The Art of Humor: Two Texas Artists Who'll Make You Snort Laugh (NSFW)

A Gary Sweeney postcard.
A Gary Sweeney postcard.


Humor is one of the most effective methods of communicating a message, but in the art world it's often overlooked or dismissed.
Occasionally we see someone just nail it, driving home that the two can be attractive and beneficial bedmates, like at the MAC's recent William Powhida exhibition. Powhida distills the residual spite from his former career as an art critic and titrates it through punchy, colorful lists and Mad Magazine-style renderings. It results in something that doesn't take itself too seriously but still delivers a message. I stumbled into something similar at two different gallery openings on Saturday. That's where Texas artists Gary Sweeney and Clay Stinnett proved that art doesn't need to be stuffy.

A prodigy! Wood and paint, by Gary Sweeney
A prodigy! Wood and paint, by Gary Sweeney

At Red Arrow Gallery's opening Saturday night, I fell hard for San Antonio artist Gary Sweeney. Before running directly into his series of woodcut paintings, I found a table scattered with Sweeney's postcards. You could say he's a man of letters, but "a mail carrier's worst nightmare" or a "pen pal's greatest playmate" is more appropriate. This hyper-communicator believes in doing things the old fashioned way: he's mailed more than 20,000 wonderfully-altered postcards in the last 20 years. In them, he slaps on odd bits of conversation, collages, or here at Red Arrow, original paintings printed out on high-gloss cardstock with room on the back for a stamp.

When one of his favored recipients, Dottie Cramer, passed away in 2009, her family unearthed 600 of the things. This launched a couple projects for Sweeney. First, a limited-edition book called Post-Obsessive was published featuring several hundred of his greatest snippets of correspondence. Then Santa Reparata International School of Art in Florence snatched up the originals for an exhibition featuring "1% of 20,000" Sweeney postcards.

Here's another reason to fall in art love with Gary: He's the world's most thoughtful gifter. His wife of nearly 25 years, Janet Sweeney is a true crime addict. Courtroom who-dunnits are all she cares to read or watch, so for Valentine's Day Sweeney hired famous courtroom artist Gary Myrick to create a rendering of her as though under oath. That soon spiraled into a massive fake court case art series, complete with "hitmen" that Gary Sweeney "hired to kill his wife" and Sweeney himself on trial for Janet's botched murder attempt. If that ain't love, well hell.

At Red Arrow Contemporary you can currently see three of Sweeney's elaborately crafted but simply told works. He drills into a wooden canvas to create his effect, then paints the hollowed-out regions with retro pigments. The end results are hilarious fresh works that look more at home in an era of etiquette how-to's and "Jack and Jane" books. My favorite is this (shown above) untitled work about eight year old prodigy, Dylan-Luke Thomas.  

Rough sketch, by Clay Stinnett
Rough sketch, by Clay Stinnett

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At a different gathering all together, a guy is dancing crazy. DJ Hammertimez is playing Steely Dan and Hall and Oates on a set-up framed by a gutted-out swingset. Knock-off versions of popular liquors get three-finger pours in Solo cups. People are buying -- not just a little art, but "a shitton" according to Clay Stinnett, a local artist who could be our generation's next R. Crumb. Reared in a hyper religious family, Stinnett grew up reading and delivering religious zines to the great unwashed. Now as an adult he's managed to retain those points of conflicting damnation that keep things so interesting. "I've been to a few biker rallies and bought a whole bunch of old magazines," says Stinnett from beneath a cowboy hat. "I'm thinking about tryin' a series of sexy biker ladies with ugly man heads."

He pulls out two giant sketch pads, one labeled "Rotten Horse Shit Outlaws," and the other "Snake Handlers, Pigment and Beast Saints." Inside are some ideas he's been kicking around. "Outlaws" is a series of comic-style renditions of Dallas mugshots, ripped from the pages of those $1 slammer magazines you can pick up at gas stations. Only here, policemen are also guilty and the charges can range on any number of topics. In Clay's world, folks wind up in the slammer for "satire" as well as "resisting arrest." Cops face charges for abuse and lying.

His biker series is hilarious. In one sketch, a hard-ridden road warrior is surrounded by three even rougher-looking women (shown above). Their faces have grown and aged unevenly. Their hands are too large to be deemed feminine. One's tits, if weighed individually, would likely differ by several pounds. They're the kind of women that you can't imagine simply dying, instead you suspect they'd be absorbed with the rest of the loose earth in a random sinkhole in an off-highway town. The man in their company is labeled "Visually Illiterate."

I'd like to see Stinnett launch a comic book, or at least a zine to sell in local bookstores. That way, we can each drop a few bucks an issue and collect his work before everyone else catches on. It could broaden the local demand for his art and in turn, spur more gallery parties like this. Just a hundred folks sweating to blue-eyed soul, drinking Kentucky Gentleman in the moonlight, buyin' art by the shitton.


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