LONDON — The clown dozes peacefully on the gallery floor, his flabby gut exposed. He wears a shiny red nose and an exaggerated grin. Yet there’s nothing terribly cheery about him; he’s a vision of gloom.
The clown is a fiberglass sculpture from 2002 by Ugo Rondinone called “If There Were Anywhere But Desert. Friday,” and it will be a highlight of “Knock Knock: Humor in Contemporary Art” at the South London Gallery. The show, which opens on Saturday and runs through Nov. 18, celebrates the 127-year-old institution’s reopening after a major expansion.
Visitors might come expecting gags, pranks, and laugh-out-loud moments to share on social media. But “Knock Knock” is more likely to leave them scratching their heads. The humor is often oblique — conveyed through irony, paradox, double meaning, and opaque cultural references.
The two-part show is staged in the spacious main gallery and in a new multistory building across the street, a former Victorian fire station. Perched on the main gallery’s ceiling beams are a group of stuffed pigeons by Maurizio Cattelan. Other lighthearted displays include Lynn Hershman Leeson’s image of a woman with a clock in place of a torso, “Biological Clock 2,” from 1995, and Matthew Higgs’s “Portrait (Landscape),” from 2006, an all-red canvas bearing the inscription “NO OIL PAINTING” across the middle.
The humor in many other works in the exhibition is even more elusive. Barbara Kruger’s 1988 image “Untitled (We Don’t Need Another Hero)” shows a chubby man peeling a banana. A sculpture by Basim Magdy is a glass basketball hoop titled “Good Things Happen When You Least Expect Them,” from 2010.
“Everyone is going to come here and say, ‘But that’s not funny work, and this isn’t about humor’ — and I want people to do that,” said the artist Ryan Gander, who co-curated the exhibition. “For me, the best shows are the ones that, when you’re on the bus on the way home, you still think about, even if you didn’t like them.”
“If you curate an exhibition that makes people laugh, it’s just a theme of entertainment: This is not what exhibition-making’s purpose is,” added Mr. Gander, who also has a work in the show: a pair of large, animatronic eyes set in the wall that react to the viewer in a manner that’s both droll and spooky.
The South London Gallery’s director, Margot Heller, the show’s main curator, said that the expansion deserved to be celebrated with a range of works that was “open to the whole gamut of audiences.” At the same time, she added, “laughing out loud is not our gauge for success.”
The exhibition is “intended to be quite thought-provoking about what humor is, what makes us laugh and what doesn’t, and why,” she said. “Artists use humor as a device, as a mechanism to achieve something else, which isn’t about laughter. It’s about prompting people to think about other issues. That’s the defining characteristic running through most, if not all, of the work.”
One artist in the exhibition whose work has met with mirth (not all of it good) is Martin Creed. He won the 2001 Turner Prize after being nominated for a work that involved the lights in an empty gallery switching on and off every five seconds. It led one visitor to throw eggs at the wall and prompted the British tabloid newspaper The Sun to start a mock competition called the “Turnip Prize.”
Mr. Creed has also exhibited a crumpled piece of paper and presented videos of people vomiting and defecating. His stated aim is to make art that, like life itself, is “stupid,” or devoid of meaning or explanation. His “Knock Knock” contribution is a row of potted cactus plants and a wall painted with diagonal stripes.
Mr. Creed said in an interview that it was not his intention to be humorous. “The problem of laughter is, it’s gone in a second. If you’re living with your own work, you can’t laugh all the time: It’s a momentary thing,” he said. “If some of my work makes people laugh, that makes me happy. But to me, the worst possible thing is a person who thinks that they’re funny, or wants to be funny and isn’t. Basically, I don’t want to run that race, because I don’t want to lose the race.”
The focus of “Knock, Knock” is contemporary art, but humor has been present in art for centuries. Hieronymus Bosch crowded his paintings with farcical-looking creatures, and William Hogarth amused the viewer with his crude cautionary tales. It became a much more important subject in the 20th century, as the author Sheri Klein explains in her 2007 book “Art and Laughter.”
Ms. Klein argues that the artist most directly responsible for that was Marcel Duchamp, who famously submitted a porcelain urinal to a 1917 exhibition in New York. Two years later, he presented a painting of a mustachioed Mona Lisa labeled “L.H.O.O.Q.” (which means “she’s hot to trot,” in cruder language, in French).
Decades later, Pop Art provoked amusement by using banal everyday items as a subject, like Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans, Jeff Koons’s vacuum cleaners, and Claes Oldenburg’s giant sculpture of a hamburger.
Later in the 20th century, artists used nudity as a vehicle for humor. Paul McCarthy’s “Spaghetti Man” (1993) is the sculpture of a standing rabbit with an elongated penis that coils like a noodle on the floor below. Sarah Lucas’s “Two Fried Eggs and Kebab” (1992) evokes the female anatomy by laying those foods on a table. (Ms. Lucas is in the “Knock Knock” exhibition with a new work titled “Yves,” a sculpture of a female nude made of stuffed tights.)
Despite those examples, art and humor make awkward bedfellows, Ms. Klein said in an interview, and they are not often examined together as a subject.
“There is a stigma about laughter as a response to a work of art: If it arouses laughter, then it must not be serious,” she said. Humor is also “associated with low-class behavior. If an artist is evoking laughter, then it must mean that it’s a low-class piece of work,” she added.
Ms. Klein recalled that in the immediate postwar period, the United States had plenty of artists who made pun-filled, laughter-inducing art, such as the Chicago Imagists, a group of artists in the 1960s whose Surrealist-inspired work made use of word plays and puns. But today, “the culture at large is a more joyless culture,” she said. “We are in a time of great pessimism: Humor is not being used as a form of resistance anymore.”
Ms. Heller said the exhibition deliberately showcased “artists you haven’t heard of or seen, or who haven’t had exposure,” rather than rolling out the usual suspects. “It’s more of an essay, going through it: a little winding journey through diverse approaches.”
Knock Knock: Humor in Contemporary Art
Sept. 22 though Nov. 18 at the South London Gallery, London; southlondongallery.org.