Misery and the company it loves converge beneath a cobalt stained glass window that reads, “2009 Was A Rough Year.” Brooklyn-based artist Lilly McElroy created the custom window at the Thomas Robertello Gallery as a kind of banner for her installation, a hanging declarative statement dressed up like a reverential church mosaic.
Spotlit, the window's colors bleed onto a nearby wall in a marbled reflection, and the text is lost completely. For a second it feels like a sacred space for memories and welcomed self-pity. But only for a second, as any reverie would be interrupted by a video of the artist telling crass jokes:
“What do you tell a woman with two black eyes? Nothing! You done told her twice.”
The content for McElroy's installation is from the website she established (aroughyear.com) where she invites people to submit stories and photos about their troubles and travails from ’09. She also requests favorite jokes for her standup bit.
The installation’s two digital projection components divide the space. The first is the looped video of the artist at amateur comedy nights in various clubs. Each time McElroy comes onstage and reads a succession of cliché, corny, and offensive jokes she receives not much more than a sarcastic “ha” or other negative remark from the unsuspecting audience. The space is small enough that it’s easy to hear the same “light bulb” joke twice, and experiencing McElroy bomb with repeated punch lines at club after club is like a strange public martyrdom.
Across the gallery, chairs are set up in front of two synchronized projectors defining the second part of the installation. One projector shows images, mostly snapshots, while the other flashes individual descriptions that tell how 2009 was particularly rough. Occasionally an image will stand alone without a description or explanation.
In one photo, a person holds a cat accompanied by the words “it was a lonely people free year.” In another, there’s a truncated shot of a woman wearing a t-shirt that says, “I just want to stick it in and have some fun.” An image of a foot blister that was a result of walking on a treadmill in high heels seems like a weak justification for a bad year, especially when an x-ray image of a huge tumor flashes a few minutes later. A computer screen, a window, and a grainy image of Star Trek on television all have similar captions about losing the year to a paralyzing drone of distraction, apathy, or depression, but McElroy doesn't judge, she just keeps telling jokes in the background.
These are personal representations of common pain and suffering in modern America: job and property loss, divorce and breakups, death, accidents, health problems, and natural disasters. Everyone has had a rough year, and all years are rough. Sometimes the captions help the image to have an affect, other times a text-heavy emotional purge suffocates the aesthetic and the simplicity of the idea.
McElroy’s awkward joke telling is juxtaposed with the emotionally heavier side of the installation in a gesture of connected empathy and self-sacrifice. But it’s hard to see if she had a “rough year” from her performative self-sacrifice at comedy clubs, and the sincerity of the piece suffers overall from this disjuncture. McElroy’s piece also feels little out-of-date at the start of 2011, but the gallery’s street-facing window holds blank index cards and a box, soliciting the continuation of her collective, cathartic dialogue into documenting another rough year, 2010.
-Mia DiMeo, ArtSlant Staff Writer
(All images courtesy of Thomas Robertello Gallery and used with permission)