It’s Not Punny if You Have to Explain It: Act III

Jeanne Dunning: Study after Untitled
Berkeley Art Museum
Berkeley, CA
Allan deSouza
Jeanne Dunning, "Untitled," 1988. 15 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum.

Jeanne Dunning, Untitled, 1988. 15 x 12 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum.

When looking at the photographs in Jeanne Dunning: Study After Untitled, which mostly depict or refer to the female body, I wonder if I’m being told a joke without its punch-line or a punch-line without the preamble. To the viewer (especially the male viewer), what could be more familiar and yet more terrifying than the female body? Much has been written about Dunning’s work in relation to the Uncanny, the familiar that becomes unsettlingly, if not terrifying, by its displacement, by its unhoming. What could be more homely—and I mean that in the Freudian sense of the heimliche or the original heim of the womb—and yet more alien than the female body? What could be more of a target for the coping mechanism of humor?1

For a long time, I used to think that Jeanne Dunning’s work was just not rude enough, her bodies just don’t leak enough, they don’t dissolve sufficiently enough into each other to contaminate the social body. But that desire on my part for the gross, or for the arousing, or for the arousal in inappropriate circumstances, misses the point of her photographs. Dunning’s work is not purposeful in that sense—its intention is not to make us recoil, make us aroused, to test us, or even to tell the joke and its punch-line. It’s more subtle and more conflicted.

Despite their restraint—and you can feel that the work doesn’t want to impose—her photographs get under your skin, in the way that you might be at a party and someone you dislike keeps touching you, stroking your arm while telling you a joke. It’s not unpleasant—the joke has potential, the physical touch is nice—but you feel that a boundary is being crossed. The discomfort is more social and psychological; you experience physical pleasure while simultaneously wishing it was someone else touching you that way. Dunning’s work is like that—there’s an undeniable pleasure, even lushness in viewing it, and yet, at the same time, you wish it would go to another part of the room and bother somebody else. Yet, when it does you’re left socially interruptus, with no climax.

While Sigmund Freud was writing Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious, he was simultaneously writing Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, both published in 1905. He kept both manuscripts on his desk–the joke pile and the sexuality pile–and supposedly managed to keep the two subjects apart. I imagine him theorizing the oral stage, getting to vagina dentata, say, and thinking maybe that should go on the joke pile. Penis envy? Joke pile. Mother-in-law jokes? Sexuality pile. My point is not only that the joke and sexuality can’t be kept separate, but also that they are often interchangeable. This is the crux of Dunning’s work, this apparent but failing attempt at separation. By separation I mean to imply individuation–the process by which the subject or self is formed, informed, mis-formed and misinformed in relation to the Other. The attempt to separate into two distinct piles, as with the process of individuation itself, is fraught by the inevitable leakage from one pile into the other–from the Self into its Others and especially from and into the other embodied within one’s Self.

This process of individuation and its constitutive attachments and repulsions through the leakage between bodies occurs within the social and public arena despite socialized attempts to shroud it and restrict it to the private. It’s pertinent here to recall the 1960s feminist slogan: “The personal is political.” It’s as if Dunning has embarked on scrutinizing the body in order to politicize it, but, mortified by what she has found, is caught in stasis, unable to withdraw or proceed. The resultant works reflect this immobility, a kind of Kafkaesque alienation from the social and all-too-physical body. It’s as if Gregor Samsa is halted mid-metamorphosis, and doesn’t know what to do with him/itself. With Dunning, individuation and the dragging of the individual into the social is thus represented with an infuriating restraint, even politeness–the joke that refuses to deliver for fear of offending.

Though deadpan, with nary a hint of a smile, Dunning’s work is dependent on the joke as a strategy for staging and negotiating this genteel revulsion, this simultaneous comfort and discomfort. I’ve compiled—with deference to Freud—the following list of pertinent joke variations.

The aggressive joke is a form of displacement, masking aggression and feelings of superiority over other people who are the butt of the joke. In Dunning’s case, if there is aggression, then it is of the passive variety, in its refusal to either fulfill or subvert our expectation.

