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Wink Wink

The Art Guys' cute mockery -- and at the other extreme, West End's completely "Anonymous" show

"Did you hear what the Art Guys did?"
That line has been a sporadic refrain for almost a decade in the Houston art world, prefacing yet another lavish account of some witty perversion that served as a sort of civic-minded jump-start for stalled sensibilities. The rumors are nearly always accurate. Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, better known as the Art Guys (a.k.a. Aaart Guise or Art Guize), plan their performances, installations and sculptures -- which include large arches constructed from old suitcases, towers fabricated out of beer bottles, and simple geometric assemblages fashioned from over-the-counter drugs -- to be succinctly describable.

The Art Guys will not go away. And official squeamishness about the team has only fueled a cult status that erupts now and then in a fresh influence on disaffected young artists and naive viewers. In response to the late 20th-century state of the artistic vocation, the two create a portrait of the artist as a kind of itinerant institutional dysfunctionary -- that is, showing what happens when the avant-garde imperative turns malignant and eats away at the fundamental compact between art and its audience. What happens, as the Art Guys relay with verbal cleverness and graphic flair, is that art, one of the most sophisticated precincts of culture, becomes a primitively scandalized small town, brought together by gossip that touches its deepest sources of identity and fear.

So whom is the joke on? Are the Art Guys playing the fools for their audience or playing their audience for the fool? This is the sticky part: the way the Art Guys feed off, and exacerbate, our culture's hysterical telescoping of all values into the seductiveness of things for sale, symptomized by a psychotic art market. As a willful manipulation of states of mind, their treacly subject matter (much of which would insult the intelligence of a teenager) embraces emotions so hapless as to seemingly obviate "art" altogether.

In "Good and Plenty," the Art Guys' current show at the just-opened Lesikar Gallery, you may feel your individuality being degraded and dismissed, your consciousness at once hypercharged and trivialized. But what you wonÕt feel is the pressure of individual minds or the existence of any heart or soul. Cozily appealing as well as innocuous, the show evokes a stultifying "dumbing down" of Middle American normalcy. But like much contemporary art, it also harbors caustic formal intent, elevating humble materials and hobbies to the aesthetic realm while taking passing swipes at the hypocrisy of both high art and high morals, the restless and the mistreated.

Like many postmodern artists who adopt a skeptical stance toward tradition and accepted ways of doing business, the Art Guys seemingly bite the hand that feeds them -- and continue to be rewarded for doing so. This may appear odd to the conventional viewer, but in fact, no group loves to see its institutions ridiculed more than the art crowd. Irreverence is a staple of its world.

Like many artists before them -- Jeff Koons, Bruce Nauman, Ed Ruscha, Chris Burden, Marcel Broodthaers, Claes Oldenburg and others -- the Art Guys question the meaning, function and value of art by filling austere self-referring forms of conceptual art with narcissistic quirks and obsessions. Just as Marcel Duchamp's irreverence acted as a buffer against what he saw as the insidious, increasing commercialization of art, the Art Guys attempt to use humor and cynicism as weapons against the pretentiousness that pervades large parts of the art establishment.

But the duo's sarcasm doesn't express a potentially dynamic pissed-offness with our culture as much as a morbid fascination with the interplay of victim and victimizer. "Good and Plenty" aims to manipulate and seduce viewers through banality, debasement and emptiness. After all, when people are depressed, the imperative to ingratiate may be only good manners. The duo pokes at a social sore spot, at the way rich people indulge in art to feel better about themselves. If in doubt, be cute, be fun. At such moments, the Art Guys seem to say, the notions of all human enterprises melt into one crazy happiness. In times of fear and frustration, however, fun may be no joke.

Basically, "Good and Plenty" is divided into four sections. The first is an installation in which Pringle Flowers -- delicate wall sculptures of potato chips -- and a ring of fresh carrots are interspersed with cardboard and glass signs with the message "Hungry. Will Work for Food. God Bless You." Next, lining the side walls of the gallery are the more marketable products -- technical drawings from the series "101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals"; the "Buffalo Bayou Proposal," which aims to remove the meander from the bayou by literally cutting up and straightening a map; a study for a ceiling fan installation; and a "toothbrush wheel."

Directly across from these detailed proposals is a group of simple drawings in which words are subjected to sophomoric puns, conjoined images and material transubstantiations. The Art Guys cut up dollar bills into a U.S. map. Or similarly, they glue dead ants and bees on paper to form "Aunt Bea," paper insects to make "Fake," and, yes, spell out "Fly Paper" with dead flies.

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