Three elephants walked into a bar and one of them said, “This is a very big bar.”
HUDSON, New York — Sigmund Freud didn’t care much for art, at least not the art of his own time. He claimed that he could not obtain pleasure from something if he couldn’t explain what was producing the effect. He amassed an enormous collection of antiquities, but was more interested in the subject matter of works of art than in the way they are made.
His two attempts to write about art, a monograph on Michelangelo’s sculpture of Moses and a book on Leonardo da Vinci, are fascinating works in themselves, but tone deaf in terms of what makes art significant. As the critic and art historian Donald Kuspit wrote, “[…] visual art was a form of text for Freud, […] rather than an aesthetic experience of value for itself.”
Freud did write one book however, that is particularly relevant to the art of our own time, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (1905). He became interested in jokes when, in 1899, he gave the manuscript of his book, The Interpretation of Dreams, to his friend, Wilhelm Fliess, who complained that the dreams were too full of jokes.
From this exchange, Freud surmised that jokes and dreams shared a connection with the unconscious, the part of the mind that houses desire, pleasure and instinctual needs. The ‘dream-work’ was connected to the ‘joke-work’ and both dreams and jokes allowed unconscious material to come to the surface. Freud asks what it is that makes us laugh at jokes. Is it the content or the way that jokes are constructed? His answer is that it is both, form and content. (Warning: the first 140 pages contain a lot of very unfunny jokes. The elephant joke that introduces this article is not one of them).
Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious is not relevant to all contemporary art, but it is to that strain of conceptual art that has roots in the work of Marcel Duchamp, who famously exhibited an upside-down urinal as a found sculpture. This is a wide net. The list I came up with includes Robert Rauschenberg, Andy Warhol, Sherrie Levine, Julia Wachtel, Andrea Fraser, David Hammons, John Baldessari, Fred Wilson, Maurizio Cattelan, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Tracey Emin, Piero Manzoni, Robert Colescott, Deborah Kass, Cary Leibowitz, and many, many more.
Dreams and jokes, and artists such as those mentioned above, all employ techniques that Freud outlines in his book: condensation, displacement, absurd applications of logic, double or multiple meanings, and so on.
In jokes these techniques may offer a way to bypass inhibitions, but they can also simply be a way to make complicated thought accessible. This applies as well to art, the way that Duchamp’s urinal questions how we define art or Sherrie Levine’s re-photographing Walker Evans questions assumptions about originality. Our pleasure in a joke, as in certain art, comes partly through this psychic economizing, and partly through a return to the kind of wordplay we enjoyed as children. Both jokes and art are prone to the response, “I don’t get it.”
Other than Maurizio Cattelan, I can’t think of another artist that has mined this interface between jokes and art as consistently as William Stone. A survey of his work, titled Apperception, is on view at Hudson Hall in Hudson, New York, until March 15. In Stone’s sculpture, the content, which often includes a joke, is mediated by his minimalist esthetic and skill as a woodworker.
Our initial response is to a well-crafted object of beauty, one that usually fulfills the function it references. The clocks tell time; the furniture can be sat on. Unlike most art, the use-value of Stone’s artwork is established at the outset. There is a certain authority that goes with presenting a well-made object that has everyday use. Part of Stone’s accomplishment is to establish that authority and then upend it, an incongruous marriage of humor and design, care and irreverence. Things look right until you realize that they’re not.
The following brief descriptions of some of the works in Apperception should give an idea of how they relate to Freud’s book, but they don’t reflect the experience of being in the presence of the work. Jokes and art are different, after all.
Upon entering Hudson Hall, the first thing you see are several pieces on the walls of the hallway, rustic wood frames either filled with a single bark “skin,” or enclosing a found piece of shaped wood. Works such as “Deadpan” (2012) seem to celebrate nature, but they also parody abstract painting and a kind of hunting lodge décor.
“Beaver Cutting and Bronze” (2011), is a pairing of what looks like two identical anthropomorphic pieces of wood. Shaped by a beaver’s gnawing, one piece is left in its natural state while the other is cast in bronze. They seem to be reaching for the viewer like a baby for its mother. They reminded me of Vija Celmins’ recreations of found rocks, with the difference that the beaver as artist/builder is a well-worn cliché.
Stone’s humor can be dark, as in “Signatures” (2018), an arrangement of framed fragments of found paintings, each featuring the artists’ signatures and hardly anything else: a wry commentary on how we assign value to art.
“Fall Line” (1991) feels more hauntingly dream-like than joke-like. Stone has topped a shaker-designed writing desk with a series of metal spigots, from which water flows down the desktop and into an open drawer. Think of the last time you had a dream in which you peed in an inappropriate place.
In “Seated and Seamless “(2006), parts of a Michael Thonet bentwood chair are reconfigured in a way that made me think of Betty Boop, while in “Corrected Chair” (2018), three chairs are cut and stacked on the floor, so that the two lower ones support the third to make the sculpture functional as a seat. “Nude Descending a Staircase” meets Goldilocks and the three bears.
Elsewhere, with “Black Hole” (2020), Stone takes hold of our fear of the unfathomable, tames it and conventionalizes it by placing it in a vitrine, the prototypical museum prop. The hole looks to be flatly painted but is actually carved into wood.
Other works in the exhibition are rich in metaphoric possibilities — among them is “Stair Share” (2019), two staircases composed of three steps each, oriented in opposite directions; a plank connects the stairs across the second step. I never felt the need to translate what I was experiencing into words or try to make sense of it. The enigma remained just that.
In his work statement at the exhibition, Stone says, “We live with furniture so intimately. We are always in contact with it, more even than with other people’s bodies.” This encapsulates what might be the real function of jokes in Stone’s work. His objects speak to us in an intimate way, a gleeful whisper. They make us chuckle, but they aren’t off-handed one-liners.
In the introduction to Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, Freud quotes the Dutch philosopher, Gerardus Heymans, who described the effect of a joke as “bewilderment being succeeded by illumination.” I would describe the effect of a William Stone sculpture as appreciation (of craft, of the quotidian), succeeded by bewilderment, succeeded by illumination.
William Stone: Apperception continues at Hudson Hall (327 Warren Street, Hudson, New York) through March 15.