The self-mocking or self-critical joke targets the teller or presenter of the joke, with the site of the joke in this case likely being her own body. If anyone is to be embarrassed it is Dunning, and it is this recognition that allows us as viewers to enter the terms of the joke without fear of our own humiliation. The self-critical joke can also act as a strategic tool of cultural resistance, such as may be deployed by members of displaced communities. For example, a comedienne might use it to articulate the conditions of her own exclusion, and therefore as a means of self-recognition and self-definition. Perhaps Untitled (1988), a series of portraits of women, comes closest to this joke type. Each portrait seems unremarkable in its ordinariness until one notices that each woman sports a subtle mustache. It might be the hair that is socially forbidden, but this already mild gesture of rebellion—if that’s what it is—is further placated upon learning that the subjects didn’t grow the mustaches themselves but had them applied with make-up by Dunning.2. At the same time—though Dunning makes no mention of this reference—there is a pun upon a previous pun in this heir to Marcel Duchamp’s LHOOQ (1919), a postcard of the Mona Lisa on which he painted a mustache. The “L” word in this case is the “Elle” of each woman depicted, though the “hot ass” alluded to in Duchamp’s title becomes another and perhaps unfortunate instance of self-mocking. One might also variously read Dunning’s depictions as attempts to escape, make absurd or critique the fetishization of a woman’s body in general and Duchamp’s off-hand sexist pun in particular.3

The melancholic joke is a mask for nostalgia for what might have been, such as for the loss of one’s youth or for the loss of the idealized body that one never had and is increasingly unlikely to ever gain. In the context of Dunning’s photographs, it could also represent melancholy at the perceived failure of feminism’s promise of gender equality and body acceptance. The melancholic joke takes on particular poignancy following the possibilities of the self-mocking joke above.

The skeptical joke attacks the certainty of knowledge, invoking a sudden perception of incompatibility, such as between what the viewer might expect and what actually takes place. What takes place in Dunning’s images is itself in doubt, partly through Dunning’s intention and partly through her ambivalence and restraint.

Homi Bhabha writes about the joke in relation to constructions of identity and community and the resulting tropes of inclusion/exclusion.4 If you get the joke, you’re in with the group, if you don’t, you’re not. I don’t think it suffices to say that Dunning’s work articulates a condition of womanhood and that the group identification is a feminist one. With Dunning, we know there is a joke, but getting it doesn’t necessarily allow us into any select group. On the contrary, it brings us to a peculiar equalization, to the rather base realization of the body’s most elemental property or condition: slime. That’s where we begin, what we try to contain within the somewhat impolitely porous bags of our skins as we trudge through life, and that’s how we end. Not to dust, but into slime. Dust to dust is the sanitized version. In her series of food surfaces, The Red, The White, The Pink, The Yellow, and The Brown (all 1996), Dunning brings us back to the body’s liquids and its lack of sanitation, but she does so by inference, through artifice and aesthetics. In other words, she does it politely, as though we are sitting at the dinner table in mixed company.

Referring to Dunning’s Untitled With Food (1996), in which a naked woman sits with arms folded, the crevices of her body overflowing with a glutinous substance, essayist Russell Ferguson quotes from Hollis Clayson that the depiction of slime upon the female body, rather than the slime that emanates from within, is inevitably linked to semen.5 But in viewing Dunning’s work we frequently can’t tell from where the slime emanates; is it from within the body depicted or without? Is it the male discharge or the ooze from the female wound? There’s something else to consider: semen is unusual if not unique amongst bodily fluids in that its role—the reason for its evolutionary existence—is to leave one body, only to enter another. To my viewing, Dunning’s work is less about the inside or the outside, but about this transition, or perhaps transmission, between the two (and I use the term “transmission” advisedly, with all its inferences of infection and dis-ease).

Dunning’s work, then, functions in the temporal space of metamorphosis, in the physical and psychic space between bodies. I want to emphasize the space between the artist and the viewer’s bodies—between the two surfaces, the skins as it were, of the photograph and the eye. Both surfaces are joined through their punctures, the Barthesian punctum of the photograph, and the pupil of the eye. Barthes describes the punctum as “this wound, this prick,”6 an un-looked-for detail that “punctuates” the generic surface and subject of a photograph and “shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces me.”7 By “me,” he means his eye, or at least the interior self that is reached through his eye. He continues, “A photograph’s punctum is that accident which pricks me (but also bruises me, is poignant to me).”8 Fittingly, the human eye is the bodily orifice (wound, prick, or, more accurately, that which is pricked) on public display that we examine for in-sight, that is, for knowledge of that person’s interior, for “who they are.” (Of course, other orifices not generally on public display, such as the vagina or the anus are also scrutinized as though they might reveal some esoteric knowledge of the flesh and of the very nature of being. Consider, for example, Gustave Courbet’s The Origin of the World, (1866), or pornography’s compulsion to probe ever deeper to display the unknowable, not to answer Freud’s question of what does a woman want, but in response to the more desperate, ontological cry of “What is a woman?”)

