CREATIVE PEAKS: Sick Joke

By on December 28, 2016

Teton Artlab’s visiting artist embraces revolting humor and 1980s sensibilities.

Artist Charlie Cunningham aptly calls these birds “The Shit Breakers.” The middle work is titled “The Coronation of Emil Antonowsky.”

Artist Charlie Cunningham aptly calls these birds “The Shit Breakers.” The middle work is titled “The Coronation of Emil Antonowsky.”

JACKSON HOLE, WY – If you’ve ever seen the film Robocop, you’ll remember the character poor old Emil Antonowsky. A prominent henchman of Clarence Broddicker, Emil meets a grisly demise when he smashes into a vat of toxic waste that turns his skin into a smoking liquid mess.

For fans of the movie, Emil’s skin melting scene provides a piquant brew of disgusting humor, just the sort of sick joke artist Charlie Cunningham likes to mine for in his artwork. Cunningham is in town for the month of December as Teton Artlab’s latest visiting artist in residence. He will speak about his work during an open studio tour on Thursday, December 29 at the Teton Artlab.

The Connecticut-based artist is classically trained, but prefers to work with contemporary materials and themes to create his rather unsettling work. Emil is a recurrent character in Cunningham’s work, as are other figures from popular culture. A child of the 1980s, Cunningham has a particular affinity for pop culture characters from the 80s and 90s. While he has been in Jackson, he’s made a charcoal portrait of Harry and Marv, the bandits from the film Home Alone.

“I feel like a lot of humor is undervalued in terms of its power,” Cunningham said. “For instance, I find it ironic that some of the best news we have comes from comedians.”

Cunningham says jokes can be looked at as a passive violation of a moral preconception. In other words, something is funny because it passively pokes fun at something that is not funny.

“The joke becomes a litmus test for moral sensibility,” he said.

The scene in Robocop where Emil meets his maker—he is mercifully run over by a member of his gang—is a notably funny part of the movie among fans. Morally speaking, watching someone be doused in toxic waste and then run over and popped like an overripe piece of fruit should not be funny. But in the context of the fictional movie, fans find the scene hilarious.

Cunningham is skilled in sculpture as well as drawing, though most of his work at the Artlab is 2D because it will be easier to ship home when the residency is finished. He has been using charred wood from the woodstove at the Lab for his charcoal. With it, he created the Harry and Marv portrait as well as several other drawings that will be on display Thursday.

Two of the drawings riff on the theme of “trickle-down economics,” another signifier of the 1980s. The Ronald Reagan era economic policy basically posited that freeing up restrictions and taxes on the rich would result in wealth “trickling down” to the poor. The term is also known as “horse and sparrow” economics, where the horse is fed a rich diet of oats and the sparrow is able to pick the oats out of the horse’s feces. Cunningham has two drawings of a sparrow perched on a pile of horseshit with an oat grain in its beak—a new spin on wildlife art.

“My work invokes contradictions within subjects both dubiously humorous and revolting,” Cunningham said. “I envision my art as the obligatory laugh and lingering uncomfortable fear following a misunderstood joke.”The deliberate irony in Cunnigham’s work is that it is inviting to the viewer. He painted a portrait of sparrows and horse poop that literally glimmers in the late afternoon sunlight flooding his temporary studio. His work often has a very tactile component to it, utilizing materials like colored foam and silicon. Sculptures and paintings beckon to be touched and yet repulsion is also there. A sculpted head of Emil adorns Cunningham’s studio wall; but if you touch it, will your hand melt as a result?

Learn more about Charlie Cunningham’s process and tour his studio—if you can stomach it—at 6 p.m. Thursday, December 29 at Teton Artlab. PJH

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About Meg Daly

Meg Daly is a freelance writer and arts instigator. She grew up in Jackson in the 1970s and 80s, when there were fewer fences, but less culture. Follow Meg on Twitter @MegDaly1

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