Who is the art world's master comedian? Who is the art world's Louis C.K.? You can make a case for Chinese dissident Ai Weiwei, whose steady output includes a video parody of "Gangnam Style" and a photo series where he flips his middle finger at the Eiffel Tower and other well-known structures. You can also make a case for New York artist Jeff Koons, notwithstanding his anemic 2012 interview with Stephen Colbert where Koons' humor utterly disappeared under Colbert's quixotic questioning. And then there's Italian artist and animator Laurina Paperina, who parodies anyone she feels like (including Koons and Weiwei) and crafts over-the-top videos like Shitman and the End of the World.
In that three-minute work, a fecal monster birthed by a nuclear explosion laughs snidely as it puts discharge on everything in its path, including a snowman, a swimming pool, school-aged kids, and the White House, which Shitman derides as "The Shit House."
"Help!" Barack Obama yells in a squeamish voice after emerging from the monster's gross substance. "Call the Army!"
Paperina, whose full name in English means "Little Laura, Little Duck," does everything in her videos — the voice-overs of every character; the sounds of every bomb, crash, and defecation; and the hilarious animation that, similar to Matt Groening's Life in Hell cartoon, employs deceptively simple imagery to accentuate characters' manic qualities and physical absurdities. Eyes bulge wide in Paperina's characters, all but forcing art-goers to laugh — even if they're standing in a quiet museum or gallery, where laughter is a rare commodity. Paperina's newest exhibit, "Proud to be a Hero," opens Friday in San Francisco's upper Market area.
"I don't want to make serious art," Paperina says in an email interview. "You know, the world is bad enough to make sad art. I want to have fun, make people smile, and to entertain people with my works."
In "Proud to be a Hero," Paperina downsizes America's toughest, most adroit comic-book figures. Batman is stubbly and awkward as he displays a "Loser" salute over his own forehead. Superman flashes a peace sign even as his face has cracked and fallen off. And Speedy Gonzales is bloody and battered as he's caught in a rudimentary mouse trap.
"'Proud to be a Hero' is an ironic phrase," Paperina says. "With this exhibition, I'd like to show the human side of contemporary heroes."
The exhibit also shows the fallible side of celebrated visual artists, through the latest incarnation of Paperina's "How to Kill the Artists" video series, in which artists are subjected to absurd deaths related to their art. In the series, Andy Warhol is killed by a man-eating banana; Jean-Michel Basquiat paints a skeleton who comes alive to smother him in yellow acrylic; and Jeff Koons unwittingly urinates on the leg of a giant pink panther, who stomps him into nothingness. All of Paperina's targets are art-world stars whose works, even in death, sell for gobs of money. These are artists who've made it big — bigger (for now) than Paperina, who says there's no jealousy involved in her digs. In fact, in 2009, Paperina animated her own outlandish death in scenes that included hitting her own head with a hammer in a pathetic quest to kill a buzzing fly.
"I want to exact my bloody revenge on the art world," Paperina says with a sardonic edge, then adds, "Usually the victims of my works are contemporary heroes — that is famous-rich-cool artists and celebrities. So it's like saying, 'Yes, I love you, but I kill you!' Maybe it's a little bit of Freudian meaning."
Maybe. But to artgoers steeped in the machinations of the art world, Paperina's animations and single-panel images are a playful guide to art history. In "Proud to be a Hero," Diane Arbus' Identical Twins, New Rochelle, New Jersey, 1967 — a celebrated photo of girls wearing the same dress and similar gazes — becomes Identical Twins, where one twin shoves her finger under the other twin's nostril (producing drippy green boogers) while the other gives an obnoxious two-finger gesture behind the other twin's head. Paperina subjects Ai Weiwei, meanwhile, to the same kind of "fuck you" finger that he gives to others. The Chinese artist is shocked — shocked! — at the gesture in Paperina's drawing.
Humor has always occupied an important place in visual art. In Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315, art history professor John Clarke shows how paintings and captions poked fun at high-art pretensions, and how bowel movements and other bathroom behavior were a viable part of art depictions that made people laugh. So Paperina's Shitman and the End of the World is the continuation of a long history of Italian art — and art from other countries — that's meant to induce a chuckle through any means necessary, including scatological references.
For Paperina, living in the age of the internet — and having her animated characters speak in English — gives her a potential worldwide audience of millions. For now, Paperina is content to exhibit primarily in the art world. But like Marjane Satrapi, a funny artist who turned her Persepolis graphic novel into a big-screen success, Paperina may seek a higher profile — perhaps through a television series. The potential for stardom isn't what drives Paperina, she says. "For me, to do video animation is a completion of my art," she says. But then Paperina contradicts herself and exudes the kind of manic energy that her characters are known for: "To do a TV series should be a new thing to try. I love the art experiments! So never say never!"
The exclamation point, and the sentiment behind it — that's Paperina. Her characters' nose-picking and humorous gestures have become extensions of her own quirks. "In the past," she says, "I was a little bit shy, but now... not anymore! When you look at my works, you look at me, for better or for worse."