Los Angeles

Tanya Brodsky, More Fucking Hoops, 2017, metal and chrome footrests, balloon, 21 × 16 × 16".

Tanya Brodsky, More Fucking Hoops, 2017, metal and chrome footrests, balloon, 21 × 16 × 16".

Tanya Brodsky

Tanya Brodsky, More Fucking Hoops, 2017, metal and chrome footrests, balloon, 21 × 16 × 16".

An inevitable pitfall of explaining a joke is that it is rendered unfunny, flat, and unbearable in the process. One doesn’t have to go back to Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905) to know that there’s more at play in comedic speech than is immediately apparent. That comedy has not only psychological but social dimensions isn’t a particularly fresh insight, but it’s one that drives cultural hermeneutics nonetheless. Or, as Lauren Berlant and Sianne Ngai put it in their recent essay “Comedy Has Issues” in Critical Inquiry, “the funny is always tripping over the not funny, sometimes appearing identical to it.” Take, for example, the current fad for sad (white male) clowns: Louis C. K. and Marc Maron have long been two prominent bozos (with the former having very publicly fallen from grace in light of sexual harassment allegations).

The contemporary art world enters this discourse from the flanks. A common insult in criticism is to call an artwork a one-liner. Cheap laughs, potshots—this is not the stuff contemporary art is made of. Yet many artworks are effectively just gags: Take, for example, Glenn Ligon’s untitled series of text paintings of Richard Pryor jokes begun in 1993; Deborah Kass’s riff on Andy Warhol, “The Jewish Jackies,” 1992, which replace the former first lady’s visage with that of Barbra Streisand’s; and Pippa Garner’s prop-heavy drawings and sculptures. These artists show that the one-liner works because it collapses within it several concerns at once.

Tanya Brodsky is in such vaunted company; she makes one-liner sculptures. That isn’t to say the work is vapid, superficial, or easily forgotten. Those who hurl “one-liner” as an insult consistently forget that such a joke is always part of a larger routine. Crafted from common materials (window bars and bed frames, mostly), Brodsky’s nine sculptures at Ochi Projects (all 2017) concertedly worked like a perfectly timed routine. Taken together, the sculptures—most of which had been sandblasted and treated with a clear coating—provided a droll encomium on the absurdities of daily life. Sex, security, and labor were by turns invoked.

Pathetic dependence was everything here. Brodsky’s sculptures were variously supplemented with deflated balloons (Party City), an errant polka-dotted sock (Roommate), and a bicycle kickstand (Great Supporter). In First Time, a metal headboard was turned upside down and attached to the wall, and two precisely measured beeswax candles were fitted into the upended tubes that would normally lock into the bed’s frame. A smile, an altar, a cumbersome sconce—this sculpture is promiscuously all of the above. In this way, Brodsky brought eros to bear on the more familiar pathos and bathos that anchor comedy’s most common entreaties to humanity’s . . . humanity. The central beating heart of Brodsky’s routine was the corner-mounted More Fucking Hoops, in which a crimson balloon was imprisoned between two semicircular metal footrests, one sandblasted to a grayish black, the other chromed. The balloon, whose breath-filled form was constrained by its context, had only to deflate a little in order to set itself free. This is More Fucking Hoops’s promise and threat. The comedy is both in the language of the title and in the tension of the sculptural situation.

Only one gripe: It was hard to imagine any of these sculptures standing alone. Thankfully, the gallery’s upstairs space helped bring the individual works together. The room’s plywood walls heightened the contingency of each sculpture’s elements, while the space’s modest size put the works into immediate and intimate dialogue.

As with Joan Rivers’s card catalogue of one-liners—more than a million jokes typed on index cards and arranged by subject—one gets the sense that Brodsky could expand her repertoire indefinitely. For although the artist’s subjects are the anxieties and pressures that come with the quotidian, her assemblages are effortless and intelligent without the hand-wringing that normally accompanies such topics. In fact, Brodsky goes one better: She allows her materials to be exactly what they are, and by placing them in novel situations and arrangements, she undoes and remakes the world, instead of just simply commenting on it.

Andy Campbell