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Art Review: ‘What Makes Us Smile?’ At American Visionary Art Museum

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(credit: American Visionary Art Museum)

(credit: American Visionary Art Museum)

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By Staci Wolfson

Times are tough. After all, a quick flip through the news will tell you that as a country, we’re still struggling to climb our way out of the so-called “Great Recession.” Of course, it’s not the world’s first economic downturn. It’s not the first time we’ve endured widespread unemployment and penny-pinching. So what did Americans do to cope with the Great Depression of the 1930s? Well, uh, apparently they bought whoopee cushions. Lots of whoopee cushions.And this is one of the many fun facts I learned during my first trip to the American Visionary Art Museum, the kitschy, glitzy, multiple-building venue nestled off of Key Highway in Federal Hill.

Founded by Rebecca Hoffberger in 1995, AVAM is dedicated to exhibiting the work of self-taught artists with various skills in various media at various levels of obscurity or recognition.

Currently, AVAM is hosting the exhibition “What Makes Us Smile?” in honor of the museum’s 15th anniversary. With only a couple of weeks left in the yearlong exhibition, Baltimoreans with a sense of humor and art aficionados alike can escape the heat and humidity through Sept. 4 to meet their chuckle quota for the day.

Along with Hoffberger, artist Gary Panter (creator of Pee Wee’s Playhouse) and “The Simpsons” creator Matt Groening co-curated the eclectic and delightfully off-kilter exhibit.

The colorful drawings, paintings, videos, installations and sculptures certainly brightened my otherwise dreary Friday.

ticklingmachine Art Review: ‘What Makes Us Smile?’ At American Visionary Art Museum

(credit: American Visionary Art Museum)

For me, the highlights were Carlos Zapata’s multimedia sculpture, the “Tickling Machine,” of two disembodied hands mercilessly using feathers to tickle a man’s feet and nose as he sits restrained in a chair. I definitely let out more than a few audible snorts over John Callahan’s risqué, politically incorrect cartoons.

AVAM lets visitors contribute their own smiles and art with a photo booth and other interactive pieces.

I found myself spending a great deal of time on the spiral staircases, as well. Their walls were lined with selections of alternately snarky and sweet postcards from Frank Warren’s PostSecret community art project.

But it quickly became clear that our 1930s counterparts had it right. Nothing holds a candle to a really good, immature fart joke. Cue the whoopee cushion seat, a bench covered with inflated multi-colored whoopee cushions.

My museum-visiting buddy and I stared at it for a minute, until I demanded that he sit down. He paused and then refused. So I sat down. His response to the resulting…err…explosion?

“Oh, that’s attractive.”

And with that, AVAM’s mission was accomplished. I dissolved into a fit of giggles.

American Visionary Art Museum
800 Key Highway
Baltimore, MD 21230
(410) 244-1900
Hours: Tues – Sun: 10 a.m. – 6 p.m.
Adult: $15.95; Senior (60 and up): $13.95 ; Student/Child: $9.95; Children 6 and under: FREE!

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