Jeanne Dunning, "Head 2," 1989. Laminated Cibachrome mounted on Plexiglas, 28 1/4 x 19 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Feigen Contemporary, New York.

Jeanne Dunning, Head 2, 1989. Laminated Cibachrome mounted on Plexiglas, 28 1/4 x 19 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Feigen Contemporary, New York.

Salomon Huerta, "Untitled Head #21," 2003. Oil on canvas on panel, 11.75 x 12 inches. Private collection; Courtesy of Patricia Faure Gallery.

Salomon Huerta, Untitled Head #21, 2003. Oil on canvas on panel, 11.75 x 12 inches. Private collection; Courtesy of Patricia Faure Gallery.

These gendered-coded pricks and wounds, these spaces between—the space between the two surfaces, and the space within the surface itself, the puncture—lead us to Homi Bhabha’s idea of “interstitial perspectives,” narratives derived from and formed at the boundaries where polarities meet, which Bhabha terms “domains of difference.”9 Bhabha emphasizes that differentiation is performed—such as between the personal and the collective, private and public, memory and history, subject and nation, self and other, male and female, masculinity and femininity, whiteness and its Others, between the viewed and the viewer, the photograph and the eye. It is at and through these moments and spaces, these “terms of cultural engagement”10 where the polarizing forces perform themselves that we can negotiate Dunning’s work.

Dunning’s Head series (1989-90) of “phallic-headed” women turned away from the camera typifies this interruption between polarities, in this case transitioning between the feminine and the masculine. These anti-portraits that defy our will to know the sitter also invoke other art references, such as René Magritte’s series of the backs of bowler-hatted men trapped in their own solipsism; Gerhard Richter’s iconic portrait, Betty (1988), of his daughter caught in the act of turning away from our view and towards an erased but claustrophobic past; Lorna Simpson’s signifying portraits/texts, such as Guarded Conditions (1989), a subtly differing sequence of the back of a woman, with the repeated words, “sex attacks, skin attacks…”; and Salomon Huerta’s Untitled (Head) series of machismo-dripping yet vulnerable backs of male heads. All these images refer to the impossibility of fixing and fully knowing the identity and history not only of the individual depicted, but also of the group and nation that each bears the burden of representing.11 So it is with Dunning’s heads: they bear individual traits but they also defy the myth of ideal femininity and represent one that is infected with the taint of the masculine.

Another strikingly similar precursor to the Head series is found in Le Pan de Nuit/The Patch of Night (1965) by Magritte. The painting depicts a centered mass of cascading reddish hair capped by Magritte’s habitual icon of masculine normality and constraint—a black bowler hat; the hat’s rounded top and rim literally form a penile tip. The background consists of a flattened gray space with floating spectral marks that resemble the be-suited men raining down in his earlier painting Golconda (1953).12 Dunning’s women are similarly bullet-headed; their glans-like bulbs of hair perch atop thrusting necks. These might be women to be feared, though not in the caricatured form of the “phallic woman” (sheathed in leather, with talon fingernails and fleshy lips dripping red). These women, like Magritte’s tresses, are constrained by their intrusion into masculine space; or, like Huerta’s men, they are rendered vulnerable precisely because of their inhabitation of masculinity. This intrusion and inhabitation gives theatrical form to Bhabha’s articulation of mimicry by which the colonized mimics the colonizer in order to subvert the latter’s authority. Dunning’s women try on masculinity, thereby destabilizing any fixed gender position. Not only do the heads pun on the male phallus; they pun on the idea of the phallic woman—the woman who castrates—by replacing one head (male, genital) with another (female, cerebral).

Dunning’s consistent allusions to genitalia lead us to the joke that can no longer avoid being named, the dirty joke—the kind that shuffles together Freud’s two piles, rendering them inseparable. I want to consider it in reference to the film The Aristocrats, in which a single joke is told repeatedly by different comedians.13 It is the telling and the substance of the joke rather than the punch-line with which we engage, since we learn the punch-line the first time the joke is told.

