FUNNY FEMINISM #3: Laughing All the Way to the Museum – An Interview with Jill Dawsey

A monthly column, Funny Feminism features conversations with and about feminist-identifying artists who use humor in their creative work.


Laugh-in: Art, Comedy, Performance explores the recent turn toward comedic performance in contemporary art. The exhibition features twenty artists who engage the strategies and themes of stand-up comedy as a means to rethink questions of artistic performativity, audience participation, and public speech.

—Jill Dawsey, Associate Curator, Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with Laugh-in’s curator, Jill Dawsey about the group exhibit and its feminist inclinations. The show opened at MCASD on January 23rd and runs through April 19th.

Cathy de la Cruz: Can you tell me about Laugh-in, and how the show relates to feminism and comedy?

Jill Dawsey: I’m pleased that you picked up on the feminist aspect of the show. The broader theme is artists who are thinking about stand-up comedy, borrowing from the strategies and aesthetics of stand-up. It has to do with a lot of things: questions of public speech and communication and finding audiences, and what can and can’t be said at this moment in time.

One of the larger threads that runs throughout the show is the way that comedy can create a space in which hierarchies can be inverted and power relations can be challenged. There are many women artists in the show and there’s a lot of explicitly feminist work.

CD: Before the show even opened, I saw the press release with one of the Tammy Rae Carland photographs from the show, and having never seen that particular photograph (“I’m Dying Up Here (Strawberry Shortcake)”), where the subject of the photograph has their face covered while sitting on on a stool on stage–I was blown away by it…

JD: Certainly, Tammy Rae Carland is a key figure in the show and one of the first artists whose work started me thinking about these issues. Carland made a series called “I’m Dying Up Here” and many of the photographs feature female comedians—many are kind of underground comedians in San Francisco. Tammy Rae is inspired by the legacy of female comedians of the 60s and the 70s and even earlier, including Moms Mabley and these amazing women who were so groundbreaking—and whose comedy in a lot of ways is quite painful and self-objectifying: Joan Rivers and Phyllis Diller and others.

This body of photographs is staged, though it does feature real comedians, but the image that you’re talking about with the Strawberry Shortcake towel covering her head is actually a self-portrait of Tammy Rae. In all of the photographs, the performers’ faces are obscured. The series is about the vulnerability of the performing body and especially the female performing body. There’s a deflection of the gaze, and of the audience’s expectation: the face is the site of expressivity and here it is withheld. I find a real tension in the work between this vulnerability and also a certain sense of rebellion—pushing back against whatever we might be projecting onto the performer.


CD: Growing up alongside the Riot Grrrl movement, Tammy Rae’s most iconic work for me will always be that cover of the groundbreakingly feminist Bikini Kill album (“Pussy Whipped”) that came out in 1993.

JD: Yeah! I was going to mention that Tammy Rae Carland is a really important photographer at this point in time, but she also was the founder of Mr. Lady Records. It’s a nice background connection that she was so instrumental in the Riot Grrrl movement.

CD: Was this the first show you curated that is explicitly about comedy?

JD: Yes, it is. It’s not the first feminist project I’ve worked on, which again, I don’t know if I can describe the whole exhibition as a feminist project per se, but feminism has been important to my work.

This exhibition, I think, is specific to our cultural moment—and stand up itself seems to be going through a kind of renaissance now. I notice that there is a lot of stand-up comedy that is more formally inventive, that is closer to something like performance art, or that is challenging to categorize. I’ve been looking at people like Kate Berlant—she’s incredible. And Maria Bamford and Tig Notaro and people who are pushing boundaries in different ways and also exploring subject matter that hasn’t been explored in comedy previously—that’s really interesting to me. Maybe there’s something about comedy in this moment that is more expansive and inclusive. I think a lot of artists in “Laugh-in” are picking up on that. I’ve always been a fan of comedy, but I’ve never had the chance to organize a project around it.

CD: Was there one moment or piece that inspired this show for you? Can you tell about the process of putting together this particular show?

Bea right

JD: There were a number of works that I encountered. I remember seeing Tammy Rae Carland’s series around the same time as I did the work of Sara Greenberg Rafferty, an artist in New York who works with themes of comedy and imagery drawn from the history of late 20th century media broadly, but especially comedy. Sara’s work features numerous images of female comedians…In “Laugh-in” her work references or depicts comedians such as Gilda Radner, Bea Arthur, Lily Tomlin, Phyllis Diller, and Elayne Boosler. For much of her work, she appropriates images from the internet and subjects them to a process she calls “water-logging,” where she alters her prints with fluid so all of the colors run.

She has kind of moved out of that and is now working more with imagery and props related to comedy—objects that are comedic in and of themselves. I encountered her work around the same time as the Carland series—a few years ago now and the two of them—one artist on the west coast and one artist on the east coast got me thinking—‘something is going on here’.

I was looking at Stanya Kahn’s work at this time as well. Stanya has a video in Laugh-in in which she is wearing this giant foam penis costume and she’s wandering around Highland Park in Los Angeles (“Lookin Good, Feelin Good”, 2012). She goes to the Weinerschnitzel and she gets broken up with over the phone and there are all these comedic episodes. This is intercut with footage of Stanya standing at a microphone as if she is doing standup, but instead of telling jokes during that portion, she’s relaying this traumatic childhood memory of her mother and her mom’s boyfriend going to score heroin—it’s a very painful memory. What emerges is this suggestion that comedy is a survival mechanism—it’s a way to survive pain and to work through pain. When I saw this video, I felt like it was another definitive moment in the construction of the larger narrative of the show.


