Philly’s Fabric Workshop hosts Jason Musson’s art history “sitcom.”

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

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

“What I’d love for our visitors to walk away with is an understanding of how art history is history,” said Fabric Workshop and Museum Executive Director Christina Vassallo. “It’s a visual reflection of what’s actually happening in the world at the time. The character Ollie realizes that his obsession with online fame and popularity does have a precedent in art history.”

The show has the clunkiness of a TV sitcom. The lines sometimes ring hollow, and an interjected laugh track shakes the senses. This is intentional.

“Laughter is there to tease smart, art-loving people,” Musson said. “They’re so smart they don’t want to be told when to laugh. It’s something I really like, but I know some people with certain attitudes will say, “Oh, philistine.” Fuck them.”

Jason Musson leans back in his Pieta chair on the stage set for his satirical art history videos. (Emma Lee/WHY)

Musson has a history of performance in her artistic practice. He was in the hip-hop group Plastic Little (“Technically I’m still in the band, it’s still around, even though we haven’t played in years.”) and rose to prominence in 2010 with “ART THOUGHTZ,” a series of YouTube videos of the talking head, in which he plays a character named Hennessy Youngman criticizing the art world.

Musson said he gave up performing after ART THOUGHTZ, preferring instead to work out of the spotlight. He moved briefly 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 place in this light, light in this place.”

As His Story unfolded over the course of the artist’s residency, he was brought back to play a character. What he said started out as a nascent concept to revisit Hennessy Youngman “on a budget” eventually evolved into a different character, a different concept and a fully realized visual world.

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

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 production equipment and staff expertise to conceive and create something new.

The residency aims to encourage artists to take risks and develop their work in an unexpected direction. Vassallo calls it a “FWM moment.”

“We know that when artists experiment and collaborate with us, they will walk away seeing their work in a new light with a new perspective,” she said. “We like to track how this new perspective develops over time. This is the FWM moment: Where are the experiments that they did with us that show up later in their careers?’

A reclining bison poses for a caveman artist in Jason Musson’s satirical art history series. The videos, along with the costumes, puppets and props used to make them, are on display in the fabric workshop and museum. (Emma Lee/WHY)

The three episodes of “His Story” are the main part of the Fabric Workshop exhibition, which also includes the set. An animatronic Ollie doll sits on a rocking couch, activated by “smart” sensor triggers that can detect the number of visitors in the room and their movement. He is programmed to turn his head to watch people pass by, occasionally offering snide comments.

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

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

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