Jayson Musson: ‘His History of Art’

Musson, an alumnus of the Master of Fine Arts program in the Stuart Weitzman School of Design, will speak at the Annenberg Center about his artistic practice and current exhibition ‘His History of Art.’

Jayson Musson with frizzy muppet
Jayson Musson. (Image: Carlos Avendaño)

Jayson Musson, a Fabric Workshop Museum (FWM) artist-in-residence, is a multidisciplinary artist who works with—among other forms—video, painting, music, and sculpture.

Born in the Bronx, New York, in 1977, he studied photography at University of the Arts in Philadelphia and graduated from the Stuart Weitzman School of Design with an MFA in 2011. His work has been recognized internationally and was included in group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Lisson Gallery, and Postmasters Gallery, all based in New York; Whitechapel Gallery, in London; Galerie Perrotin, in Paris; and Grimmuseum, in Berlin.

His current exhibition, “His History of Art,” is the culmination of his residency at FWM and will be on display through Nov. 13. Penn, meanwhile, celebrates the installation of Musson’s sculpture, Sculptural Allegory for a Specific Cultural Sphere, in the lobby of the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts. The sculpture, crafted in 2014, is a donation from Musson as the newest addition to the University Public Art Collection.

Ahead of a talk Musson will deliver inside the Annenberg Center’s Arts Lounge on Friday, Oct. 21, he discusses the whimsical sculpture, his new exhibit, and his taste for comedy and satire.

Amorphous whimsical character as a statue
A sculpture donated to the University by Jayson Musson. The sculpture lives as a permanent installation in the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts.

What was your inspiration for the sculpture?

The sculpture comes from the work of late cartoonist Ernie Bushmiller, creator of ‘Nancy.’ Ernie wasn’t the biggest fan of modern art, and he made several jabs at art in the ‘Nancy’ comic strip. His pejorative interpretation of art had fascinated me for a long time, and I wanted to see if these insults around art could function as art. This ‘test’ manifested as an art exhibition I had which was aptly titled ‘An Exhibit of Abstract Art.’

The sculpture seems to draw strong reactions—people either adore its whimsy or it’s just not their cup of tea. Was that the intent? What are the reactions you’ve heard in response to it?

Oh yeah, the sculpture is pretty ridiculous; even when Nancy encounters it in the 1970 comic strip it appears in, she immediately hates it. But I think a wide gamut of responses to the piece are great. No one should trust art that is universally loved. It’s a trap. I’m pretty distrustful of something that aims to please me; I think it’s a trap or it’s secretly asking something of me in return and wants to lull me into accepting some devil’s deal.

What is the inspiration or concept behind the Fabric Workshop exhibition, ‘His History of Art’?

‘His History of Art’ has its origin as an extension of an old performance project on YouTube called ART THOUGHTZ with Hennessy Youngman. It was supposed to be a comical art history survey as the character Hennessy Youngman for PBS Digital back in about 2012 or so. But life got in the way, so I tucked the idea away not really thinking I’d revisit it.

Can you explain the exhibition’s idea that popular art historical images impact our cultural consciousness?

In one of the videos, my character ‘Jay’ wants to show Ollie how art can be used to bolster state or personal power using symbolic images that denote divine favor, physical dominance. These images usually tap into a shared cultural language of images that have value within a nation in which it’s employed. Whether it’s Akkadian ruler Naram-Sin standing over the bodies of his defeated enemies while basking in the starlight of his gods, or Donald Trump clutching the Bible for cameras after he had protesters violently ejected from Lafayette Park, it’s the same long game of power being played.

You’ve said: ‘My critiques are heavily couched in humor. And to a similar degree, so is my formalism’—how is humor defined for you? What sparked your interest in exploring humor and how has it shaped your art today?

What a big question. A simple answer would be, ‘Humor is something that makes me laugh.’ I just always gravitated toward comedy, I guess, like growing up watching stand-up films: Eddie Murphy’s ‘Raw,’ Damon Wayan’s ‘Last Stand,’ Eddie Murphy on ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘In Living Color,’ ‘Kids in the Hall,’ ‘Mr. Show,’ I just always enjoyed comedy. I used to spend a lot of long nights as a teenager drawing and writing comic books when I should have been sleeping, so during those sessions David Letterman, Arsenio Hall, and Conan O’Brien always kept me company.

What is the biggest issue in the contemporary art world that should be understood and addressed?

Gotta be honest, I don’t really care about the contemporary art world or pay attention to its goings-on. That question is better suited to a professional-type person enmeshed in that world, like a curator. I’m a bum [who] sometimes visits that plane of existence, but often can’t stay long due to nausea.

Who should be visiting the exhibition?

Anyone and everyone.

Any preview of what people can expect from your talk at the Annenberg Center?

I’m going to be running down the art I’ve made from 2000 to the present, from when I graduated from undergrad at University of the Arts until now. Maybe seeing it all out in front of me will help me make sense of what I’ve done with the last 20 years of my life. It should be a joyful romp for the whole family.