CD: I’m always blown away by Stanya Kahn’s work…

JD: Her work is so good, and she has made some new pieces for the show. In the past she’s made line drawings that often depict creatures—whether they’re worms or snakes or other lowly creatures—who are engaged in some sort of comedic dialogue, and they’re hilarious. Recently, she’s been expanding those to the scale of painting—large-scale paintings that are colorful and employ the same cartoon imagery. There’s something funny about the format, since this kind of drawing usually seems more intimate and suited to the space of a page, but here she is blowing it up to the size of a grand painting. I think for her it almost has this inappropriate quality, putting it on this scale. She has one painting called “Yes and No,” featuring a witch who is naked and covered in penises that are sprouting from her body everywhere. One figure says “Did it work?” and the witch replies “Yes and no.” To me, it’s hilarious because, first of all, she makes you fill in the joke. She only gives you the punch line. It becomes an allegory of feminism and questions of power: if a woman assumes phallic power or some kind patriarchal power—that’s not what we necessarily want, that’s not what’s going to work. So there’s this comedic take on the idea of the master’s tools never dismantling the master’s house or something like that. It’s a funny piece.

photographed by Sean Dungan

CD: I know you said that you probably can’t identify the whole show as an entirely feminist exhibit, but do you identify Laugh-in as an overtly political show?

JD: I think it is, but I wouldn’t say that all of the work in the show is political. Much of the work does take up themes of gender and race and questions of power. Comedy offers strategies for talking about those questions and we’re in a moment where it’s very difficult to dialogue about such issues. The country is so politically polarized. I think comedy can be used to open up conversations. Of course, comedy can be quite conservative as well. There’s so many male comedians especially who stand up there and tell their dick jokes or just reinforce the heteronormative status quo. The artists in this show seem trying to subvert that.

CD: Is there anything you hope people will think about or experience when they walk away from seeing all this work? Is there a message or idea that you feel is coming together with all of these pieces that you hadn’t previously realized until now, or just anything surprising that’s coming up for you now that this show is up?

JD: For me, I encounter a powerful artwork and it can challenge all of my ideas and create a radical reversal of perspective. I think comedy does a similar thing. When somebody tells a joke, we agree to go along with them and follow the narrative that they’re telling us—and part of what’s so pleasurable is that there is this reversal of expectations and what’s represented in the joke is suddenly not what we anticipated. I think there’s a parallel between how art can function and how comedy can function—at their best. I hope that is what people come away with. Not all of the work in the show is funny. A lot of it’s quite dark, but I still think it has the ability to challenge us and to expand our ideas about the world.

CD: It’s true. So much of comedy is actually really dark. As someone who’s seen a lot of comedy and recently started performing stand-up at open mics.…

JD: You have?

CD: Yeah.

JD: That’s brave.

CD & JD: (Laughter)

CD: Performing standup comedy is definitely one of the bravest things I’ve ever done in my life. 

JD: Yeah, that’s a big theme in the show—thinking of comedians as a sort of analogous figure for artists, because artists put themselves out there and it’s hard to make work that is essentially an act of communication and not know how it will be received. There’s a lot of risk there and a lot of vulnerability.

CD: Can you tell me a little about the artists Chann & Mann who we haven’t talked about?

JD: Their work in the show is pointedly feminist. When I saw Chan & Mann’s recent work I knew they had to be part of the exhibition…they create this very message-oriented work that is part agit-prop theater, part standup comedy. They are working to revive and redefine feminism in a way that’s very intersectional and thinks about identity alongside history—and they do so with a real sense of humor.

New Fantasy painting

Their work is one of the first things you see when you come into the exhibition, a piece called “Chan & Mann’s New Fantasy,” which includes a painting and a video component. There’s a painting with cut outs for faces—like a carnival-style peephole painting—and in the video Chan and Mann’s faces appear in the holes. The piece is riffing on a famous but very odd French Renaissance painting in the Louvre, by an unknown painter (Gabrielle d’Estrées et une de ses soeurs, 1594). It’s quite a surreal painting. There are two women in their bath and one is reaching over to pinch the nipple of the other. Chann and Mann essentially reenact and animate the painting. The original painting is an allegory of fertility and feminine intimacy and in the video recreation, Chann & Mann talk about their work and their families and they grapple with feminist legacies…and they tell some great jokes.

* * *

Laugh-in: Art, Comedy and Performance is currently on exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego until April 19, 2015.

Artists include Cory Arcangel, Edgar Arceneaux, Jibz Cameron (Dynasty Handbag) and Hedia Maron, Tammy Rae Carland, Chan & Mann, Kasia Fudakowski, Eric Garduño and Matthew Rana, Jonn Herschend, Stanya Kahn, Tim Lee, Glenn Ligon, Carter Mull, Jayson Musson, Sara Greenberger Rafferty, Scott Reeder, and Michael Smith.

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