor and art.
I know you’re an artist who works in many different media, but let’s stick to photography. What’s funny about photography? How is humor expressed photographically?
I think one of the things that’s so funny about photography is how close it comes to representing reality – and then how far it falls from truly doing so.
The fixed perspective and implied “truth” of photography make it an ideal medium for visual puns of the “what’s that on your shirt?” bump-the-nose-with-the-finger variety. You thought you were looking at one thing! But actually you were looking at another! Or less punnily, simply bending that implied truth in an absurd way to create something playfully bizarre. Often a laugh is an expression of surprise-when what surprises you isn’t scary, it’s funny. I generally stay away from Photoshop as a way to create images, and prefer to make things that look like they might be photoshopped, but are not. For me, the resulting images tend to be more awkward and satisfying.
You did a public art project where you made a tiny room interior into which people placed their heads and took a picture, and the resulting snapshots were uniformly hilarious. It was like one of those kooky cutouts people pose behind at an amusement park. How did that come about? Did you conceive of it as a visual “joke”? Are there any other projects you’ve done where the photographic documentation is the “punchline”?
I have this odd interest in living rooms. Many of my photographs and installations are subverted living rooms, as though somehow to me it’s the ultimate neutral state. When I was pregnant with my son, I did not have the energy to create life-sized sets so I started thinking smaller, and created I’m In The Living Room! which is a tiny wearable living room, with a wood floor that connects to the back wall with science (magnets). Originally I conceived the idea to be done in a high-fashion way, with photographs and maybe video of models in all black, walking down a runway while wearing various rooms on their heads. But doing it as a public art piece was very satisfying, because it’s always funnier to see your own giant head sitting in a tiny living room. Definitely it is meant to be funny.
Another series I’ve done was for a solo show called I’m So Scared It’s All So Hard, where I explored my constant feeling of awkwardness. There was a diptych called Hanging which shows me hanging through a white wall, one view from the front and one from the rear. To me, it’s hilarious. It’s about how awkward it is to constantly be stuck in a body, so that no matter what I do, or say, it’s seen as part of and associated with whatever my body happens to be like. This heavy awkward thing that sends off all these accidental signals and triggers. Then there is Hello which is a visual plane of flat, hectic flower fabric, abruptly interrupted with some breasts (not mine). This more blatantly speaks about being received in a particular form. Breasts are such an oddly public body part, even when a great deal of care is taken to keep them under wraps. For example, they are bouncy. As such they echo your movements-if you fall, they display some pretty slapstick aftershocks. And of course there are the darker sides of this-they are often treated as public by dudes. I later made Hello 2 where I used the same fabric for my pregnant belly, because I’ve found pregnancy to be another accidentally public thing. I’m currently 7 months pregnant, and last week my family was at the Central Library and this woman actually YELLED across an entire room “when are you due? Is it a boy? Is that the dad?” Somehow it feels ok for strangers to ask anything they want about my pregnancy. I get it, and it’s ok, but that doesn’t stop the experience from being very weird. No one ever asks how my spleen is feeling, or when I next expect to pee. But the baby in there, fair game. Titling these pieces “Hello” is a way to acknowledge their open-source qualities-well, hello right back, you persistent body parts.
Sitting here, I’m realizing how many anatomically humourous photos I’ve made. There is also Asscape, which is basically a naked bottom with some flowers growing out of it. The bottom is composed such that it looks quite a bit like rolling hills. Then there’s Jiggle, an interactive video installation of a 6 foot by 9 foot naked bottom, hooked up via microprocessor to a quaintly upholstered floor cushion. When you jump on the cushion (and you do have to jump to activate it) the bottom in the video jiggles along with you. I hadn’t quite realized how consistently I work like this. It’s all living rooms and slapstick nudity, I guess.
Your Symmetry pictures are funny. The tension between the implied harmony and then the ways in which they fall short of that is, to me, ripe with pathos. They suggest a sort of fallibility in the order of things that is also at the root of a lot of comedy. What are you trying to do with this series? Is humor a consideration in the process?
Thank you, Brett! I’m glad you enjoy them. It is satisfying to see systems break down. For me, it’s just a recorded version of what my brain does naturally: it tries to overlay a pattern on everything. How does whatever I’m looking at balance out? Is it symmetrical? Is it evenly dispersed? In what way can I impose some sort of logic to this area? I’d say that some of the images are intentionally funny, but the breadth of the topic allows for a range of intentions.
Some people might dismiss art that is overtly funny. I’ve heard “jokey” used as a pejorative. Is that something you contend with? How do you balance your innate sense of humor with being taken “seriously” as an artist?
Yes – absolutely. I think there is a detrimental view of humor in art. Maybe humor seems too simple, like once you “get” it you can move on, whereas works with more abstract or universal themes can be returned to from a variety of perspectives and moods. However, when I make a piece that is funny, I really feel that there is more to it than just a joke. There are all the technical aspects that make it funny at all, like breaking visual planes or subverting norms. And honestly (and I’m not just trying to butter you up here) I think comedy is the highest art form. I believe it’s the very, very best thing a person could ever do.