Michael Gaughan goes 'Buck Turbo' at the Burnet Gallery

Michael Gaughan goes 'Buck Turbo' at the Burnet Gallery
Michael Gaughan

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Michael Gaughan has colossally high hopes for art education. He believes that art students learn open-mindedness and apply it to social situations, the workplace, and politics. "Hopefully it will, over time, eliminate racism; eliminate the idea that there's one way to do something," he says.

For his latest show, "Buck Turbo," Gaughan has two humble goals: that his comic observations will entertain people, and that after leaving the gallery viewers will apply a humorous lens to their own surroundings. Opening this Friday at the Burnet Gallery, the exhibition features over 20 watercolor paintings that translate his love of comedy from stage to canvas.
Gaughan studies comedy constantly. He reads comedian autobiographies and watches something funny on Netflix a few times a week. "I think about comedy more than I think about most other things," he says while hanging out in his south Minneapolis home studio/living room. Until now, he's relegated most of his public playfulness to performance art. "I feel like I'm just starting to figure out how to actually express myself through painting. I know how to paint, but I feel like with this show I'm finally being myself a little bit."

Michael Gaughan goes 'Buck Turbo' at the Burnet Gallery
Michael Gaughan, Federico da Montefeltro DEVO

In whatever form of comedy he's consuming, Gaughan breaks down the formula. He thinks about the set-up of a joke, the timing, and rhythm; of things like the juxtaposition of normal and unexpected, and of magnifying the mundane. But since he's not making multi-frame content like movies or comic books, he has to adapt. "With a watercolor painting, it's all on the same plane. There's the set up and the punchline in the same painting," he says. "People can be like, 'Wah-wah' -- like it doesn't have enough impact. So, I really had to work with that, and also not turn it all the way to an extreme of something pornographic or really over the top. I had to investigate different themes, and I enjoyed that challenge."

The result is smart and funny, an impressive collection of paintings that range from one-liners to meta monologues. Gaughan has created a place-specific show, poking fun at contemporary art and playing with art classics. He covers news and pop culture, depicts the controversial Rape aXe, and the Netflix loading screen. In a painting that riffs on Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase (1912), Gaughan gives us Tobias Fünke in layers of movement while descending the Bluth company airplane stairs. And if you've never heard of Duchamp or seen Arrested Development, at least the painting is beautiful.

Gaughan worries that some of the more academic references will make him appear pretentious. "I really don't want to come across too smart, like I think I'm so brilliant. That turns me off so much. I want things to be really playful and fun." Some paintings do offer more universally relatable material, like in Snake Trainer, which doesn't featur  a turban-wearing flute player but a fitness coach urging his client -- a snake -- on a treadmill.

Gaughan's energy -- ever-smiling, uplifting, and loving -- certainly pervades in person. As he puzzles out how to communicate that self through his paintings, he has at least picked an appropriate show title. "Buck Turbo" comes from his sometimes-rambunctious companion Toby, a dark grey-brindled Chihuahua who now sits calmly in his arms. He says one day Toby went beyond buck wild, and that energy is the inspiration behind the name. "It's about really going for it, living life as hard as you can, reaching, striving, and achieving your dreams. But in a really fun way -- not in a life or death way. Just like, 'Yeah! It's a great day! Let's go outside and go 'Buck Turbo!'"


"Buck Turbo"
Burnet Gallery at Chambers
901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis
Opening reception 6-9 p.m. Friday, July 13
Through September 9

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Burnet Gallery at Le Meridien Chambers Hotel

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