The American Visionary Art Museum, which opened 15 years ago Thanksgiving, will unwrap a glittering crystal-anniversary gift with the Saturday opening of "What Makes Us Smile?" It's the museum's biggest show since its inaugural "Tree of Life" exhibit back in 1995.
For the first time, AVAM founder and curator Rebecca Hoffberger has collaborated with two guest co-curators, Matt Groening, creator of "The Simpsons," and Gary Panter, the alt-comics wizard who designed the sets for "Pee-wee's Playhouse."
None of the curators took fees. "What's particularly moving to me," Hoffberger said last week, "is that in this time of dire fiscal cuts, most of the 'Smile' 90-plus artists and lenders graciously delivered their work to us personally or at their expense — saving us an incredible amount in art transportation costs." She put the show together with about $100,000 less than her usual budget. "And no piece I really wanted was denied!" The result, Hoffberger said, is "a delish stone soup."
"What Makes Us Smile?" offers a lollopalooza of laugh-provoking sketches, paintings, toys, cartoons, costumes, sculptures and offbeat objets d' art. The collection includes an enormous candy-laden cake crowned by a Skybar, a pygmy-size skull crafted by a dentist addicted to laughing gas and a half-century-old letter from a girl to her best friend, describing how Elvis Presley delivered her first kiss.
Groening declared, "The show is so fun it will feel like the artists have collectively inserted a crank in your brain and turned it the wrong way. It results in feelings of joy and euphoria and provides a temporary respite from daily grumpiness."
Like all AVAM shows, "What Makes Us Smile?" pays tribute to self-made artists who convey personal visions with all manner of material, from beads and beetle wings to makeup. But "What Makes Us Smile?" goes even deeper into the "found art" of our throwaway culture. (Think lunchboxes.) And Hoffberger's use of quotes has become an artwork all its own. An aphorism by Rabindranath Tagore — "the burden of self is lightened when I laugh at myself" — adorns a wall that contains an array of artist Reverend Aitor's "Unflattering Portraits." They include unflattering portraits of Hoffberger, Groening and Panter.
"From the start of AVAM," Hoffberger said, "I never wanted to have any resident curator on staff besides me — the whole idea was to first identify grand exhibition themes and then choose from a global palette those smart individuals who both love this art and whose lives were directly and creatively linked to the theme." They've included Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Julian Bond and Nobel scientist Peter Agre.
For "What Makes Us Smile?" Hoffberger enlisted "celebrities" to serve as guest curators, not for their fame, "but rather for their life's work, point of view, and essences that are so in sync with our mission. As co-curators how could I not choose Matt Groening — who is responsible for making more people laugh around the world than any human walking the planet — and Gary Panter? I used to knock my kids out from the front of the TV so I could watch Panter's art-directed opening of 'Pee-wee's Playhouse.' "
Who knew that the getting of wisdom could be so festive and hilarious? Even in unfinished form, "What Makes Us Smile?" gleefully demonstrates the critical importance of laughter, whether as a source of individual and group sanity, a threat to oppressive authority, or a test of social grace and emotional authenticity. We learn that great apes retain the ability to tickle themselves, that Hitler's kangaroo "joke court" condemned a nightclub comic for naming his horse "Adolph," and that fake smiles and real smiles employ different facial muscles. (Much of the science in the show comes from U of Maryland, Baltimore County professor Robert R. Provine's "Laughter: A Scientific Investigation.")
Wandering through the museum is like playing an arcade claw game in which you're sure to get a prize, no matter where you land. It's organized into galleries-within-the-gallery, like "More Tickle!," a tribute to the best-loved command of Washoe, the first chimp to master American Sign Language, and "Toot Suite!," a salute to flatulence as performance art.
When the economy started to melt down, Hoffberger foresaw that Baltimoreans — and the national and international fans who make a regular pilgrimage to her art place — could use a show called "What Makes Us Smile?" right now. Groening agreed. So did his friend and fellow AVAM fan, Panter, one of the certified "Masters of American Comics": a 2007 traveling museum show displayed him next to Charles Schulz, Jack Kirby, Harvey Kurtzman, Robert Crumb, Art Spiegelman and other luminaries. Panter in Brooklyn, Groening in Los Angeles and Hoffberger in Baltimore — a vital triumvirate of talents and cultures — mixed fun, artistry and funk with a soupcon of irreverence.