Stupid Is As Stupid Does

The Art Guys: Think Twice looks darn good. Any way you slice it, the banal materials that fuel the duo's commentary on everyday life are often transformed into visually arresting objects of remarkable iconic power. Upon entering the Contemporary Arts Museum, where the first broad survey of their oeuvre -- 87 works of sculpture, drawing, photography, installation and video by the collaborative pair of Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing -- is now on display, one is immediately awed by a gargantuan "wheel" constructed from old Samsonite suitcases, as well as by dazzling "towers" and "spheres" fashioned from empty beer and imported water bottles.

There's an elegant series of sculptures created from number two pencils and lyrical drawings produced by the ephemeral traces of burnt fuse marks and smoke bombs. Evident throughout is an appreciation of craft, not to mention a commitment of time, labor and endurance. Take, for example, the World of Wood, a shelf filled with painstakingly whittled objects, including a hammer, book, knife and sandwich. Penny Column is a graceful line from the floor to the ceiling made of pennies. Then there's the notorious "Appropriations" series of objects surreptitiously stolen from art world luminaries between 1991 and 1994.

The Art Guys have performed product tests by dragging a suitcase from Houston to San Antonio. During one seven month period, the duo applied 1,000 coats of paint to 12 objects -- a teddy bear, a telephone and a baseball glove, among other things. They've sat around a Denny's for days at a time and peddled newspapers on freeway off ramps. In all of their performances, the Art Guys display a dogged determination to continue, no matter how inane the task they've set for themselves. Obsessed with the concept of quantity, the pair gathers materials that are economically cheap, things so ubiquitous that they've become invisible -- toothbrushes, food items (carrots, Pringles, Tang), birdhouses, cigarettes.

But if literalness is their favorite tool, silliness is their strategy. They shave off other people's whiskers or their own, attaching the hair to each other's faces. They fabricate a giant nose and rig it to sneeze; a reflecting pool set beneath safely catches the snot. At CAM, a gum machine located on the reception desk invites viewers to contribute their chewed wads to the Bubble Gum Chair, a work in progress. Two giant googly eyes installed on the front facade transform CAM into a fun house for those "wacky artists."

Without a doubt, their exhibition has been playing at CAM with the all-purpose glee of a carnival. The show presents the Art Guys on a scale that we've never seen before; it certainly displays their talent for taking art as near to the pleasure principle as it can be taken and still remain art. The Art Guys are culture-vultures who ransack both the avant-garde and trash for morsels of inspiration. But despite their penchant for boyhood juvenilia and slapstick humor, they aren't dumb artists. Show curator Lynn Herbert describes the pair as fools in the classic sense of the word. "Historically, fools were employed by a royal court or a household," she writes in the "Think Twice" catalog. "Their role was to provide their masters with humorous entertainment, which, more often than not, commented upon the politics and social mores of the day. The tradition lives on today; fools have simply been modernized to adapt to changing times."

Traditionally, fools have been highly opportunistic, and the Art Guys, following suit, are shameless self-promoters. Still, some viewers may feel as ambivalent about the whole affair as I do. My response, I'm sure, is partly sour grapes at seeing a cult enthusiasm become an official taste. The artist as hero is long gone from American culture, and the artist as social critic is ineffective. Even so, the Art Guys, with the examples of Dada and Fluxus behind them, plus a slackly debased culture all around, have identified themselves as exemplary figures of the idiot-loser class. What's more, they're very good at this particular sort of put-on, producing art so dumb that you can't guess whether its dumbness is genuine or feigned.

It's been 13 years since Galbreth and Massing first beguiled the Houston art community with their tongue-in-cheek performances. Although they met at an exhibition in 1982, their collaboration wasn't made official until a year later when they shook hands for "The Art Guys Agree on Painting." Galbreth and Massing each stuck their right hand into buckets of discarded paint and shook hands over a white canvas. Thus the Art Guys were born -- and they show no hint of fading away.

