I’ve always been a fan of word paintings. The beautifully painted crisp edges and color palettes meet the ingenuity of word play. Analytical yet beautiful. And so I was naturally happy to come across (thanks to the Center for Aesthetic Revolution blog) Stefan Brüggemann’s paintings on view at Yvon Lambert. He overlays Joseph Kosuth’s series “Art as Idea as Idea”(1966-) and Richard Prince’s “Joke Paintings” (1985-), maintaining the dimensions of the artists’ original phrases. So each painting combines a definition with a joke, giving the series its parenthetical untitled title: “Untitled (Definition and Joke Paintings).” What is so ingenious about this pairing is the high culture philosophy associated with the author of “Art after Philosophy” meets the popular culture humor of the king of appropriation, both re-appropriated and overlaid in the perfect conceptual leveling that happens with word paintings. They also combine two art historical figures indicative of two generations—the 1960s and 1980s—often pitted against one another: leftist/Reganist, optimism/pessimism, anti-commercial/market savvy, and maybe most telling of all “the end of modernism” versus “post-modernism.”
So what’s the relationship between a definition and a joke, to define and to joke? The former is about deadpan precision, setting limits, and determining signification, and the latter about jest, twisting language, and inciting laughter. Both figures of speech and actions are key to communication, to how we make use of learned language. As nouns the phrases are painted individually on the canvas and as verbs the two play with visual perception. Just as jokes often manipulate definitions, the viewer’s eyes focus and re-focus to read the superimposed phrases. Like all the best word paintings, it’s visual and verbal play in real time.