Beauty is no Joke: Hey, What’s So Funny?

Sparky has a few things to say that’ll crack you up, I mean his timing is perfection. He told me, “I bought some shoes from a drug dealer, but did’t know what they’d been laced with—I’ve been tripping all day.” Language jokes are Sparky’s favorite. Two more shoelace jokes: The Cathedral of Notre-Dame is looking for a new bell ringer. A man with no arms shows up for a try-out. The priest, feeling solicitous takes him up to the belfry and the man bonks his forehead on the bell. The priest is astonished at the clarity of the sound and gives the man the job. The man’s shoes are untied and he trips on a lace and falls to his death on the street below. The priest rushes to the street saying, “I never got the man’s name, does anyone know him?” A man in the crowd says, “NO, but his face rings a bell.” The next day a man shows up, the dead man’s brother. “I’d like to try out for the job in honor of my brother.” The priest gives him a shot and he adequately rings the bell. HIS shoes are untied (a family foible) and HE trips falling to his death below. The priest, again rushes to the street and says, “I never caught his name, does any one know him?” A woman steps forward and says, “NO, but he is a dead ringer for his brother.” Jokes using language has a deep, heart-felt reality for me, they go into some core of what intelligence is, how language forms us; it would be of great interest to look at a live MRI scan of a person “getting” a joke.

Sparky says, “Beauty Is No Joke” watercolor, monoprint, digital print of a 3D rendering, airbrush, collage, 1986, 1996, 2022

“It is worth noting that Ludwig Wittgenstein (our favorite) once said that a serious and good philosophical work could be written that would consist entirely of jokes (without being facetious).”
Norman Malcolm, Ludwig Wittgenstein: A Memoir—this from the online magazine Philosophy Now.

I’m dedicated to laying out how my images came to be. Sparky was created in a 3-D program on the computer made by extruding a dingbat. Funny name for those incidental little figures you use as paragraph breaks and end-of-story marks, etc. It’s from a typeface called Big Cheese from Emigre our favorite producer of great and useful computer graphics and typefaces. To get our Sparky you simply typed a slash on the keyboard having loaded up Big Cheese into your font library.

Diingbats from the Emigre Font group called “Big Cheese”
There’s Sparky…AKA slash.

You see the little guy is achieved by typing a slash on the keyboard. I typed the dingbat into a 3D graphics program, extruded him and gave him a texture I’d created in PhotoShop using a very old-school program called Kai’s Power Tools. KPT was so over-used it became a joke all in itself, and if you looked at early editions of Wired magazine, you’d see plenty of it. But it was a source of great joy to learn the way of the digital world “back in the day”—”back in the day” being the early ’90’s, and became part of my expanded toolkit as I learned a raft of digital programs. The digital world hugely expanded that toolkit for making pictures.

Kai’s Power Tools became a kind of a joke itself, it was used so much in the new burgeoning computer-driven graphic design world of the mid-90’s. You could choose a texture and it would “map” onto any image. This is how Sparky attained his skin. And I must say that interface has to be the ugliest ever.

Those were the days when the WWW was new and computers were becoming ever more powerful. I had nothing more in mind but seeing how all this digital stuff worked. It seems antiquated to even think of a time before computers took over our visual/mental lives. When Sparky appeared on my screen after a lengthly rendering process, he seemed to hold a lot of the good humor I’ve been fond of all along, and a delight to cut him out of the print and there he became the little jokester as I sifted through the piles of cutouts to magnet up on my walls covered with galvanized sheets of steel. Does he look good with this?? With that?? Trial and error until he met the cawing crow, and there he became fixed as a character who had something to say.

The painting of the crow was begun on our local golf course, just around the corner in the San Geronimo Valley, where we’ve lived now for 48 years, where that larger background was painted into reality, where I “played” golf. Play, in my case meaning: a conceptual form of rigor with the body (that’s how I thought about it). In the golf swing of 2.7 seconds all kinds of havoc can break your heart as you try to limn the space getting a 2 inch ball to go a great distance through a topological landscape as the club launches the ball. On a green-grassy spring day I hit a shot, a high arcing curve that skittered away into the creek as a crow cawed from a branch above my head. Caw! Caw! Caw! I happened to have my little point-n-shoot in my bag and took her picture, and later that week made the painting trying to capture her mockery. That was in the pre-computer days, mid 1980’s, and I used the photo-image of the crow on the branch. I liked the watercolor painting enough to keep around. I especially liked the area around the crow that seemed to come a lot more easily than my golf shot with flowing paint strokes in watercolor. I had given the picture of Sparky to a friend who didn’t like it—didn’t get the joke and gave it back. Glad of that and a part of Sparky’s journey. The large background picture was done as a monoprint when I was doing such things with access to a press in the early 80’s. I had an affinity for making mono prints where you paint with slippery paint onto a piece of slick plexiglass as a printing plate. I made a lot of these and this one ended up sitting in a drawer.

The view is out my studio window is of the Ridgeline here in Forest Knolls which I look at every day. I can’t bring to recollection what made me paint that Ridgeline with an airbrush on top of the monoprint, but for sure it was part of the “Do The Next Thing” I’m fond of touting and actually doing. It just seemed like a good idea, just something that occurred to me to do. The swirls of paint of the monoprint feel referential to a deep kind of time, before “civilization” came to this landscape, before the native people inhabited this landscape, before those trees started growing, before Sir Francis Drake landed here which BTW is the name of the “boulevard” which bisects this beautiful valley. The monoprint under the ridge felt like the unconscious brewing away—which it does, and to the point of telling how this image came to be. The how of things is also of great interest. All these modes of working feel like the layers of a very complex onion peeled and chopped ready for the stewpot of your enjoyment. What’s of interest here is all these different modes of working coming together to form a single thought where humor is part of the experience. I am always looking for a spindle around which to wind these thought/images, to come to some coherence of thinking. Many ways of realizing images and many ways of thinking about them gets me to making “pictures of Art”. How to talk about making pictures of art? Because I love the idea of Art itself, because I want to make a picture of Art, I think this image is a picture of Art.

Humor is the great equalizer. The Fool in his jingle-hat can and does speak truth to power as the Court Jester, helpful in our national experiment to form a more perfect union. You’ve probably noticed autocrats authoritarians and fascists of all stripes don’t do much in the way of joking around, notoriously bereft of a smile beyond a slanted grin at someone else’s discomfort. Not big fans of Sparky. On the other hand Volodymyr Zelenskyy, the President of Ukraine began his career as a comedian. Abraham Lincoln was famous for his humor, able to disarm his cabinet, his recalcitrant “team of rivals” toward the emancipation of slaves. So to close, an Art joke: An artist walks into a gallery where he’s having a show, all his pictures have red dots. “Wow, amazing”, what’s the story?” says the artist to the director. The director says, “Do you want the good news or the bad news?” “Good first, says the Artist”. “OK, one guy bought all your work.” “Whats the bad news?” “The man was your doctor.”

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