Certainly, the signs of a hype machine at full throttle were there from the outset. Critics have placed the pair in the context of Marcel Duchamp and Andy Warhol; they've also positioned them alongside William Wegman, Claes Oldenburg and Jeff Koons -- artists who've not only questioned the function and value of art, but have also filled austere, self-referring works with narcissistic quirks.

Surely, the Art Guys' tradition is one that includes the ephemeral and subversive qualities of performance art. Especially in its most extreme early 1970s manifestations, this phenomenon included the belief that any act or event, no matter how fleeting, could be classified as art. Some of these acts were seeringly memorable -- such as Chris Burden having himself shot in the arm. Others were absurdly mundane -- such as Vito Acconci following strangers through the street. Performance art often laid bare the personal forbearance and psychological stamina that is considered synonymous with the creative act -- albeit in purified or, at its worst, infantile form.

That infantile element shows up full force in "Think Twice." Whereas a few of the Art Guys' works are memorable, a lot of the videos documenting their performances are also, in plain English, quite stupid. Case in point: as I was watching Bucket Feet (the Art Guys traipse through downtown Houston wearing business suits and buckets in place of shoes), a woman standing behind me began laughing hysterically at the Art Guys' actions. She couldn't tell me, though, what she found so funny. But I discovered the answer anyway in an installation composed of suitcases cut out and illuminated with the phrase, "One Has No Idea What It Is But One Laughs At It."

Think twice? Not in this show. The Art Guys literally spell out the joke for us -- over and over, ad nauseam. This is meaningless, one-liner art, no matter what windy claims surround it. You don't need a guide to help you understand this work, as much of it evokes various grades of kitsch found in Toys R Us-stocked kids' rooms and knotty-pine paneled dens.

Even so, the Art Guys' compost-heap sensibilities are tinged with tragic cynicism. Are they the fools, or are we? Just who is the joke on? It's useless to ask, because it really doesn't matter. There's little doubt that we're all increasingly seduced by the culture of idiocy. In recent years, the mass-marketing of teenage sensibility has had a depressing effect by exalting a detachment so profound that it often crosses into stupidity. The popularity of Wayne's World, Beavis and Butt-head and Jim Carrey movies reflect a fascination for humanity's dimwitted. More than that, they suggest that the selling of new sensations and sexy images has become such a frenzied enterprise that everything has become exhausted.

To their credit, the Art Guys never let us forget that we seek out both the inspired and insipid varieties of stupidity. The pursuit of stupid experiences is our national pastime, a sort of banal sublime that replaces both rationality and common sense. And the Art Guys frequently suggest there's an intrinsic ridiculousness to their work.

Stupid pet tricks? Stupid human tricks? Just as everyone is fair game for David Letterman's cool and cruel swipes at mediocrity (the immigrant cabdriver who can't find his way across town), so do the Art Guys tap into the lowest common denominator of blue-collar America by working in a Stop N Go for 24 hours. Does this particular "endurance" test serve as just another replay of banality for the sake of banality? Though an ostensible point of such "endurance" pieces is to demonstrate the numbing of meaning through repetition (hour after hour... ), isn't it condescending, even insulting, for two middle-class white boys to "play" act at a job that has become truly life threatening? At the very least, the Art Guys transformations and performances seem to show a certain blindness to emotion and personal struggle.

All in all, the Art Guys make me sick, mostly because they seem to be the definitive artists of the moment in Houston. I'm perplexed by my response, which includes flat-out nostalgia along with disgust. Perhaps beneath all this adolescent posturing is a philosophical meaning grander than that carried by their sophomoric puns. Or perhaps not. If anything, the success of "Art Guys: Think Twice" confirms that stupidity is not just hip these days, but is truly an investment in self-debasement. What is substantive, after all, about a couple of cute, smart-ass perpetrators of aesthetic practical jokes? Nothing.

"The Art Guys: Think Twice" will show through June 25 at the Contemporary Arts Museum, 5216 Montrose, 526-0773.n

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Susie Kalil