Why so serious

New York-based Bulgarian artist Houben Tcherkelov opens solo exhibition in Gabrovo

Why So Serious is the title of a solo exhibition by New York-based Bulgarian artist Houben Tcherkelov opening doors to visitors of the House of Humor and Satire museum in Gabrovo, Bulgaria. In addition to new works, Tcherkelov, who is best known for his paintings of people depicted on banknotes and coins, is showing sculptures created between 2002 and 2019 with this latest display.

The title for the exhibition was inspired by a line used in a scene from The Dark Knight installment of the Batman franchise, in which the Joker reflects on a painful childhood memory. “Why so serious?” his father asks during a family argument as he puts a kitchen knife to his kid son’s mouth and runs the blade to leave a permanent smile there. The Joker is obsessed with money but also has a cavalier attitude towards it. During a carnival parade through the streets of Gotham City, he throws into the crowd piles of fake one-dollar bills with his face on them.        

Houben Tcherkelov is also fascinated with money. He has been appropriating images from banknotes and coins and turning them into a constant theme of his work since 2003. Society and power have been two threads running through his body of work, but it wasn’t until he moved to New York that he really started zeroing in on the most important aspects of these subjects. As the financial capital of the US, the city no longer produces goods. Which is why unlike the artists of the 1960s pop art movement, who focused primarily on the imagery of mundane mass-produced items, Tcherkelov works with what he is surrounded by – finances. In a sense, this is a typical case of an artist reacting to their environment.   

Tcherkelov’s choice of topic creates a closed cycle – banknotes and coins often feature imagery of original artworks like portraits, paintings, monuments and architecture. In turn, the money winds up on Tcherkelov’s canvases and other works on paper, where it is stripped of its face value as currency and once again given life as art. After all, not many people can name the historical figures depicted on even the most commonly used banknotes. Unfortunately, the men and women (mostly men) celebrated on the banknotes and coins do not necessarily end up enshrined in the public consciousness even though that is what governments intend by bestowing this honor upon them. 

Why So Serous presents four series of works that use money imagery as a starting point – one is dedicated to Benjamin Franklin, who was not only a politician but a humorist too (he wrote The Drinker's Dictionary); another is dedicated to Miguel de Cervantes and his character Don Quixote; the third one deals with the Mark Twain and his literary works; and the fourth one is about the mask of Darth Vader (the Star Wars villain who surprisingly appeared on a limited series of silver coins minted by New Zealand).  

Houben Tcherkelov was born in 1970. A recurrent theme in the early photos, films and installations of the artist, who currently lives and works in the New York, is the post-communist society. In his more recent work, Tcherkelov paints images from national currencies. His works have been featured at The Bronx Museum (New York), The Brogan Museum (Florida), the 54th Venice Biennial and various galleries in New York, Boston, Washington and Charlotte.

Tcherkelov’s exhibition in Gabrovo will remain open until 31 March 2021. Whereas many museums around the world have either been closed once again or are struggling with anti-pandemic measures and limited attendance, the House of Humor and Satire in Gabrovo, with its spacious halls, is safe to visit and has even gained popularity in a time when humor has become a survival strategy. It is no coincidence that since 1972 the museum’s motto has been The World Survives Because of Laughter.

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