“Serious Laughs: Art/Politics/Humor” Festival throughout Kingston

Chris Silva, executive director of the Bardavon, standing on the UPAC stage with Sanford Biggers’ Cheshire. (photo by Dion Ogust)

Midtown Kingston and the Broadway corridor, with its scruffy barbershops, check-cashing emporiums and storefront churches, has been the subject of countless planning studies for an image-improving update, but maybe what it really needs is a good laugh. In applying for the new culture-and-economic-development grant available from the New York State Council of the Arts, Chris Silva had to think up something compelling, and the idea of a massive comedyfest for the city, centered in Midtown, with the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) theater, which he manages, turned into a massive gallery of humorist art, seemed as good as any to jumpstart the local economy. After he got the grant (it includes three other festivals, held in Kingston and Poughkeepsie), the notion for “Serious Laughs: Art/Politics/Humor” gained traction when by pure chance he reconnected with a colleague and friend from a former life who just happened to live three blocks from the theater and had the contacts and professional wherewithal to put on an event that promises to be hip, outrageous and yes, actually funny, with dark and in some cases overtly political undertones reflecting on the American dystopia.

Right now, William Wegman – he of the impeccably posed, dressed-up Weimaraners – is showing his series of photos of the alphabet, with letters comprised of his dogs, at the Kingston Library. Cindy Sherman is contributing a piece that will be on display at UPAC – the art show officially opens April 20 and will be up through May 12 – along with a few other big names: The cadences of late composer John Cage’s Mushroom Haiku will waft through the auditorium, while the Wooster Group is contributing a video of Willem Dafoe and other actors doing the hula in nothing but grass skirts. The newer generation of vanguard artists contributing pieces includes Sanford Biggers, Liliana Porter and Nina Katchadourian.

In this crowd, the works by the few regional artists who are represented will easily hold their own. They include a sculpture by Myra Mimlitsch-Gray titled Freestanding Skillet, Kevin Frank’s painterly Old Master renditions of tchotchkes and several of Mark Hogancamp’s photos of riveting tableaux from Marwencol, the miniature World War II-era Belgian village that he constructed on the grounds of his trailer.

It sounds like something that you’d stumble on in lower Manhattan in the early 1980s: Ken Landauer’s giant clothesline and pair of humongous underwear is being hung from UPAC’s exterior columns as we speak, magically shrinking the Broadway corridor and its problems down to a size that’s quite manageable. The downstairs and upstairs windows of UPAC and the building next door will feature Pat Oleszko’s outrageous costumes, crafted from industrial carpet, plastic, felt and other mundane materials and bearing titles like Stumpy and Octopussy (who is a man, I believe). They’ll share space with the magazine covers of Katchadourian – her takeoff on the bland rags in physicians’ waiting rooms, in which each cover photo reveals something seriously gone wrong with the doc.

Inside, Landauer is installing a pair of ten-foot-high tables and chairs. Graphic novelist Ariel Schrag will be one of the artists who will attempt to lounge on one of the chairs while reading and projecting a slideshow of her work ten feet off the ground. Meanwhile, Biggers’ sculptural smile, Cheshire, suspended above the stage at UPAC, will make you wonder if you should laugh or run. Bob Snead’s ATM machine, installed in the lobby, perhaps anticipates the future in that it talks back: When you push a button, it tells you to stop touching the art and introduces itself as the security guard.

The walls will be covered graffiti-style with the line drawings of Olaf Breuning. One depicts a tall building on fire, with a stick figure about to jump off on the wrong side of the roof – not the side where other little stick figures can be seen holding a net. Another shows a birthday cake whose candles are actually figures with bombs strapped to their bodies.

The Green Room, which is usually where visiting performers can eat in private, has been transformed into the Blue Room. Besides the Wooster Group video Hula, the screens glow with videos by African-American artist Kalup Linzy performing soap operas in drag, which are inexplicably lip-synched.

“It’s going to be amazing,” Silva enthuses. “There’s been nothing like this before. This stuff is out there.”

So…back to that connection: the person who orchestrated this world-class laugh-fest. A couple of months ago, Silva’s grantwriter mentioned that there was a curator who lived with his family across the street from her in Midtown Kingston. His name was Daniel Mason, and his résumé showed that after spending ten years in the theater, he got into film, then attended the Center for Curatorial Studies program at Bard before getting his Masters at Yale. Silva recognized the name, but couldn’t believe that it was the same Dan Mason whom he had hired as his assistant 26 years ago, when he was directing a Sam Shepard play in New York City. It was.

Mason’s curatorial bent is responsible for the festival expanding into the visual arts, Silva said. “The notion of visual artists being funny is the antithesis of the reality, but so many artists actually are funny,” he said.

Mason sent out feelers to the most prominent artist/comedians out there, including Roz Chast, the New Yorker cartoonist “who would have participated if she hadn’t been tied up.” Silva said that many of the artists, “who are getting nothing but anxiety by taking their work and putting it in unusual space,” were willing to participate precisely because the venue of a 1920s theater was so unique – as was the opportunity to exhibit their work in conjunction with performances by Kathy Griffin (on April 21) and Lewis Black (on April 28).

Mason also knew how to make local venues look their best, rebacking the display cases at the Kingston Library, for example, the better to display Wegman’s photos. Wegman is being paired with the work of Schrag, a graphic novelist who contributed to the cables series The L Word and whose graphic panels are being changed every week.

The 16 live comedy acts will appear in various restaurants and clubs in Uptown, Downtown and Midtown, with no cover. To select the comedians, Silva sent two younger staff members to classic rock station WPDH’s monthlong contest in which 20 comedians performed their shtick for five minutes a week. Those who could sustain their act for 15 minutes, and who weren’t scatological or otherwise too offensive for a family-style restaurant, made the cut. A group of local deejays – including Patrick Carlin, George’s brother – will be hosting the acts, as well as talking them up on the air.

Silva is expecting a big crowd at the UPAC art show, which will be up until May 12. The art will be on display at the Kingston Library throughout the month of April.

“Serious Laughs: Art/Politics/Humor” is the first of four events in Kingston and Poughkeepsie to be hosted by the Bardavon under the grant. Next up is an extravaganza of Americana during the Fourth of July holiday in Kingston, followed by a visual arts festival at the Bardavon in the fall.

Serious Laughs: Art/Politics/Humor, April 1-May 12, UPAC, 601 Broadway, Kingston; (845) 331-1613, extension 204. Art by William Wegman & Ariel Schrag, through April 30, free art workshops & film showing, April 27, Kingston Library. Free comedy acts, April 20 & 27, various venues in Kingston. Kathy Griffin, Sunday, April 21, Lewis Black, Sunday, April 28, UPAC. Tickets, (845) 339-6088, www.bardavon.org, (800) 745-3000, www.ticketmaster.com. For a full roster of this city-wide event, https://www.bardavon.org/subinfo.php?pid=SERIOUS_LAUGHS.

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