Performance art meets comedy: Casey Jane Ellison's 'Touching the Art'

Casey Jane Ellison blends art and comedy into something new at the @newmuseum Triennial

The first time Casey Jane Ellison took the stage as a stand-up comedian, things didn't go well.

"I opened with, 'Don't worry, I'll lose the weight,'" she recalls. "And there was silence. It did not feel very good."

That early attempt, at age 19, soured Ellison on comedy for a while. She instead turned her attention to art. (She has a degree in film, video and animation from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.)

But even Ellison's art has funny bits. She's known for making eerie 3-D animated videos of herself reciting a litany of comedic lines in a range of voices — from mean girl to desperate housewife.

Soon enough, Ellison found herself circling back to comedy. During a stint in New York, just three years after her ill-received debut, she once again gave stand-up a shot. 

"And that," she says, "is when it stuck."

Ellison, 26, has been making a name for herself as the thinking person's artist-comedian, in which she skewers her own life as well as the worlds of art and fashion.

She first came into broad public view by dismembering design trends with her razor wit in a regular segment called "What the F*shion?" for VFiles, the social-media fashion site and video series run by V Magazine.  (A spoof on Los Angeles fashion includes a sublime series of gags involving boho-chic dresses and a too-tight Kardashian ensemble. "I need to look like I'm eco-friendly," she deadpans. "And actually friendly.")

Last year, Ellison caused a ripple in the art world with the debut of her online series "Touching the Art," which airs on the Ovation network. Done in a talk-show panel style, it is unlike the self-serious chats the art world generally delivers in this format. As host, Ellison ricochets between moments of overconfidence, self-deprecation and cluelessness as she lobs impossible questions at her guests. Often her panelists look as if they're not sure whether they should laugh or run away.

"Today we're talking about globalism, art, money, sex," she announces in a recent episode. "I'm sorry — not sex. Terror. I always get those two confused."

Ellison is having her television show and one of her animations featured in the third iteration of the New Museum Triennial, "Surround Audience," which opens Wednesday in New York. The exhibition explores the idea of the always-on Internet, of always being observed. Cocurator Lauren Cornell says Ellison's work fits squarely within that theme.

"Sites like Instagram are about cropping out all of the pain and sadness," she says. "They amplify the anxiety of being seen. This show is about that, that hyper-visibility.... That's something that Casey deals with. It connects to a long spectrum of artists who deal with concerns about mediating themselves."

For the exhibition, Ellison and Ovation filmed three new episodes of "Touching the Art" — one of which is all about biennial and triennials — to be displayed in the lobby of the museum. (As with plenty of artist conversations, the episodes contain lots of swearing and off-color jokes, in case you decide to click through.)

For the exhibition, she also created a separate work of art titled "It's So Important to Seem Wonderful, Part II," which follows up on an earlier work with a similar title that was screened by MOCA TV in Los Angeles in 2012. In the new animation, Ellison's discombobulated avatar delivers a disjointed monologue that touches on everything from a fear of going bald to her signature shade of inky eggplant lipstick.

"I don't need to tell you guys — you know, we're all millennials here," she intones in the video. "We all, you know, spend our parents' money on sustainable businesses." 

These bizarre 3-D renderings are a way of playing with her own persona.

"Those programs destroy my image and re-create it," she explains. "It's like taking part in my own objectification."

Ellison was born and raised in Los Angeles — "across the street from the La Brea tar pits," as she puts it. Her father works in finance and her mother is a civil rights lawyer, but both have creative interests, having dabbled in filmmaking and art respectively. Ellison, however, says she came to stand-up comedy on her own. 

"I was not raised as a performer, " she says. "It's like you have a work ethic and a job. That was it. I'm not this girl."

As a young woman, though, her interest in creating and destroying her own image in art neatly dovetailed with her interest in comedians such as Maria Bamford, who has made a career out of surreal performances that involve inhabiting multiple personas and spinning yarns out of uncomfortable subjects like anxiety and depression. 

"It's the grotesque," Ellison says of her area of focus. "The grotesqueness of being unspecial."

Call it comedy as mortification of the flesh.

Ellison's act straddles the divide between art and performance art — creating moments that aren't always focused on being ha-ha funny but instead are more about establishing a mood of discomfort. 

In late January, I attended a show she hosted at the sprawling Burbank studio of digital artists Lizzie Fitch and Ryan Trecartin (the latter of whom served as cocurator on the Triennial). The room smelled of cigarettes and weed. Several dozen artsy types gathered around a makeshift stage, where Ellison talked about sex, her leathery black pants and debated the exact choreography of body movements that should accompany the delivery of a rude gesture.

Ellison's routine didn't fit the cadence of conventional stand-up. She let awkward pauses sit. She glared at her audience. She repeatedly said the phrase "thank you" in an insecure squeak. Any moment, it seemed as if she might unravel, and she'd unexpectedly deliver a more traditional joke.

"Clearly there are a lot of genders here tonight," she said, taking on the tone of stand-up comedian. "I identify as nonmale."

If the cadence of stand-up is generally set-up, set-up, punch line, hers is more rambling monologue, bizarre non sequitur.

"She leaves a lot of space in her comedy," says the New Museum's Cornell. "It's about the creation of this persona, a persona that is an amplified version of her and all of her anxieties and vulnerabilities." 

Her comedy and her program are in keeping with a new wave of popular online shows — such as "High Maintenance" and "Little Horribles" — where characters aren't physically perfect, where they fall apart in untidy ways, where horrible things happen and there is no tidy resolution. 

Shaw Bowman, the general manager of digital media at Ovation, says giving Ellison an experimental online platform felt like a no-brainer.

"It felt like something that needed to be done," he says. "We were filling a niche that was vacant to this point."

To be certain, "Touching the Art" is small, with individual episodes generating from a few thousand to 30,000 views. Part of this certainly has to do with the heady topics: art criticism, queer art, violence, the disposable nature of some art, not to mention the art market — the sort of topics only an art-world insider could love.

But it's nonetheless changed the way in which it is possible to talk about art on television. Ways that don't feel like a PBS special.

"It's not just about hitting plot points," Ellison says of how the Internet has changed the dialogue. "I love how egalitarian the Web has made all of this."

She adds knowingly: "Really, there is no standard."

"2015 Triennial: Surround Audience," opens Wednesday at the New Museum, 235 Bowery, New York, newmuseum.org

Find me on Twitter @cmonstah

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