Lynne Koplitz / Louise Lawler

How has Lynne Koplitz been a stand-up comedian for decades and just now have her first one-hour special? With Koplitz’s first special occurring in her late 40’s, watching her show feels like your fun aunt just walked into the family reunion. “Hormonal Beast” begins with Koplitz emerging from backstage dressed in a sequin party dress into an equally chic apartment straight of the 1960s: mini bars, high chairs, circular shag rugs, and for some reason giant fans lining the sides of the stage. As she settles in she says “I feel like Barbie years later, after she sold the Dream House and she’s living in her loft. She found out that Ken is gay and she’s alright. Now she likes to be called Barbara. She let herself go a little bit.”

Koplitz is this image the entire show. She is a confident middle-aged woman who wants to impart her wisdom onto the world, giving us the run-down on everything from the three things men want (food, for women to shut the f*ck up, and sex) and how to turn the tables on a rapist.  Despite the binary she creates through epitomized gender roles, she’s going to keep you smiling for an hour straight because she is still describing relatable situations. Many of us have an unpredictable parent, especially if one of them is hormonal. Lynne describes the “Cold Cut Fiasco of 1985,” where her mother threw bologna all over the kitchen crying that her children treated her like cheap meat because they would eat all of the turkey before anything else. While she describes witnessing this event with childhood confusion, as a woman who is now the same age as her mother, she understands how small issues can build into tornado-level intensity. As real as these situations feel in the moment, you’re left cackling at the thought of a father protecting his children in the tub waiting out the mom-tornado of no-turkey rage.

I know that I do not have archives of these pieces to reference comparing stand-up comics to artists, but so far my work has taken larger funny quotes and brought it together with an artistic idea. I can’t do that this time with “Hormonal Beast.” This isn’t because Lynne Koplitz doesn’t have anything worth quoting, she is definitely a funny person, but because I became most enthralled in the image she created rather than the intricacies of her language. She says she is completely comfortable in her “Barbie turned Barbara” scenario, and this comes out in her explanation of why she likes not having children. She says, “I’m not a mom. I have nice things instead of children.” Koplitz said a woman came up to her after a show and said that she would feel selfish if she was in her 40’s and didn’t have children. Koplitz replies, “Sometimes I do feel selfish. Then I wake up at noon and look at all my nice shit.” I love this. She doesn’t take care of tiny people, rather she takes care of her stuff, which in turn is taking care of herself.

We all associate our things with ourselves, that is why we all care about what kinds of clothes we buy and take forever to pick out duvet covers and all kinds of tedious crap. When people look at our stuff they try and figure out who we are from material clues. When we look at art we see it as an extension of the artist and search their biography for clues to an image’s meaning. Take Andy Warhol, for example. You can look at his “Campbell’s Soup Cans” series on display at the Museum of Modern Art and think about the repetitiveness of the series and the uniformity that comes with marketing and advertising. Then you can consider how he would eat the same lunch, a can of Campbell’s soup, every day with his mother for twenty years; the series may become less about seriality and more about the sentimentality of this experience, the end product being a testament to these kinds of rituals. So we can look at our friend/family/stranger’s stuff and learn about who they are, we can look at artwork in a museum and learn about who the artist is, but what if artwork is displayed in someone’s house? Then there is just a calamity of person/artwork/artist/place and nothing makes sense and identities explode! Or we can calm down and think this through. Louise Lawler has.

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Andy Warhol, “Campbell’s Soup Cans,” (1962) Museum of Modern Art (photo by Wally Gobetz)

Louise Lawler (b. 1947) is an American photographer whose work “Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremain, Sr.” (1984) is on display in Gallery 178 in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. This photograph exemplifies a large portion of her practice photographing artwork in collectors’ homes, galleries, archives, and museums. She concerns herself with the image of artwork rather than the actual artwork itself. In “Living Room Corner,” the viewer is given a view into what feels like a small corner of a family’s home. A Robert Delaunay painting hangs on the wall behind a television and a Roy Lichtenstein lampstand.

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Louise Lawler, “Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremain, Sr.” (1984), Philadelphia Museum of Art (photo by Marcus Bunyan, who took a better photo than me)

So what is this work about: Lawler, the artists in the picture, or the Tremains? I would argue that the way Lawler frames the shot, intentionally panning out from the Delaunay painting to place other objects in the frame, is allowing us to take in the life of artwork and the ways that it is affected by its surroundings. In a museum, a viewer may consider the Delaunay piece’s formative qualities and the ways in which your eye follows the canvas in a circular motion. In the house, someone may compliment how well the canvas matches the lampshade. Lawler’s work allows us to see how art is a commodity. Warhol exposed the marketability of artwork through repetitive images, but Lawler is showing us how individualized pieces can be commodified as well.

Some might look at this photograph of the Tremains living room and think they are superficial, only collect art as a status symbol, and destabilize the meaning of art by using it in a decorative scheme. Or they could love Delaunay’s abstract style and wanted to commemorate him in their home. In either scenario, I hope sometimes they wake up at noon and look at all their nice shit.


