Escapes: This Baltimore museum exhibit will keep you grinning

By Robert DiGiacomo
Special to The Washington Post
Monday, November 15, 2010; 10:38 AM

The things that make us smile can range from the downright silly (the unmistakable honk of a whoopee cushion) to the seriously witty (black and white editorial-style cartoons by self-taught artist John Callahan) to the plain old nostalgic (the infectious melody of "The Monster Mash").

These grin-worthy objects and creations are part of "What Makes Us Smile," a new exhibition marking the 15th anniversary of the nontraditional American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. The show, which runs through Sept. 4, features the input of a man who has made a living out of getting people to smile: Matt Groening of "The Simpsons" and "Life in Hell" comic strip fame served as a co-curator, along with Gary Panter, a designer known for his work on "Pee-wee's Playhouse," and museum founder Rebecca Hoffberger.

Together, they have gathered a range of visual art and written and spoken humor that's guaranteed to make your face light up and make you think about the uncertain line between laughter and tears.

The displays, which include pop-culture artifacts, research-driven "factoids," video clips and original art, reveal that the basics of what amuses us haven't changed much over the centuries. "It's a chance to look at every aspect of humor," Hoffberger says. "The whoopee-cushion decision wasn't gratuitous. We have concrete evidence about what people laughed at - it really does come down to [flatulence] and sex."

In the "Toot Suite," where an installation of two dozen whoopee cushions has been fashioned into a noisy perch, we learn that everyone from ancient Greek playwrights to Queen Elizabeth I to Shakespeare was tickled by passing gas. In his letters, Mozart regaled family and friends with tales of his bodily functions, and founding father Benjamin Franklin once penned a volume called "Fart Proud" that's still in print.

Around the corner in the "Tears to Laughter" section, the smile gets its due as a coping mechanism used by Abraham Lincoln. The nation's 16th president apparently insisted on cracking jokes after his young sons' untimely deaths as a way of surviving the unspeakable losses.

Laughter also plays key roles in other cultures, such as the Mbuti pygmies of Congo, who are considered the world's most exuberant gigglers and who laugh to resolve conflicts.

Although some may question whether laughter can cure what ails you, a section on Patch Adams, the holistic physician made famous in a film starring Robin Williams, may convince you otherwise. Whether or not you buy into the rainbow-colored aromatherapy pouch that Adams used to help young patients handle their hospital experiences, there is scientific proof of the "L-spot." That's an area in the brain that always triggers laughter when it's stimulated.

In keeping with the museum's focus on untrained and self-taught artists, the work of lesser-known creators and performers forms the backbone of the exhibition.

"Holy Laughter" offers video of Muslim American comedians riffing to a mostly Muslim audience on their post-9/11 experiences dealing with a suspicious mainstream culture. A series of "unflattering portraits" by Reverend Aitor of the Misanthrope Specialty Co. offers comically ugly renditions of Groening, rocker Iggy Pop and comedian Steven Wright, among others.

For me, the collection of dark-humor panels by Callahan, a quadriplegic artist who died at age 59 just before the opening of the "Smile" exhibition, resonated strongly. His cartoons mine his disability for laughs via panels such as one depicting two old-school cowboys in wheelchairs in a standoff, with the caption, "This town ain't accessible enough for both of us." But they also expertly skewer the larger world, with one showing Jesus on a cross with the caption "TGIF," and another with two hospital entrances: One, labeled "Detox," is for alcoholism. The other, "Metox," is for narcissism.

In the "Visionary Kid's Room," a fanciful layout includes a beaded headboard by Patty Kuzbida featuring a portrait of Mad magazine icon Alfred E. Neuman paired with a Spy v. Spy lamp and a glitter-painted portrait of Elmo, Cookie Monster, Bert and Ernie, Big Bird and other "Sesame Street" favorites.

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