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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.

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?

Such questions are both disrupted and disclosed by this show, which is also about physically and psychologically locating

neself in the world. One artist taped a poem about anonymity to the gallery door. There are soothing still-life renditions as well as meditative paintings of clouds and decidedly edgy abstractions of creeping vines. There's a group of drawings titled Nervous Energy: crackling fields that alternately congeal and transmit feelings of chaos, confusion and anxiety. Apprehensions regarding the fragmented self are conveyed by images of dismembered feet floating in a sea of eyes. In another piece, hands are cut off at the wrists, even as the fingers busy themselves with a game of cat's cradle. Two cartoony drawings juxtapose an incomplete man (Freud) and a complete woman blowing a bubble pipe (Gertrude Stein). The assemblage 3-D Doodles, featuring wrappers, straws and twist ties shaped as tiny figures, is a microcosm of psychological states.

Not surprisingly, there are a number of portraits with images either defaced or veiled, toeing the line between existence in limbo and the fear of revealing oneself. In the tiny black-and-white photo You're Just a Wave, a figure is cast adrift in the ocean, a part of the inevitable life process. There are works about relationships (Hare Affair, Love at First Sight), suburban living conditions (Manifest Destiny: Sky's the Limit) and spirituality (My Best Friend is Jesus, Ojos de Dios), as well as feelings both resolved and unresolved (Shadows 1-111, Dream 8/2/89 and 9/12/89, Their Small Voices). What emerges is a cohesive group of individuals perhaps unconsciously mapping themselves in the world. Significantly, the "Anonymous" show is the kind of worthwhile endeavor so obvious that no one was astute enough to think of it, until now.

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