I’m not going to tell the joke, just an outline of it: a man walks into an entertainment agency—I’m going to pause here to say that there is already an elision in my telling so far, but I will return to it later—a man walks into an entertainment agency and says to the guy behind the desk, “Boy, have I got an act for you! It’s a family act, but a very unusual one.” The agent interrupts and says, “Sorry, not interested, there’s just no call for family acts these days.” And the man says, “No, no, this one is really different. You’ve got to see it to believe it. I guarantee you’ve never seen anything like it before.” Then the agent says, “Okay, you’ve got two minutes. Give me your pitch.” The man says, “Well, there’s the father, mother, teenage son, prepubescent daughter, aging grandmother, and a cocker spaniel.” The man then proceeds to describe every imaginable and unimaginable sexual, scatological and incestuous permutation that takes place between the different family members, including the dog. It’s absolutely vile. The man concludes, “At the end, they’re all covered with every kind of bodily fluid, they take a bow and leave the stage.” The agent says, “My god, what an act. What do you call it?” And the man says, “The Aristocrats!”

Okay, it’s not funny. Where once there might have been a class frisson in ridiculing the aristocracy, we are now largely removed from that particular social stratification and the punch-line is completely anticlimactic. But that’s part of the point. The effect of the joke lies in the endless permutations of its narrative descriptions and its assessment of and willingness to reach the audience’s melting-point—the point to which it can be pushed socially, morally, and, of course, politically.

Before returning to Dunning, I want to retell the beginning of the joke, and briefly consider the elision I earlier mentioned. “So, a white man walks into an entertainment agency…” and so on. Our reading of the joke immediately changes; we now think of it as a racial joke, and yet I haven’t really said anything different. When I first told the joke, with an “unmarked” man walking in, I think most readers would have assumed without even noting it that “man” meant a white man. By its omission, whiteness gets naturalized, normalized and universalized. But when I spelled out the specifics as a “white man” we probably assumed the counterpoint, that the Other, a black person, would at some point enter the narrative; otherwise, I wouldn’t have noted the race of the first man entering. So the specter of blackness is invoked by its absence.

Jeanne Dunning, "The Blob 1," 1999. IIfochrome mounted to Plexiglas and frame, 52 x 37 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Feigen Contemporary, New York.

Jeanne Dunning, The Blob 1, 1999. IIfochrome mounted to Plexiglas and frame, 52 x 37 1/4 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Feigen Contemporary, New York.

Jeanne Dunning, "Untitled Hole," 1992. Cibachrome mounted to Plexiglas and frame, 39 1/2 x 38 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Feigen Contemporary, New York.

Jeanne Dunning, Untitled Hole, 1992. Cibachrome mounted to Plexiglas and frame, 39 1/2 x 38 inches. Courtesy of the Berkeley Art Museum and Feigen Contemporary, New York.

In Dunning’s work these kinds of incantations—invocations of the absent but spectrally present Other—are coupled with the failure to deliver a punch-line, or omission of a punch-line as if redundant. Combined with her typical mode of production (the repetition of images as a series), they lead us to the joke that ultimately matters—the skeptical joke, the joke that undermines the knowledge that we think we have.

In her Blob series (1999), pink balloon-like sacs flop around the midriffs of different women. Oblivious or resigned, the female subjects look directly at the camera; in other images their heads are cut off by the picture frames. In another one, a woman in bed snuggles up to her sac, her eyes closed as if in pleasure. The sacs are not fully readable––are they the disastrous results of liposuction? An undifferentiated sex doll, without the frightful attempt at replicating recognizable body parts and features? The female body that hasn’t successfully individuated? An embodiment of the psychic burden carried by women? The impossible weight of achieving a “perfect” body? Is the sac an eruption, a tumor, an appendage, an accessory, a prosthesis? Is it from within or without?

While some viewers may delight in this ambiguity, my initial reading is that there is a lack of conviction—or perhaps commitment to a singular answer or punch-line—on Dunning’s part. And I am further deterred by the overwhelming “pinknicity” of Dunning’s production, an unremarked elision of whiteness’s Others. For me, it invokes Bhabha’s remarks on the unraveling of the “phobic myth of the undifferentiated whole white body,” whereby the compulsive restaging of the white body as complete can only be performed through the dismemberment of the black body into “signs of bestiality, genitalia, grotesquerie.”14 Though Dunning dismembers the female body into similar signs of the bestial, genital and grotesque, she does so as counterpoint to the myth of the undifferentiated masculine body. Whiteness is left phobicly intact—- and fully embodied, again eliding its spectral Others—as suggested earlier by my retelling of the Aristocrat joke.

