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‘It’s as if Monet had a furry period’: John Oliver’s weird art exhibit opens at AVAM in Baltimore

Warning to the humor-impaired: An exhibit of “weird art” — OK, weirder art than usual — opened Wednesday for a three-week run at the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, courtesy of comedian and television host John Oliver.

Titled “Last Week Tonight’s Gallery for Cultural Enrichment,” the mini-exhibit of three artworks is touring five museums nationwide, including AVAM, where it will be on view through Nov. 21.

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The winning museums were culled from nearly 1,000 applicants, according to AVAM. The museum will receive a $10,000 grant. Oliver also is donating another $10,000 to the Maryland Food Bank.

“We’ve received a lot of amazing support since the start of the pandemic, but this was a special recognition we didn’t quite expect,” said Carmen Del Guercio, the Food Bank’s president and CEO, in an email. “We are grateful for the support this generous gift will provide, especially as levels of need statewide remain historically high and Marylanders continue to grapple with the pandemic going into the holiday season.”

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Chances are that Oliver’s collection will feel right at home at AVAM, which showcases pieces crafted by self-taught or “outsider” artists who operate at a distance from the mainstream.

“Last Week Tonight’s Gallery for Cultural Enrichment,” the mini-exhibit of three artworks sponsored by comedian and TV host John Oliver, is touring five museums nationwide, including AVAM, where it will be on view through Nov. 21. Credit: Eric Gerber for the AVAM
“Last Week Tonight’s Gallery for Cultural Enrichment,” the mini-exhibit of three artworks sponsored by comedian and TV host John Oliver, is touring five museums nationwide, including AVAM, where it will be on view through Nov. 21. Credit: Eric Gerber for the AVAM (Eric Gerber)

For instance, one of the visiting pieces created by an anonymous artist — “Wendy Williams Eating a Lamb Chop” (the title pretty much says it all) would fit right in with “Edgar Allan Peep,” a nearly life-size sculpture by the artist Christopher Twamley composed of 5,000 marshmallow PEEPS shaped like tombstones. Twamley’s eye candy was featured at AVAM in 2017 and 2018; the museum later donated the statue to the Enoch Pratt Free Library.

The second object in Oliver’s collection, “Ties” by the artist Judith Kudlow, recreates an assortment of neckwear owned by her millionaire spouse, Larry Kudlow, former director of the National Economic Council of the United States. (The couple was excoriated last year after Larry Kudlow told a reporter that his wife applied for a small business bailout loan under the federal CARES Act, and that the process “couldn’t have been easier.”)

“Ties” is cut from the same cloth as “BraBall,” the longtime AVAM mainstay created by the artist Emily Duffy from an 1,800-pound ball of hooked-together brassieres.

But what Oliver describes as the “piece de resistance” of his collection is a work of so-called “rat erotica” featuring Baltimore’s unofficial spirit animal.

“Stay Up Late” a watercolor by the York, Pennsylvania-based artist Brian Swords, depicts two rodents in a post-coital embrace. The rats are partially reclining on a bed. There are candles, and an ashtray filled with cigarette butts.

“Just look at the brush strokes,” Oliver marvels in a video accompanying the exhibit. “It’s as if Monet had a furry period.”

Oliver dreamed up the “weird art” competition last year to highlight the plight of museums and arts organizations during the COVID-19 pandemic. Many already were struggling to survive before the virus shuttered them overnight, drying up all revenue streams for most of a year; AVAM founder Rebecca Hoffberger estimates that the pandemic cost the museum $1.1 million, or more than a third of its average annual budget.

“We asked museums across the U.S. if they would be interested in hosting these masterpieces,” Oliver says in the video. “Many, for some reason, agreed.”

Institutions lobbied to host the exhibit through social media campaigns and online petitions. Hoffberger’s approach was typically creative: Along with her application, she photoshopped Oliver’s face into an iconic photograph of one of her cultural heroes, the comic writer Oscar Wilde.

“We are thrilled,” said Hoffberger, who plans to retire in early 2022.

“What I admire so much about Mr. Oliver is how he uses humor to take on the big ironies in the political and cultural landscape,” she said. “We were deeply moved that he recognized and cared that the COVID pandemic and its forced public closures had caused grievous losses to museums. Then he cooked up a highly visible and fun challenge to publicly underscore that need.”

The exhibit began its tour in September at the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, then visited Chicago’s Museum of Broadcast Communications. After leaving AVAM, it will stop off at the William V. Banks Broadcast Museum & Media Center in Detroit before winding up the tour in January at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco.

Hoffberger said she knew an exhibit this special needed an installation to match.

So in the AVAM gallery where the Oliver Collection is on view, black rubber rats scamper up the walls alongside the artworks.

There’s even a tongue-in-cheek “portrait” of Oliver created by Gage Branda, the museum’s curatorial and development coordinator. Branda painted the talk show host wearing the blue robes often associated with the Virgin Mary and gave him a large, luminous gold halo.

“John Oliver,” Hoffberger said, “is the patron saint of art.”

If you go

The American Visionary Art Museum, 800 Key Highway, is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays. Admission costs $15.95 for most adults, $13.95 for seniors aged 60 and older, $9.95 for students and members of the military, and is free for children aged 6 and younger. For details, call 410-244-1900 or visit avam.org.

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