Damián Ortega likes a joke. The Mexican artist’s ‘Apestraction’ exhibition is so filled with visual gags it practically winks through the museum’s glass cabinets. A one-time political cartoonist, Ortega is a relentless meddler, and humour is his go-to tool for taking objects and ideas apart.
Works like ‘Tired Pickaxe’ – a knackered-looking pickaxe with vertebrae-like notches in its snaking handle – may come across as visual one-liners, but they also charm with formal beauty. With its eyebrows raised, the ancient-looking mask ‘Mr Head/Caricature (Cartesian Portrait)’ could be taking the piss out of the way so many modernists – from surrealists to psychoanalysts – have managed to misunderstand ‘primitive’ cultures.
‘Apestraction’ came out of a field trip to the Gashaka-Gumti National Park in Nigeria with a group of UCL primatologists, but this backstory stays in the background, leaving the objects to work on their own terms. The largest, ‘Technical DNA’, is the closest the show gets to art/science cliché, with rows of chimp-chewed sticks threaded together to create a mobile that resembles a double helix.
Ortega is known for using humble materials, which here include bits of junk, fluff and concrete, and the most effective works are the most low-key. His installation in Freud’s living room, easily missed amid the psychoanalyst’s artefacts and his famous couch, simply consists of a few suspended sticks. Its title: ‘The Root of the Root’. There’s truth in jokes, as Freud – probably, maybe – once said.