If someone were to draw a Venn diagram that had, on one side, a circle that held within it "truly funny stuff" and, on the other side, a circle that contained "contemporary painting," the realm of overlap would be next to nonexistent. If you don't immediately think, "Wow, contemporary painting, LMAO," that is because the kind of contemporary painting that makes it to museums and galleries is not usually very funny, and when it tries to be funny, it is often becomes even more un-funny. Your standard art jokes are up there with the worst forms of humor — self-referential, often elitist, dumb.
We need funny art. Not knee-slap funny, George-Carlin-as-a-painting funny. Not puns. (Never puns.) What we need is the kind of work that makes you feel like someone has opened a window to let air into the room. What contemporaneity demands of us is art that is heavy as a Rothko chapel but light as a Kanye meme.
The best local entrants in the category of "it makes you laugh, but you'd also frame it" are painters Alex Paulus and Clare Torina, whose exhibition, "Blind Navigator," is currently on view at Crosstown Arts. Both Paulus and Torina have a talent for making work that is visually and conceptually depthy and feels drawn from some kind of long-lost iPhone scroll. We need paintings like Paulus' Forever Dog, which features a panther-like canine harbinger of an unknown apocalypse, infinitely looped into his own black shadow. Or Torina's outsized Wet Wipe in Paradise, an LP-shaped version of a wet wipe, which neatly draws a through-line between Jimmy Buffett, sterile Floridian resorts, and bottom-of-your-pocket paper refuse.
Torina, who lives and works in New York but got her bachelor's degree in Memphis, makes paintings that feel digitally collaged but with none of the tautness and restraint of Photoshop. In Torina's paintings, shadows appear without whatever or whoever cast them. Dreamlike elements — temples, pets, pants, bones, and flowers in Styrofoam — coexist in an unnaturally immediate space. There is a feeling of the surreal-in-the-sharable that lends the work a familiarity.
Paulus has been making and showing paintings around Memphis for years. The work in "Blind Navigator" is his best to date. Paulus' style, which is plasticky, grotesque, and always a tinge nihilistic, really hits its stride in paintings like No more P bear (a polar bear with a red "X" painted over its face) and Rig King (a goony blond guy shouldering a missile.) As far as names go, both Torina and Paulus follow Los Angeles-based artist Jim Shaw, whose sardonically titled "Thrift Store Paintings" recently merited a retrospective in New York's New Museum. Paulus' work, like Shaw's, feels down-to-earth, only in a universe that has flipped its shit. Paulus' work exists in a world of internet tabloids and Reddit. To quote the title of a Paulus painting that shows a series of messily skewed celestial paths: That seems not right.
Paulus and Torina arranged "Blind Navigator" so that nothing feels quite to-scale: a toilet paper roll the size of a toddler holds a silk flower while hand-painted human bones lie in a pile nearby. Another work by Torina is a pair of checkered pants, Freudian in proportion, called For Grandpa's Ghost. These details chock up to a subtle Wonderland effect.
"Blind Navigator" is an uncommonly good show. It takes risks. It joins a dry sense of humor with an "only in Vegas for the night, baby," bring-it-on sensibility. It is critical without being cynical. Paulus and Torina meet the challenges of making paintings in an image-saturated age smartly, and with warmth.