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‘Nervous Laughter’ exhibit prompts discomfort and discourse

Gallery 201 director Terry Suhre (left) talked with artists Brett Williams (middle) and Deborah Alma Wheeler (right) about their work in the exhibit "Exposure 18: Nervous Laughter."
Áine O'Connor | St. Louis Public Radio

A trio of St. Louis-based artists featured at UMSL’s Gallery 210. Their work examines—and prompts—the kind of anxious and inappropriate reactions we display when a situation feels like it’s gone awry.

The exhibit, “Nervous Laughter,” is meant to engender some degree of unease for viewers; critiques of medicine and society, discussions on homosexual guilt and reason, and commentary on pop culture and the self are made with dark humor and subtle subversion. But the ultimate aim of the artists’ works is to snap viewers to attention and incite them to think.

The title of the exhibit reflects the uncomfortable poignancy of the art, said Terry Suhre, director of Gallery 210. The situations audience members find themselves in may be “emotionally and intellectually overwhelming.”

Deborah Alma Wheeler, a sculptor in many mediums including clay, rubber, and cardboard, said, “For this show, I mostly concentrated on homosexual guilt or ‘gay shame.’ In the wake of all the pride and marriage equality I decided to go back to those key roots that I was still struggling with, or currently struggling with.”

She said that her art explores her own experienced conflict between religiosity and homosexuality.

One work is a school desk with a side-view mirror attached. “For me, it was about…being that minority in the classroom,” Wheeler said: a minority in race, gender, sexuality, or anything else. For her, growing up in a small Illinois town, that sense of always watching her back and checking behind her was real.

But that doesn’t mean Wheeler’s work is not inaccessible or uncomfortable for its focus on self-identity. “I think it’s more thought-provoking than anything.”

Brett Williams acknowledged that his work elicits more overt discomfort. Because Williams’ art is primarily made of sound and video, viewers hear it before they can actually see it.

“With my work there’s a tension, there’s a buildup, and some lack of release until you actually see the piece,” Williams said. He described his works as Rube Goldberg-style mechanisms—like “Consonance and Dissonance,” a kinetic sculpture made in the shape of a noose.

In “Consonance and Dissonance,” a motor rotates a hanging microphone, Williams explained, that bangs against homemade cymbals in 4/4 time. Visitors naturally hear the banging before they see the mechanism; but when they do round the corner and it comes into view, what they see is what they get.

“You’re waiting for it to do something else, but it never really does.”

Metalsmith Aimee Howard deals with medical treatments, Suhre said. Howard focuses on modern medicine’s slowly replacement of religious ideas of immortality. Her work includes “Victorian-looking devices” and reliquaries with references to modern medical science, juxtaposing the antiquated with the sleek.

Though the artists’ work varies substantially, Suhre said, “There is a dark humor here that holds them all together.” He called the humor an “elbow-nudge” that entreats visitors not to take their works too seriously, but to appreciate them simply as alternate takes on common social norms.

The exhibit is a rich experience, Suhre continued. The art may be diversely constructed, but it carries common themes of foiled expectation, personal reflection, and the complicated relationship between the self and the world.

Cityscape is produced by Mary Edwards and Alex HeuerThe show is sponsored in part by the Missouri Arts Council, the Regional Arts Commission, and the Arts and Education Council of Greater St. Louis.  

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