William Poundstone
William Poundstone on Art and Chaos

William Poundstone’s Los Angeles County Museum on Fire

Richard Jackson’s Seriously Funny “Bad Dog”

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Richard Jackson’s Bad Dog at the Orange County Museum of Art has gotten more web buzz than any artwork on temporary display on the West Coast with the possible exception of Vermeer’s Girl With a Pearl Earring. More than the Vermeer, Bad Dog has crossover appeal. It’s culture news and news of the weird. It’s accessible. What part of a dog peeing on a museum don’t you understand?

OCMA has installed Bad Dog with a plaque rich in museum buzzwords and self-mortification. ”Like much of Richard Jackson’s art, Bad Dog is populist, accessible, and humorous.… The dog is a near-universal symbol… which Jackson unleases on the propriety of art museums and the often-elitist attitudes of the art world.… [T]he guileless dog unwittingly points to the sometimes rigid institutional constraints that can frustrate artists and audiences alike.” Is the dog bad, or is the museum bad?

On my visit, the OCMA campus was a flashmob of Bad Dog groupies. Many were families with delighted children. One adult visitor modestly proposed keeping Bad Dog installed in perpetuity. This was instantly seconded and thirded by complete strangers. (Sorry, it’s coming down after “Richard Jackson: Ain’t Painting a Pain” closes May 5, to tour Europe.)

You can buy a Bad Dog tote bag in the museum shop ($9.95, vs. $40 for the Vermeer Girl rip-off, and the Bad Dog bag is an artist-authorized edition of 500!)

Like the rest of the Jackson show, Bad Dog poses unanswerable questions about the role of humor in art. Can/should art be funny? The usual answer is “no,” reflecting a mindset where “funny” = Red Grooms.

Jackson’s retrospective coincides with Llyn Foulkes’ at the Hammer. Both were elder statesmen of MOCA’s “Helter Skelter” (1992), the exhibition that launched a thousand careers more bankable than Jackson’s or Foulkes’. When you think about it, “Helter Skelter” was about humor in art. It recognized that L.A. artists were deploying risible pop culture in ways that artists elsewhere didn’t. What is Bad Dog but an art world windshield decal?

Oddly enough, the OCMA show demonstrates how similar Jackson can be to another “Helter Skelter” artist, Chris Burden. Both strive for a “what the hell is that?” effect that has made Urban Light and Metropolis II—and Bad Dog—viral successes in our age of the metric. Jackson’s Painting with Two Balls (1996) recalls Burden’s The Big Wheel (1979). Yet Burden is never quite “funny,” and that makes a difference in how his art is perceived.

The real problem with humor in art is the same as the problem with humor in sitcoms or stand-up. So often, it’s just not funny.

My favorite work in the Jackson show is the single one that was included in “Helter Skelter.” It’s a walk-in room where floors and ceiling are maniacally tiled in analog clocks. You drink that in a few moments and then—WHAM!—every minute hand jerks forward with a simultaneous click. The Grim Reaper has subtracted one minute from your life and that of every friend or stranger you see.

In art as in life, the best jokes are those where you had to be there.

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  1. Cute, but more a statement about conspicuous consumption than life. Just because you can do somethig doesn’t mean you should, witness so much contempt art so this fits right in. The artscene being so much more clever and witty than everyone else, pseudo elitest humor reigns, but like Koons balloon puppies how can you hate it?

    Just think it should be a balloon in the Macy’s parade, looks like one, and then could pee all over Manhattan.

  2. So while this would make a great parade float, what makes it art? Because the maker bought an art degree? Because it is on art grounds and so declared “sacred” because of the flawed logic of context? Art is art anywhere, just more effective in some situations than others because of presentation, or if public enhancing the whole. But art is still art no matter who makes it or where it is, ie. Nuestro Pueblo, the Watts Towers, which most certainly are NOT folk art.

    “Folk art encompasses art produced from an indigenous culture or by peasants or other laboring tradespeople. In contrast to fine art, folk art is primarily utilitarian and decorative rather than purely aesthetic.[1] Folk Art is characterized by a naive style, in which traditional rules of proportion and perspective are not employed. Closely related terms are Outsider Art, Self-Taught Art and Naïve art.” Wiki

    So Rousseau is not Art because it is willingly naive? Little great art is a slave to perspective and proportion, thats for renderers and illustrators. Real artists USE perspective as a tool as Uccello did, and often multiple ones for depth yet also returning to the picture plane and beyond to thrust the art INTO the viewers space, not apart from it in a controlled box. Or ignore it completely as most non Western late”renaissance” art,(which is most great art) does. And the Towers are most certainly not decorated utilitarian objects, but a sacred space of true creative art.

    This brings up the retarded pseudo argument of chicken and the egg in art, which can only lead to a non sequitur because it has a flawed premise. Its not the egg that counts but a fertilized egg which has life growing in it. Contempt and all false ego driven arts have no life, they are unfertilized egg and so can only be good as omelettes. A great one takes an artist to cook, but it is still short term, where art seeks universals and lives on.

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