One of the few pieces in Dunning’s oeuvre that begins to dismember white femininity more specifically through its relationship to blackness is from the Untitled Hole series, (1992). Here, Dunning presents extreme close ups of what could be read as genital orifices but which are quickly revealed as plums. They call to mind Georges Bataille’s repeated description of Simone’s cunt in The Story of the Eye as “pink and dark.” The description is first encountered early in the book, but the tension between pale flesh and darkness—and the erotically-charged transmission between the two as manifested by, for example, blushing—is maintained throughout, culminating in the fantasy escape of the closing line, “…And we [the trio of pale Europeans] set sail towards new adventures with a crew of Negroes.”15 In Bataille as well as Dunning, the integrity of the pink (white) surface is dependent upon and maintained by its hidden depths of blackness. Pink and dark.16

When looking at much of Dunning’s work, even Untitled Hole, I find myself curiously uninvolved, left untouched by its tentativeness; I find myself irritated by her inability or refusal to tell the joke to completion, to push me to my melting point. Later, my head vibrates with possibilities and questions, by the invocation of the lacks suggested by the work, by the lacks within the work, or by the likelihood that I’m just not getting it (despite my suspicion that there is nothing to get). It’s an anomaly that much as I’m unmoved by the work itself, I can’t help following where its possibilities and questions may lead me.

To Dunning’s credit, she never makes any claim to transcendence, to take viewers beyond their experience. What lends her work its ability to pull the viewer’s interest back is its focus on truncated immanence, of perpetually coming into being despite the impossibility of doing so.

That ambivalence, pulled forward and simultaneously held back, attracted and repelled, caught in the stasis of bewilderment, is mired within the boringly mundane—a similar territory mined by Magritte, though in his case it was directed towards the predicament of the bourgeois “everyman.” It is within this ambivalence about knowledge of the supposedly normal, and of having to function within “polite” society, that the skeptical joke and Dunning’s own skepticism most successfully operate. The ordinariness of the work coupled with its exposing of Dunning’s ambivalence—her productive autism—is what I, perversely, find funny. Not funny, ha ha, but definitely funny, peculiar.

Allan deSouza is an artist based in Los Angeles, and is an assistant professor at the San Francisco Art Institute.



  1. Adapted from a paper, ‘It’s Not Punny if You Have to Explain It: Act II,’ presented at the panel Jeanne Dunning: The Unexpected Effect, on March 19, 2006, during the exhibition, Jeanne Dunning: Study After Untitled, curated by Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, at the Berkeley Art Museum (January 25, 2006–April 2, 2006). “Act I” of the paper, about the joke in relation to Will **** for Peace, my collaborative performance with Yong Soon Min, was presented three days before at Re-Do It, a symposium on restaging performance organized by Faith Wilding at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago on March 16, 2006.
  2. Jeanne Dunning, “Thoughts for Study After Untitled,” in Jeanne Dunning: Study after Untitled, exhibition catalogue (Berkeley: Berkeley Art Museum, 2005), p. 76.
  3. LHOOQ sounds phonetically like “Elle a chaud au cul,” translated as “She is hot in the ass.”
  4. See Homa Bhabha, Location of Culture (London and New York: Routledge, 1994).
  5. Russell Ferguson, “Skin and Surface,” Jeanne Dunning: Study after Untitled, p. 84.
  6. Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981), p. 26. My emphasis.
  7. Ibid.
  8. Ibid., p.27.
  9. Bhabha, “Introduction,” pp. 2-3.
  10. Ibid.
  11. This is a familiar reading of the work of artists of color such as Simpson and Huerta, but I wish to counter the supposed universalism of artists like Magritte and Richter, and suggest that interpretation of their work be made through their ethnic and national affiliations as well.
  12. This point begs for further analysis of the play between the masculine and the feminine within the work of Magritte, and his use of color, especially between pinks and “flesh” tones, and grays and blacks (his “pinks and darks”—see my notes below about Bataille). Further comparison between Magritte and Dunning can be made through melancholia and the loss of the feminine. Magritte’s mother committed suicide when he was fourteen years old, a traumatic event that features in and colors much of his earlier work. However, the required lengthy analysis exceeds the scope of this essay.
  13. Director, Paul Provenza, 2005.
  14. Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man,” p. 92.
  15. Georges Bataille, The Story of the Eye (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1987), p. 85.
  16. The freedoms of the white trio are enabled by both the regulated labor of the blacks as well as by their “unregulated” bodies. See, for example, Bataille’s comparison between the intensity of Simone’s orgasms with the laughter of Africans: “In fact, though the savages may sometimes laugh as moderately as whites, they also have long-lasting jags, with all parts of the body in violent release, and they go whirling willy-nilly, flailing their arms about wildly, shaking their bellies, necks, and chests, and chortling and gulping horribly.” Bataille, pp. 54-55.
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