Did you hear the one about Henry Ford writing a letter to Hitler? That's the kind of joke on display now at the Work Gallery in Detroit. The gallery's new show is called FUNNY (not funny). It's a show of dark humor, where artists push the limits of good taste.
Detroit resident Gary Schwartz says his favorite piece is by comic artist Ian Huebert. The piece is called "Pen Pal." It's a drawing of auto icon Henry Ford. He's sitting in his office at the River Rouge plant, about to write a letter, and he's got an intense look on his face. There's a thought bubble above his head. It reads "Dear Hitler."
"It's one of the simplest pieces in the whole show," explains Schwartz, "and this one speaks volumes. This says everything one needs to know about the history of Detroit."
The piece exposes Ford's real-life back and forth with Nazi officials. And that's not all. Schwartz says the piece also points out how Ford and other industrial leaders have contradicted their own calls for self-sufficiency.
"Absolutely," says Schwartz, "because he was a farmer, and his whole idea with everything is we're gonna do it ourselves. It was the world's largest industrial plant. We just lost our way, we outsourced everything."
In that way Schwartz is doing exactly what the show's organizers had hoped: He's thinking critically about the piece.
Ryan Standfest is the curator of FUNNY (not funny). He's interested in pinpointing that line within a joke that separates comedy from tragedy. He says that nothing is sacred in the work of dark humorists, including Detroit's economic hard times.
"Certainly Detroit is convulsing right now," says Standfest, "it's going through a great deal of difficulty. Humor is a great way to deal with that difficulty, to come to terms with it, to break through the other side of it."
Standfest says what's on the other side depends on who sees the art and questions whether it's hilarious or horrific. That's the potential of dark humor. It can shock, it can challenge, it can sometimes make you squeamish.
But to be truly successful, dark humor should do more than get people talking. Artist Dave Fischer says it should also promote action:
"I think that leads to good things, it leads to people thinking about alternative solutions. Again, getting out of that mindset of just focusing on all the negatives, where can we go from there?"
For the show, Fischer cast the General Motors logo in a 3D concrete block with blades of lush real grass growing out from the letters. He calls the piece "Green GM." Fischer wanted to capture the feeling that a greener future is possible for the auto giant. But he also uses concrete to mock the company, as if to say they've hit rock bottom.
This is the first time Fisher has used organic materials like grass in a sculpture: He tried something new, took a risk. That's something he'd like to see big corporations like GM do.
"It was kinda like a gamble as to what would happen," says Fischer. "You plant these grass seeds and you water them and you wait. It kind of depends on what the show curator wants to do."
If the curator waters the grass, it'll grow. If not, it'll probably die. But either way, there's a possibility of hope in this dark humor. To that end, the artists at FUNNY (not funny) aren't just taking potshots at Detroit's decline. They want to see the city grow again.