Richard Jackson’s Seriously Funny “Bad Dog”

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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