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Wink Wink

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

At the opposite end of the room is the "Appropriations" series: 13 glass-encased objects stolen from people in the local art world. Each bears a small brass plaque identifying the individual robbed, in addition to the time and date the object was pilfered. Stolen items include a ceramic ashtray from artists Carter Ernst and Paul Kittleson, a Michael Tracy sculpture from art dealer Barry Whistler, a Chicago Cubs coffee mug from MFA director Peter Marzio, a toy metal lion from art collector Marilyn Oshman, a tiny violin from Menil curator Walter Hopps and artist Caroline Huber, and an old hole punch from artist Nestor Topchy. A darkened side gallery is composed of suitcases cut out and illuminated with the phrase, "The Lights Are On But Nobody's Home." There's also a suitcase emitting a soft, fuzzy pink light from a "Carolyn Farb" signature stenciled on the side. Three additional suitcases have "Ha" cut out of the front and project three variations of the "happy face" on the wall. Accompanying this display are syrupy New Age recordings that quickly put you in a zombie-like meditative state.

Where to begin making sense of all this? There is no set, unequivocal meaning to any of these pieces, though such art croons in antic undertones that can seduce viewers into sharing the smitten artists' self-contemplation. It's cute all right, to the point that it hooks viewers and makes their complicity the show's main source of pleasure.

The show's a no-brainer (as the suitcases quite literally spell out), but it's also a morally offensive and infantile display of the haves and have-nots, those who power the inner circle of the art world and those who are left out. Do these "bad boys" have food in such abundance that they can play with it, hanging their food sculptures alongside signs from the homeless? Did they make the signs, pay for them, steal them? If someone purchases a sign for the $900 asking price, is a percentage then returned to the homeless?

As for the "Appropriations," the Art Guys seem to be pushing the art rules (and legal limits) over the top. Were the "appropriations" a shock to the people the Art Guys robbed? Or is it even stranger for a viewer to buy these pieces, obtaining a sort of double legitimacy of owning a Michael Tracy sculpture that now happens to be an Art Guys piece? After all, you're not really paying for that object, you're buying into that aura, the magic of an art world name. Never mind that the greater populace isn't privy to such information, or even gives a fig. The "Appropriations" series, of course, has its roots in Hopps' notorious prank of 1988, in which he and a young artist heisted a Julian Schnabel painting from the Blaffer Gallery right under the nose of security. So is it cute, even funny (wink, wink), for the Art Guys to steal from Hopps and Huber? Scarier still is the notion of name-dropping and inner-circle publicity. Will some viewers hope the Art Guys steal something from their house, thus giving them the desired art world credibility? As the Art Guys show us, it's a world in which everybody uses everybody -- a world, by the way, that often seems hollow to the core.

If the Art Guys' "Good and Plenty" largely markets a name, then the flip side to that ethos can be found at West-End Gallery's "Anonymous" show. "Anonymous" focuses on the marketing of an image, not to mention the sheer joy of making art. The gallery asked artists to submit work in either a 16-inch or 8-inch square format. Moreover, artists who work within a recognizable genre were encouraged to try out a new style or medium.

The "Anonymous" show, of course, aims for the viewer to respond to the work, not to the name of the artist. All in all, some 114 pieces by 63 artists have been gathered together; they range from juicy, visceral abstractions and traditional landscapes to playful assemblages and dreamy photographs. For many viewers, it's become a game, trying to figure out who's who. But the "Anonymous" show functions as an exercise in acceptance, a liberating kind of group therapy that allows one to respond to individual examples without the baggage usually attached to an artist's personality or image recognition.

Inasmuch as works by well-known Houston artists are hung alongside those of lesser-knowns, the show offers a leveling experience that gives viewers permission to rely on their own tastes. That means that viewers won't feel like idiots for not paying attention to the "right" names, but are made to acknowledge the often uncanny rela-

ionships among disparate works. One wonders, too, how the premise affected the artists. Did they feel liberated or inhibited by the task of taking on a different style? Will the experience help encourage them to work in new ways?

In any case, the "Anonymous" show enables artists to wear their emotions on their sleeves without damaging precious egos. It's an old-fashioned, unpretentious grouping, a crowd of strangers in which one voice never rises above another. And like a crowd of strangers, the more time you spend with them, the more personalities begin to emerge. For all its evenhandedness and interactive experiences, the show also manages to explore common sensibilities and concerns. Ultimately, one cares less about who did what than about the provocative emotional tones projected by the works. How do we see ourselves? How do other people see us? How do we think people see us? And how do we want people to see us?

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