In a complex, postmodern world, it’s reassuring that there are artists who can step back from the fray with a sense of humor.
      Mind you, they take their work seriously, but they remind us not to take our problems and ourselves so rigidly that we fail to take stock of life’s simple pleasures. Mark Twain said, “Laughter was our greatest weapon.” Lenny Bruce called it “the only honest art form.” Health sciences consider it the best medicine for what ails us.
      In any art form—theater, literature, music or the visual arts--comedy is the most universal because it speaks the same language. Ironically, regardless of medium, the axiom, “tragedy is easy, comedy is hard,” rings true, particularly for the artist and performer. Knowing all of the above, the viewer may especially appreciate what participating artists contribute in The Challenge of Fun, the current exhibit at Modern Arts Midtown.
      The Challenge of Fun features the sculptural work of Omahan Iggy Sumnik and paintings of Mark Kochen from Sioux City, Iowa. The exhibit also includes work from Wendy Jane Bantam, Troy Muller, Ken Peterson and Tom Rierden. What unites them is the fun factor they share with their 2D and 3D objects and imagery that is initially comical and quirky. The underlying “challenge” is the taking of cartoon caricatures and fantasy figures and narratives seriously.
      This is exactly what these unorthodox artists have done, expressing their worldview through filters of the comic, satiric and the fantastic. In the end it can be said, aesthetically, they all have a serious sense of humor.
      As seemingly whimsical as Sumnik’s sculptures appear to be, he uses familiar objects “to connect to culture and reference nature by merging or distorting these objects to represent the human tendency to impact the natural world.” His ceramic and metal objects are grouped as “Jelly Beans,” “Cloud Forms,” “Zulu Pipes,” “Hybrids” and, more recently, “Parking Cones” and “Dream Organs” as well as others.
      Working in multiples, works like “Dream Organs,” one with red spots, another with black, or with individual pieces such a duck with “Winter Plumage” and “The Rainbow,” these colorful forms dance and pose like figures from Disney’s animated opus, Fantasia. Yet, beneath the whimsy and humor of Sumnik’s own wizardry is a social awareness whose objective is to achieve balance with all natural and manmade environments.
      Sumnik also introduces new “Jelly Beans” that reference his mentor Jun Kaneko’s skill with repetitive geometric and organic rhythms and patterns. This is about as abstract as his work will get as it best shows off Sumnik’s own combination of tasteful, sophisticated design and pleasing palette.
      Even as painterly as these pieces are, his very popular “Jelly Beans” vibrate with color and energy at the hands of their puppet master. The “fun” in Sumnik’s art is the poetry in its motion as well as its message. The “challenge” is to ignore its hypnotic repetition. In short, the sculpture of Iggy “pops”.
      Kochen also employs meaningful repetition in his playful imagery, and it too reflects his personality and character. A painting instructor for nearly 10 years at Western Iowa Tech in Sioux City, he says, “In my paintings, I mostly focus on the cute, adorable, whimsical and goofy. My goal is to satisfy my need to create, and second, to improve the quality of life of those around me.”
      Like Sumnik, he often works in series, all of which are variations on a theme of “lighten up”.
Seen in this show, those series include “Machines” of all kinds in Rube Goldberg fashion, “Butterflies” of all “species” and “Tweets and Seats” of all sorts. These paintings belie their frivolity with a certain witty, impish “Where’s Waldo” point of view. Rather than “stop and smell the roses,” Kochen asks his viewer to take off the blinders, connect the environmental and industrial dots with the imagination as much as the senses. Above all, “see” it all with a fresh pair of eyes.
      In addition, Kochen makes his mark in the world we live in with what he calls “Mousin.” Not unlike street artists of all kinds, he is marking paths, places, and objects with chalk mice. “A bonding experience,” he says, “an adventure, a curious thing to wander around doing, ‘fo sho’.”
      Unlike Sumnik’s sculptural figures, there is no socially conscious theme at play in Kochen’s imagery. Yet, his incongruous juxtapositions of nature and the manmade in such paintings as “Black Sheep & Bananas” and “Crabs and Cupcakes” invite the viewer to cast off the mantle of everyday stress and drudgery and embrace the nonsensical for its own sake and one’s sanity.
      Charlie Chaplin is supposed to have said, “A day without a laugh is a day wasted.” Indulge The Challenge of Fun, the “comedies” of Sumnik, Kochen and other court jesters, and chances are, if not an outright giggle, chuckle or guffaw, you may nevertheless lighten up with a “Now, that’s a smile.”