The Dallas Morning News
‘I think like a comedian and make like an artist’
Shelby David Meier exhibit makes you scratch your head
Q: What is the difference between a duck?
A: One of its legs is both the same.
Scratching your head? Well, that’s kind of the point.
This classic non sequitur is an example of absurdist comedy. Rather than deliver the satisfactory one-two/questionpunch-line delivery of a traditional joke, this one is about toying with the structure of a joke itself, posing a seemingly straightforward question in a nonsensical way.
Functioning similarly to a Zen Buddhist koan (a riddle or puzzle designed to relax and free the mind during meditation), the joke requires the abandonment of linear thinking, serving more as an investigation into the relationship between language and humor and the subversion of expectations.
This type of thinking dominates the practice of Dallas
artist Shelby David Meier, whose exhibition, “The Difference Between a Duck,” is on display at Beefhaus in Exposition Park.
The show — Meier’s master’s thesis exhibition (he is a graduate student at Southern Methodist University) — brings together an assortment of objects and different mediums to address ideas about comedy, semiotics, science and conceptual art. Rather than present some sort of definitive set of ideologies or modes of working, Meier’s work is a series of investigations that distill cosmic, existential, manand-machine concepts into singular gestures.
Past pieces have included a collection of Whataburger cups scattered across the floor, a Roomba trapped in a life-size maze and a large-scale cat tower that bore a striking resemblance to the work of Mark di Suvero.
Drawing inspiration from artists such as Donald Judd, Richard Tuttle and John Baldessari, Meier also pulls from the world of stand-up comedy, citing Andy Kaufman as an influence.
The artist has dabbled as a comedian, appearing last fall in the Nasher Artist Circle event Now That’s What I Call Stand Up! Vol. 1. Meier started his set by playing Jimi Hendrix’s “Star Spangled Banner,” only to set his guitar down partway through and begin reading David Foster Wallace’s Infinite
Jest, while the Hendrix recording (which had been playing all along) finished the song.
The moment was truly weird and inexplicable, but if you know Meier and his work, it made perfect sense. As he says, “I think like a comedian and make like an artist. Which doesn’t always mean what I make is necessarily ‘funny,’ but sometimes I might think it’s funny because I know I’m doing the ‘wrong’ thing.”
Humor is in full effect in “The Difference Between a Duck.” Sculptures composed of boxes covered in tube socks (which look like large-scale Jenga blocks) dot the front gallery, one with a torn loaf of bread, cast in iron, painted bright red and formed into a cairn, delicately perched on top.
A dining room set sits in the middle, the chairs and table legs covered in sisal rope and carpet, a grown-up, “proper” cat scratching post.
In the back room, a video shows a sock tower spinning against a cheesy, 1990s-style brick wall, a strained laugh track ebbing and flowing as it turns — a sad comedian performing for an invisible audience.
Science fiction plays a major role through an interpretation of Isaac Asimov’s The Last
Question, most apparent in the form of a book of poetry that Meier assembled by reading the original story to his computer’s text-to-speech program, and capturing snippets of the oft-garbled interpretation.
The exhibition leaves you somewhere between a laugh and a grimace, chuckling at the absurdity of the world, the universe, the galaxy, while contemplating your own preposterous existence. In that moment, we become the joke. And it’s best just to keep laughing and shaking your head.
To take in Meier’s work, one might mistakenly dismiss it as merely goofy or sardonic, or the type of conceptual work deliberately designed to confuse the viewer in order to make it appear more mystically obtuse.
While it is to a degree both goofy and sardonic (Meier is himself, after all, both), the work is actually pretty straightforward. Yes, those are 12-sided dice strewn across the gallery floor; yes, that is a flower vase made out of a Michael Myers’ latex mask; yes, those sculptures are iron casts of torn bread loaves.
To know Meier is to best understand his work — if you were to look at it and ask why. He would in all likelihood respond, why not?