Sitting against the far back wall in the front gallery of Justin Schaefer's 2009 installation show at the Midway Contemporary Art Gallery is a practically unnoticed little doll figure slumped over, with arms and legs splayed wide. So wide, in fact, that both the arms and legs reach fully along the back wall and curve part way down both the right and left walls as well. Made of an array of subtly patterned fabrics – from a bright red hat and black face, to blue arms, tan legs, and black and white patterned shirt – and stuffed with sand, this jester-like figure almost blends into the dark blue wall of the gallery behind him. Even the subdued colors of the elongated limbs blend almost seamlessly into the walls and floor of the gallery – more like structural piping or sandbag barriers than limbs, if one hasn't noticed the body attached to them. He sits in the shadows of all the other pieces in the gallery, and it wasn't for the bright red cap, he probably would be missed by most viewers.
Schaefer's pieces – including this small fellow – are all untitled. His show, however, is entitled “Comedy Comedy,” which brings to mind two particular interpretations. The first is the common association of humor. Of laughter and the absurd. And here we have, indeed, a little jester figure in his mismatched clothes, oddly shaped limbs, and bright red cap. Jesters are for humor. They're supposed to make us laugh. But instead, he's slumped over, stretched out, limp, weighted down by his sand filled body, and hidden in a back corner. It could be some sort of grotesque version of comedy or the absurdity of the absurd. Being that Schaefer has not provided an artist statement of any kind, though, it seems likely that part of the interpretation is also dependent on what the audience brings to the viewing. This, then, brings to mind a second interpretation – the duality of comedy and tragedy.
The show is not called “Comedy.” It is called “Comedy Comedy,” which immediately brings a duality of meaning to the table. One of the more famous dualities of comedy is the Comedy of Errors, which by nature of association brings in Shakespeare's realm of comedy vs. tragedy. In Shakespeare, comedy does not mean humor. In a comedy, everyone gets married at the end. In a tragedy, everyone dies. Those are the only two outcomes. It is this death found in tragedy – comedy's counterpart – that strikes a bit more clarity to this jester figure. The jester sits abandoned, alone, forgotten, and depressed. But he is not the only form in depression. Above him, panels of beautiful tropical flowers are slowly withering away. Racks of t-shirts filled with nothing but black hang from the ceiling. Splattered cinder blocks combine with the dark blue of the room to provide an enclosed and almost suffocating atmosphere to the entire room. Strikingly different pieces, but each adds to that feeling of depression and death and suffocation that is seen so clearly in the sunken jester in the shadows.
So then maybe, the comedy of a comedy is that really it's a tragedy.
Sketch of Untitled piece of fabric and sand
Justin Thomas Schaefer, 2009
Midway Contemporary Art Gallery