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Art with a Twist of Humor

Detail work on a piece in artist Lori Larusso’s collection titled “If you can Moonlight as the Tooth Fairy, you can Participate in Collective Disappearance,” which examine and pertain to domestic spaces in middle America.

For the past three years the regional arts organization South Arts, a nine-state consortium of state arts agencies from Southern states, of which the Kentucky Arts Council is a member, has awarded $5,000 state fellowships to one artist in each South Arts member state. Each state fellow is then in contention for the $25,000 Southern Prize, which also includes a two-week residency at northeast Georgia’s Hambidge Center for the Creative Arts & Sciences.

Lexington artist Lori Larusso

Lexington artist Lori Larusso represented Kentucky as its state fellow in this year’s competition, and although she did not win the Southern Prize, her work was well-received by the adjudication panel. Larusso recorded an episode of the “KyArtsCast” podcast, and we’ve excerpted some of her remarks from that interview for this month’s Spotlight on the Arts.

Larusso was one of more than 70 artists from Kentucky who applied for the state fellowship, and one of more than 800 artists who applied from all South Arts member states. The annual Southern Prize competition is open to visual artists. Five judges narrow down the list to the nine state fellows and ultimately to the Southern Prize winner.

“When I first received (the state fellowship), I thought it was an honor to be included on a certain level,” Larusso said. “I apply for a lot of things – opportunities, residencies, exhibitions, grants – and I get a very small percentage of what I apply for. It’s always a bit of a surprise when I do.

“I hesitate to say this, but winning the state fellowship was, in part, validating,” she said. “I know I can’t ask to be validated by others all the time; I have to find that in myself, but it’s nice to be recognized.”

Larusso’s submitted work was from a collection called “Noncompliance,” for which she has received funding from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. The messages of her exhibit are juxtaposed images of traditional American domesticity, like a bathroom sink or a stove in a kitchen, with messages of nonviolent protest, incorporated into the titles. Titles of pieces in the collection included “If you can Moonlight as the Tooth Fairy, you can Participate in Collective Disappearance” and “If you can Mop a Floor, you can Exercise Total Personal Non-Cooperation.”

Collective disappearance encompasses an act of the masses, such a “A Day Without Women” or “A Day without Immigrants” to highlight the integral roles of those groups in daily life. Total personal non-cooperation is where protestors nonviolently refuse to cooperate in their own incarceration, offering no resistance, but offering no cooperation either.

The images work hand-in-hand with the titles. “If you can Moonlight as the Tooth Fairy…” incorporates a 2D image of a bathroom sink, overflowing with toothpaste squeezed from a tube.

“All the images are representational and pertain to the domestic middle American interior space,” Larusso said. “The paintings are to scale, so as you approach them, you are approaching a bathroom sink at a human scale.”

For its serious messages, the collection also relies on humor as an avenue for delivering the theme: Noncompliance.

“There’s a lot of humor in the work,” Larusso said. “I appreciate when people find the work funny. I don’t think I ever have to force the humor. For a long time I forced myself to try to be very serious, to be taken seriously. Some professors at some point were trying to protect me from criticism, from not being taken seriously.

“I think art can be a whole range of things,” she added, “but I think for a long time I avoided anything that could be perceived as cute or pretty or fun because I received criticism that it could be taken as less important or less serious. In the past five years or so, I feel I’ve done a much better job of embracing that in the work I want to make.”

In addition to the South Arts state fellowship, Larusso said she’s grateful for the Al Smith Individual Artist Fellowship she received in 2012 from the Kentucky Arts Council, which she also described as validating.

“I think the work I make is strong and important and that everyone should love it, however, sometimes it’s difficult to take yourself seriously or think you’re being taken seriously. I felt the same at the South Arts exhibition. To be exhibiting among eight other artists, and all with work that was so strong, so different from each other, was really an honor.”

To hear the entire podcast with Lori Larusso, go to kyartscast.ky.gov.

Chris Cathers is executive director of the Kentucky Arts Council.