A collision of art and comedy

Steve Melcher, the Emmy Award winning TV writer and producer involved with shows like “Penn and Teller,” “Dennis Miller,” “The Late Show with David Letterman,” and “Saturday Night Live’s Weekend Update,” shatters conventional reverence for museum masterworks with tongue in cheek parodies published in his book titled “That is Priceless; Art’s Greatest Masterpieces…Made Slightly Funnier.” No iconic artist escapes the author’s satirical subtitles, and the reader reaps the benefits.

Early and pre-20th century artworks are equally targeted by Melcher for those qualities that cause average museumgoers to scratch their heads or bite their tongues. Comical costumes, scary religious scenes and odd portraits are fair game to the author who says what most art viewers are too intimidatedto admit out loud. His book takes the altitude out of highbrow art making it accessible and appreciable on a run-of-the-mill human level.

Melcher did not arrange the book in any typical fashion such as by period or genre, . Rather, his ten chapters are defined based on the comedic potential of the subject matter.

His chapter titles reinforce the lack of academic knowledge about art, but that is the engine behind this book. Chapter four is titled “The Blue Period,” which by art historical standards refers to Picasso’s early figurative work in which blue dominated his palette. Melcher’s “Blue Period” chapter is populated with an eclectic collection of paintings conducive to humor about “gratuitous swearing and sexual content” which relates to “swearing up a blue streak” I assume, and neatly ties them to current culture.

He takes Jean Fouquet’s version of the Holy Virgin and Christ child (1452) — a common theme full of iconography — which includes Mary’s exposed breast, and re-titled it “Holy Wardrobe Malfunction,” referring of course to Batman and Robin slang smudged together with Janet Jackson’s accidental breast exposure at the Super Bowl in 2004. Very funny, but how could Melcher miss commenting on the crazy red cherubs floating around the holy duo?

He also missed Picasso himself, who doesn’t appear in this book. Hopefully Melcher will write a sequel, “That is Priceless II; The 20th Century” with abstraction, expressionism, and nightmarish surrealism. I can’t wait to read what he has to say about Picasso’s extra noses or Rothko’s missing subject matter!

I chuckled all the way through this book, making it impossible to choose a favorite. In his chapter titled “Brushes With Fame; Celebrities Caught on Canvas,” Melcher labels a painting of a woman cradling five children, painted by W. A. Bouguereau (1878), “Octomom Trying to Remember what She Did with the Other Three.”

He also manages to take the gravity out of Dirck Van Baburen’s painting of St. Sebastian (1615) who miraculously recovered from arrow wounds inflicted by Roman soldiers. The image shows family members dragging the saint to safety. Melcher retitles it “St. Sebastian Insisting He’s Okay to Drive.” It’s okay to laugh. This image is in the chapter titled “Study in Light and Dark; Darker Jokes for Those Who Take Their Humor Black.” It is fair warning. Sebastian recovered, but did earn his sainthood later. Interestingly enough Saint Sebastian became a chief saint invoked against the plague. Seek the irony, the other kind of funny.

Melcher really does have an eye for the ridiculous. It is a new twist on art for dummies. The images are beautiful and the ironies are there if one chooses to look hard. And of course, there’s great surface humor if you don’t.

Terri Martin is an art historian and art critic for Glendale News Press.

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