“Living Room Corner Arranged by Mr. and Mrs. Burton Tremain, Sr.” is on display at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in Gallery 178: Word, Image & Domestic Dissent. This gallery brings together six American artists who came to prominence from the 1970s to 1990s. Their work questions identity and representation in domestic spaces, the media, art, and popular culture. Featured artists include Lawler, Barbara Kruger, Lorna Simpson, Jenny Holzer, and Carrie Mae Weems.

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Ryan Hamilton / Umbo

You know that feeling when you know something is off but you cannot figure out what it is? Like you’re looking at a friend and can’t figure out why they are different, then you look deep into their eyes and feel a love that you have never felt before…or just notice that they have a new haircut or got new glasses or something? That’s “uncanny.” Uncanny is difficult to define because it is a feeling of the indescribable, but it has been part of our vocabulary since the beginning of the twentieth century.

Ernst Jentsch’s “On The Psychology of the Uncanny” (1906) defines uncanny as a “lack of orientation,” where a person who is experiencing this phenomenon is not quite familiar with their current situation. To Sigmund Freud, defining a word as an uncertainty was not sufficient, so he develops it more in his book titled “The Uncanny” in 1919. Freud brings a more abject rendering of the word, describing it as an effect of experiencing repetition where our repressed impulses bubble to the surface. His use of the German word unheimlich, or “un-home-like,” brings an image of a secret, or something that is hiding in plain sight.  

Artists explore the uncanny through slight shifts in reality. My favorite example of uncanny art is Cindy Sherman’s “Untitled Film Stills” series (1977-1980). “Untitled Film Stills” is 69 black and white photographs of Sherman dressed as stereotypical Hollywood female characters. Every character is a person you swear you have seen before (the cheerleader, the housewife, the damsel in distress), but every woman is fiction, an image of our collective imagination. Her photographs rely on the uncanny, an image of the familiar that upon closer inspection becomes foreign.

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Cindy Sherman, “Untitled Film Still #35,” 1979 (Photo by moma.org).

Otto Umbehr, known as “Umbo,” created uncanny artwork through formal affects. I was exploring the Philadelphia Museum of Art’s photography collection online and stumbled upon a photograph by Umbo. “Uncanny Street I (Unheimliche Strasse I)”, is an aerial shot of a German street. The angle chosen by the artist, which is completely parallel to the street, causes the work to be unrecognizable as a street initially; the large black figures and shades of gray create what looks like a collage, different textures pieced together on a page. Look closer, and these dark figures are long shadows shooting off of a man walking on the sidewalk, a man on a bicycle, and nearby buildings. Umbo turns an easily recognized space, a street, and makes the subject its shadow.

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Umbo, “Uncanny Street I (Unheimliche Strasse I),” 1928 (photo by artnet.com).

When we get stuck in our routines, like our daily commute, we become numb to the details. It takes big changes for us to take a second look. Remember that weirdness we had with our surroundings after the election? Ryan Hamilton in his new Netflix stand-up “Happy Face” summed up that feeling perfectly.

I had never heard of Ryan Hamilton prior to watching his new stand-up special, and I have to say that I’m glad I know him now. “Happy Face” tells the stories of a man from a 1000 person town in Idaho now living in Hell’s Kitchen New York. Two very different places, but to him it’s a strange time to be from anywhere in the U.S. In New York, Hamilton hears people say “I don’t know who all of these Trump voters are.” Hamilton’s reply: “I’m from a town of one thousand in Idaho. I know who they are.” He then goes on to describe the day after election night in November. Here’s Hamilton’s experience:

I haven’t had a conversation in a very long time that hasn’t ended with ‘well it’s going to be interesting.’…I will never forget election day… But the next day was the strangest day of all. You went home, you slept for four fitful hours, then you woke up wide-eyed, and walked over to your window and you looked outside and went ‘well it looks okay, I guess. I guess I’m going to go out there.’ And then you left your home and that was the strangest feeling on the strangest day, wasn’t it? Just walking outside like ‘Here we go! Out into the new normal!’ Just making eye contact with people, like ‘I don’t know, I’m going to work, I guess!’

After I heard this segment I immediately thought of the uncanny. After November 8, 2016, we all felt unfamiliar in our familiar surroundings. Leaving the house and walking on the street, everything looked exactly the same but everything was different. It was like we were all looking at our streets at parallel; the extended shadows revealing the ugliness that we had denied existed. The darkness stretched out before us, we all still moved forward with this uncanny feeling, thinking “well it’s going to be interesting…”


 

Freud, Sigmund, David McLintock, and Hugh Haughton. 2003. The uncanny. New York:          Penguin Books.

Jentsch, Ernst. “On the Psychology of the Uncanny (1906).” Angelaki: Journal of the                    Theoretical Humanities 2, no. 1 (1997): 7-16.