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Art Beat

May 27, 2004


Artful jesters


"Beyond common sense lies a universe of utter chaos, unrelieved nonsense and riotous freedoms of expression. Under their influence, our universe is refreshed, and we begin to reinvent our relations to the world."

-- mission statement, Museum of Laughter, Montreal, Quebec
(from Artful Jesters by Nicholas Roukes)
book jacket Artful Jesters

I'M A BIG FAN OF VISUAL HUMOR, so it probably won't be surprising to hear that I've been thoroughly enjoying Nicholas Roukes' new book Artful Jesters, published by Ten Speed Press in Berkeley. The book opens with an historical overview and a short discussion of the role of humor in art, emphasizing 20th-century masters such as Picasso, Miro, Klee, Duchamp, Dali and Magritte, who helped establish the place of visual humor within the realm of fine art. The bulk of Roukes' book, however, is dedicated to brief profiles of 50 contemporary artists from around the world who "imbue their expressions with various genres and blends of playful wit and ingenuity."

Since I've long been of the opinion that our region is home to an unusually large number of visually witty people, I was delighted to discover (at least) two North Coast connections in Artful Jesters. The first of these -- Richard Shaw -- actually lives in the Bay Area, but frequently visits the North Coast and recently juried the Redwood Art Association's (RAA) Spring Competition, which is currently on exhibit at the Morris Graves Museum of Art.

I got a chance to meet Shaw at a dinner hosted by his old friend John Montgomery, an RAA board member, retired surgeon and local artist. Shaw turned out to be a charming fellow with a playful sense of humor and, since the Montgomerys have been collecting the artist's work for years, I was able to see several examples of his art. My favorite was a house of playing cards stacked on old books, a trompe l'oeil extravaganza composed, unbelievably, out of porcelain.sclupture by Justin Mittman

After meeting Shaw, it didn't surprise me to learn that he had chosen Justin Mittman's "This is Not a Teapot, v. II" [photo at right] for the Best of Show award in the RAA's Spring Show. The earthenware piece, featuring a pink-frosted, candy-sprinkled donut with a smoking pipe for a spout and scissors for a handle, displays the kind of technical virtuosity and playful mindset that would undoubtedly appeal to an artist like Shaw.

Shaw also included in his choices Ginny Gromer's earthenware "Girafft," and John Pound's digital print "Ran Dum Mutation," other fine examples of North Coast visual humor. Of course, the work of these three local artists represents just the tip of the comedic iceberg on the North Coast. Just off the top of my head I can think of Jesse Wiedel's darkly comic narrative oil paintings, Jeff Jordan's surrealistic, mythological mutations, Marian Coleman's whimsical critters. There's Jesse Crumb, Scott Cocking, Joy Dellas, Frances Boettcher, Forest Stearns, Donovan Clark, Jeremy Hara, Cyrus Smith and -- well, you get the point. There are hordes North Coast artists who incorporate humor into their work.

One of the best opportunities to witness local visual humor in action is during this weekend's Kinetic Sculpture Race (KSR), an event that has given artists an opportunity to express their levity since 1969. The race has made international media darlings out of many of the participants, including founder Hobart Brown and perennial favorites June Moxon, Ken Beidleman, and the leader of the pack, the beloved Duane Flatmo [pictured in bat suit, below left], who (drum roll, please) is one of the 5Photo of Duane Flatmo in bat suit0 artists featured in Artful Jesters.

In Flatmo's profile, Roukes focuses on the artist's kinetic achievements. "... Flatmo's art-mobiles represent the epitome of surreal art on wheels, and they are comprised of an artful blend of art, humor and engineering that would please Buckminster Fuller and Salvidor Dalí." Faint praise, indeed, but there's much more to Flatmo than the KSR -- the artist's funny bone permeates everything he creates.

There are Flatmo's surreal cubist paintings, his ubiquitous graphic art, his inventive junk sculptures, and all that public art. In fact, more than half the murals on Eureka's Mural Tour were either created by Flatmo alone or in collaboration with his young protégés at the Rural Burl Mural Bureau, an Ink People program the artist founded to help counteract the city's graffiti problem. An accomplished musician, Flatmo plays in the rock band Spud Gun and once appeared on The Letterman Show, where he played a guitar with an electric eggbeater. He has also appeared on British television in Junk Yard Wars and in Canada on Weird Wheels.

The last time I saw Flatmo, he was working madly on "Bats in the Belfry," his brand new rig for this weekend's KSR. I haven't seen the finished product yet, but the artist tells me he and his crew will be dressed as bats (yes, that's Duane in the corner of the front cover) and the machine will be covered with bells of all sizes, making it "very noisy." I can hardly wait to see what this "artful jester" comes up with next.

The Kinetic Sculpture Race kicks off on the Arcata Plaza at the noon whistle on Saturday, May 29, and finishes on Memorial Day in Ferndale. The Redwood Art Association's Spring Show continues at the Graves through June 20.

Linda Mitchell can be reached via




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