The Art Guys: Wild Life; Laguna Gloria, Austin, Texas
Few people in New York have actually seen the work of this Houston-based duo--although if you read this magazine closely you might have noticed their "ad" in Jade Dellinger's project in the last issue. They've been collaborating day in and day out for fifteen years, but they haven't been comprehensively exhibited in a city like New York or LA, or even Chicago. They remain just a rumor of sorts. I had heard of them before moving to Texas last year--these crazy guys in Houston (at the time I didn't even know how many) who do things like pinching knickknacks from the homes of museum curators and presenting them at their next show, vitrined and labeled with the names of those to whom the objects had once belonged. "Belonged" is the important word, because many of these pieces have been subsequently sold to other people, i.e. never returned. This series, called "Appropriations," takes its specific context to be the art community in Houston, but it also addresses larger and more prevalent questions about art by reversing the flow of ownership. Authorship is entangled as well--the Art Guys are the secret agents who carry the objects across the borderlines, though they have no part in making anything. But what is most interesting is the emotional shift that the series provokes: irritation on the part of the "victim" turns quickly into pride at being picked out and showcased, much like when the subject ambushed by Candid Camera realized that he or she was on national television. In the context of an art exhibition, these pieces allow the Art Guys to turn the public spotlight off of themselves. After spending some time with their work, what one soon finds out is that the Art Guys, whose names are Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth, are interested in having a piece like an "appropriation" function in all of these ways, and the enormous number of works they have made--something like 3,000--shows that they can't leave anything alone.
Their recent show at the Austin Museum of Art, known as Laguna Gloria, consisted of 48 works from the last three years packed into four rooms. A theme could be rapidly ascertained by the startling number of stuffed things--ducks, deer heads, fish--that actually fit well into this small museum which was once a mansion and still has original details, like sconces and a wrought-iron balcony opening from a stairway into the main gallery. On the simplest level the pieces, mostly sculptures and drawings, operate like Dadaist collages (as with Meret Oppenheim's fur-lined teacup, incompatible things are juxtaposed). A work called i was tampered with, 1995, appears to be merely a stuffed goat trophy, but moving close to it sets off an electronic car alarm that quite loudly blares a stock message: "I was tampered with . . . wheew, wheew . . . I was tampered with . . ." It reminded me of the laser beam sensors some museums are using to keep visitors a safe distance from precious paintings or sculptures (for example, I remember the Brancusi exhibit two summers ago at the Pompidou Center--not only for the sculptures, but also for the cacophony of high-pitched squeals that accompanied the experience). With i was tampered with, the irony and humor lies in the fact that you are looking at a stuffed goat trophy as if it were art. Because it is installed in a museum, it elicits a new kind of response--it's art, of course, and should be inspected closely and reverently. And with the title, the Art Guys not only repeat the car-alarm's message, but allow the goat to speak about becoming culture--this was once a natural being but is now packaged as nature for our consumption.
A drawing upstairs, called 101 of the world's greatest ideas for li'l duckies (and goosies), 1997, maps out a myriad of ways to alter a duck or goose trophy. One possibility is to make a duck or goose into a radio-controlled airplane; another is to cover a duck with duct tape; or, as long as they're covering, how about a gold-leafed duck, or a bronze one (is this a reference to Jasper Johns or Gary Simmons?). The drawing is an exercise in opening up possibilities, and includes good ideas along with bad ones. It also falls into a larger series of works, which by their titles pretend towards greatness as well as stability of categories; other examples are 101 of the world's greatest toothbrushes (more or less), 1990-95 and 101 of the world's greatest sculpture proposals, 1989-present. The question that these works beg is scope; the Art Guys seem to want to say everything, which leaves one wondering whether they mean anything. Their response to this is telling: that "quantity has a quality all its own."1
It might be worthwhile to mention here an even more recent piece, which ventures into a new and ephemeral territory: their decision to switch phone companies whenever solicited, a peculiar response to an annoyance we're all aware of. They were recently called by one sincere and confused company representative who asked whether their having switched away after only a few days meant they were unhappy with their service. The Art Guy who fielded the call, said that, no, they weren't particularly unhappy, and would switch back if that was what she wanted. The piece is an exploration into corporate logic, a decision to move with rather than resisting. Something about this piece might also help explain why a number of writers have identified "problems" with the Art Guys, and speculated about why, despite their ubiquity, they have yet to be taken seriously by the cognoscenti.2 For us who live and love art, they sound like a cracked bell, something's not quite right. We expect art to transgress by being cheap, or ugly, or mean, or shocking, to change something within us, either epistemological or ontological. But to the knowledgeable art viewer, their work is not shocking enough. It is just how conventional the Art Guys are that disturbs the codes we expect of so-called avant-garde activity. They're out here in Texas, after all--which often provokes a flinch unless you're talking about Marfa--so if they're going to make it in New York, they should have spent more time studying the "Avant-Garde Handbook."
I'd like to end with a proposition about the Art Guys that rereads a philosophical notion handed down to us from the Greeks. There is a story that Heidegger recounts about Heraclitus, which he uses to explain his interest in Phenomenology. When some admirers visited the great philosopher, they asked him to tell them what elevated things he was thinking about. Surprisingly, he pointed to the stove they were warming their hands at, and explained that it was worthy of philosophical speculation. I imagine that the Art Guys might say that those visitors, along with Heidegger and his heir Sartre, missed the joke: an entire vein of Western philosophers obligingly turned to study ordinary things and everyday occurrences with great sincerity, where surely Heraclitus was at least in part being impish. I say this about the Art Guys because one of their first works, called the art guys agree on painting, first performed in 1983, symbolizes a pact to parody the Existentialist strain in modern art, especially the work of Jackson Pollock. The Art Guys' work is, by many definitions, an action painting--red and green paint are spattered on the paper, clearly the result of some emphatic gesturing. The joke is that the gesture was a handshake--the piece entails each of the Art Guys dipping their right hand in one color of paint, and then reaching across a sheet of paper to shake hands. Like Heraclitus' visitors, it may be that we as spectators often fail to see that parody can coexist with sincerity.
1Quoted in Lynn M. Herbert, "Fools' Paradise," in exh. cat. The Art Guys: Think Twice, 1983-1995,
Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, April 8-June 25, 1995, p. 57.
2 See Dave Hickey's essay, "Laughter Takes the Bus" in The Art Guys: Think Twice, pp. 15-16.