PHILADELPHIA — A saccharine voice softly beckons you into a dark room on the second floor of the Fabric Workshop and Museum. “Welcome to my world,” it sings, “it’s a wonderful world.” This is followed by a promise: “I’ll share with you His History of Art / I’ll share with you His History of –” CRASH. The mellifluous intro music is cut short by a grungy puppet catapulting into a sitcom living room cluttered with parodic copies of legendary art pieces and dirty bongs. And the chaos begins.
This is Jayson Musson’s His History of Art, the result of a two-year residency at the FWM. Across three episodes, Musson rips the facade of neutrality from PBS-style art history TV programs. You might recognize him from a viral YouTube series dating back more than a decade, ART THOUGHTZ. Playing a character he named “Hennessy Youngman,” Musson gave satirical “advice” to young artists that exposed the art world’s inequities. Fast forward to today, and Musson has swiveled his attention from how art is sold to how art history is taught.
Musson plays Jay, a “historian” smartly dressed in custom corduroy suits, who guides a potty-mouthed, weed-obsessed bunny named Ollie through his (Jay’s) version of art history. The show toys with a wide range of topics, such as the use of art by rulers from ancient Egypt to ancient Rome to dominate their subjects and the continued praise of violent white male artists. But, as Jay explains to Ollie, “Art history isn’t that complicated. What man cannot kill, it fucks, and what it cannot fuck, it kills. It’s from this dichotomy that the tradition of Western art is born.”
A cast of puppets in various sizes and human actors brings to mind Sesame Street’s “Don’t Eat the Pictures” segment. But in place of Cookie Monster being warned not to gobble up the artworks, this one ends with a nearly naked, crazed Pablo Picasso encouraging Ollie to destroy Jay’s priceless Yoruba bust in order to become a “genius” artist. In deciding whether to smash away, Ollie asks Jay: “How do you even own this? Shouldn’t it be chilling somewhere in Africa with its rightful owners?” “I’m a cultural custodian,” Jay replies. Ollie doesn’t buy it: “Sounds like a bunch of tomb raider, apologist nonsense to me.”
“Do it, Ollie!” screams Picasso, as Jay looks on in distress. “Destroy a thing he loves! Assault the arrogance of the thing and you will make your first step toward greatness.” In reducing the bust to a pyramid of pebbles, Ollie is granted the “genius” status he’s been yearning for by none other than Gertrude Stein. His “success” brings to mind incidents ranging from the collector who recently claimed to burn an original Frida Kahlo drawing to Ai Wei Wei’s 1995 “Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn.”
“Good humor always moves toward truth,” Musson has said. But what truth is he trying to reveal to us? The cacophony of ideas in the three videos is reflected in the distinctly disjointed set design and, with little sound muffling from one screen to the next, a competing chorus of the episodes’ audios, which play simultaneously. Behind the last screen is the living room set itself, complete with an animatronic Ollie. This leads to a “behind the scenes” gallery containing dozens of props and detailed explanations of storyboarding and puppet crafting. While a delightful look at the process that went into the monumental task of creating the show, it commands another shift in focus. With so much stimuli, viewers wouldn’t be blamed for leaving the show a little confused.
But that confusion appears to be intentional. It can trouble the all-too-still waters of Western galleries, lined with neatly displayed artifacts resting behind spotless glass. The clear, deceptively linear narratives that label those artifacts often hide more confusing, complicated truths of looting, colonialism, and the bureaucratic tangles of endlessly delayed repatriation. We can use a little confusion from time to time.
Viewers may come away from the show with any number of questions, from “Why is so much of the art we celebrate used to dominate people?” to “Wow, maybe I need to learn more about caveman sex.” I suggest you take a trip through Musson’s history lessons. Wherever you end up, I’m sure you won’t expect what you find there.
Jayson Musson: His History of Art continues at the Fabric Workshop and Museum (1214 Arch Street, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through December 31. The exhibition was organized by Project Coordinator Avery Lawrence and Interim Director of Exhibitions Alec Unkovic in collaboration with the artist, and was initiated by the originating curator, Karen Patterson, FWM’s former Director of Exhibitions.