Philly’s Fabric Workshop hosts Jayson Musson’s art history ‘sitcom’

Janice K. Johnson


The show is both informed by and critical of art history. The first episode is a cautionary tale of leveraging artistic iconography to establish religious and political power. The second episode brings to life the prehistoric figurine, “Venus of Willendorf,” likely representing a fertility goddess carved from limestone in about 27,500 BCE.

A costume used by the character Willa in Jayson Musson’s art history videos, recreates a massive version of the pocket-sized Venus of Willendorf, a 30,000-year-old stone carving. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

“What I would love for our visitors to walk away with is to understand how art history is history,” said Fabric Workshop and Museum executive director Christina Vassallo. “It is the visual reflection of what’s actually happening in the world at that time. Ollie the character understands that his obsession with online notoriety and popularity really has art-historical precedent to it.”

The show has the clunkiness of a television sitcom. The lines sometimes ring hollow, and an inserted laugh track jolts the senses. This is intentional.

“The laugh track is there to annoy smart, art-loving people,” said Musson. “They’re so smart they don’t want to be told when to laugh. It’s something that I really enjoy, but I know that certain people with certain dispositions will be like, ‘Oh, philistine.’ Screw them.”

Jayson Musson leans against his ”Pieta” chair on the stage set for his satirical art history videos. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

Musson has a history of performance in his art practice. He was in the hip hop group Plastic Little (“Technically I’m still in the band, it still exists although we haven’t played a show in years.”) and became well known in 2010 for “ART THOUGHTZ,” a series of talking head YouTube videos wherein he played a character named Hennessey Youngman critiquing the art world.

Musson said he had given up performance after ART THOUGHTZ, preferring instead to make work without putting himself at the center of attention. He briefly relocated to New York, then returned to Philadelphia a few years ago. In 2014 one of his abstract paintings was acquired by the Philadelphia Museum of Art: “Trying to find our spot off in that light, light off in that spot.”

As “His History” evolved over the course of the artist residency, he was drawn back into playing a character. What he said had started out as a nascent concept to revisit Hennessy Youngman “with a budget,” ultimately evolved into a different character, a different concept, and a fully realized visual world.

”Jayson Musson: His History of Art” at the Fabric Workshop and Museum explores the creative process behind the creation of Musson’s satirical art history videos. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

One of the founding programs of the Fabric Workshop and Museum is its artist residency, where an artist is invited to experiment with the organization’s fabrication equipment and staff expertise to conceive and create something new.

The residency is meant to encourage artists to take risks and evolve their work in an unexpected direction. Vassallo calls it the “FWM moment.”

“We know that when artists experiment and collaborate with us, they’re going to walk away looking at their work in a fresh light with a new perspective,” she said. “We like to track how that new perspective develops over time. That’s the FWM moment: Where are the experiments that they did with us showing up later in their career?”

A lounging bison poses for a caveman artist in Jayson Musson’s satirical art history series. The videos, along with the costumes, puppets and props used to make them, are on exhibit at the Fabric Workshop and Museum. (Emma Lee/WHYY)

The three episodes of “His History” are the main part of the Fabric Workshop exhibition, which also has on display the shooting set. An animatronic Ollie puppet is seated on a ratty couch, activated by “smart” sensory triggers that can detect the number of visitors in the room and their movement. He is programmed to turn his head to watch people walk past, occasionally offering snarky comments.

Behind the set is another gallery showing the process by which the Fabric Workshop fabricated the various items in the show.

“Jayson Musson: His History of Art” will be on view at the Fabric Workshop and Museum until November 13.



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