"Food for Thought" is a cavalcade of the Art Guys' previous food-centric works, and, frankly, it stinks. The show celebrates the Art League Houston's recognition of the Art Guys -- crackpot conceptual artists Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing -- as its Texas Artists of the Year. And since many of the works are made of real food well, things are getting pretty rank right about now.
Art League Houston director Debbie McNulty observes that, as stinky as the Art Guys' work has become, "it doesn't smell as bad as the Jell-O." The Jell-O was part of an Art League show in the mid-'90s, in which an artist attempted to create a giant reflecting pool of Jell-O. The whole thing grew a scummy coat of mold and started to rot almost immediately. (To be honest, it was kind of my fault. I was the curator for the group show, the one who said, "Reflecting pool of Jell-O? That could be cool." I was conveniently out of the country when it opened, but according to frantic e-mails I received and the memory of those who attended, the whole place smelled "like dead horses.")
Not many art shows trigger the gag reflex. "Food for Thought" is in the running. I guess the Art League is just lucky. The ripest piece in the show right now is Drink Sculpture (1992), a display of cocktails. A bartender mixed them at the opening, and I remember being tempted by them that night. But now the frothy beer is stale and evaporating; the piña colada is in bad shape; ditto the screwdriver and the white Russian. But the prize for "Most Changed" goes to the wine. It's now a thick burgundy-red on the bottom, with a dense, crenulated layer of gray-green mold. It's interesting how what starts out as a cheeky one-liner becomes more complex -- and revolting -- with the passage of time.
The artists' quirky conceptualism extends to a Carl Andre spoof. Andre, known for his floor pieces, is one of minimalism's poster boys. In their Cheese Grid (1993), instead of Andre's squares in copper, lead or zinc, the Art Guys have carefully laid out 625 squares of "Fiesta American Pasteurized Process Cheese Food." It's the minimalist grid rendered in off-brand Velveeta. The squares are cracking in places like mud in a drought, and oil is starting to separate out and bead on their surfaces. But other than that, they remain unchanged. Apparently they're so dense with preservatives, mold simply isn't an option.
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These squares of individually wrapped, plasticky cheese are a quintessentially American development -- an ancient foodstuff made from curdled milk, transformed into highly processed single-serving convenience in regular geometric shapes. They look like perfect building components.
For another work that draws on the wonders of processed-food uniformity, Pringle Flowers (first created in 1994), the Art Guys took those stackable molded potato crisps and used them as construction elements. They made tiny flowerlike sculptures out of them and hung them on the wall. Since then they've been, according to McNulty, "de-installing themselves." Houston's humidity is slowly disintegrating them. Casualties can be viewed scattered on the floor. While the little Pringles sculptures explored various configurations, it would have been interesting to see one giant Pringles construction.
But the Art Guys don't limit themselves to processed food. Their Carrot Wheel (first constructed in 1993) started out with beautiful plump carrots from Central Market. They pinned the carrots to the wall in a radiating circle of lush orange. Weeks later, the carrots have desiccated into wizened brown shadows of their former selves.
101 of the World's Greatest Ideas for Food, Wine and the Art: From 101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals (2001) is a series of drawings in which the Art Guys recap these and other ideas. Among them, idea No. 12, a bologna circle, was thankfully not executed here. Other brainstorms include "a hill of beans" and razor blades in an apple. They even include a recipe for "Bachelor's Delight," a dining experience/performance piece that involves Ranch Style beans, beer and television and ends with "Go out and try to pick up some girls (any size or shape)."
"Food for Thought" showcases some clever pieces, but it isn't a show of the Art Guys' greatest hits. Still, it reminds you of their "what the hell" sense of exploration and experimentation, as well as their pop-cultural perceptiveness. It's also nice just to see some work from them; they haven't had a solo show in Houston since 2001. Of late, the Art Guys have been embroiled in the challenging realm of public art, with epic projects for George Bush Intercontinental Airport and now the Phoenix Sky Harbor Airport. They've been making permanent, "grown-up" pieces like Intercontinental's Travel Light, which features 360 luminous fiberglass suitcases.
According to Massing, "We have always felt that we worked in the public realm." So when the invitation to apply for a public art project came along, they went for it. But the process of making public art is different from the way most other artists make work. Massing says, "In public art, you come up with a concept and nail it down and then you spend three or four years going through the wickets and getting it realized But the budget in public art is interesting and enticing. It's nice to dream big and make a bigger thing."
Still, Massing also notes, "It's more like making art as a business. Public art takes the fun out of creativity because there's so much bureaucracy." Gluing potato chips, unwrapping cheese slices and nailing carrots to the wall are a refreshing change of artistic pace.
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