Just Between Guys
The Art Guys Think Twice at the Contemporary Arts Museum, April 8-June 25, 1995, by William R. Thompson
On October 18, 1963 Julian Wasser photographed Mareel Duchamp playing a game of chess with a nude woman inside a gallery of the Pasadena Art Museum. A memorable footnote in the history of contemporary art, Wasser's photograph also serves as a vivid reminder of photography's historical importance to performance and conceptual art. For years, many artists whose work was temporary or ephemeral in nature often turned lo photography and video as a means of recording their actions. Others, such as Duchamp, staged events and performances exclusively for the camera or took advantage of the devices unique ability to capture a fleeting moment and manipulate one's perception of it, Many of these documentary images— sometimes the only surviving evidence of a finished conceptual piece or performance—have since become valued as art objects in their own right, challenging traditional definitions of art and further blurring the distinction between concept and finished product. Given its significance to the work of conceptual and performance artists, it is hardly surprising that photography has also been essential to the art of Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth— the collaborative pair of post-modernists better known to Houston audiences as the Art Guys. Their frequent use of the camera as both a documentary tool and expressive device was evident throughout "The Art Guys: Think Twice," a retrospective featuring more than eighty works and twelve years of their creative efforts held at the Contemporary Arts Museum this past summer.
Although the Art Guys did not begin their working partnership until adulthood, their unique artistic philosophy—a combination of adolescent enthusiasm, appreciation for the accidental, and infatuation with mass consumerism—is rooted in the homogeneous traditions of middle class America in which both men were raised. By coincidence or providence. Massing and Galbreth shared several common experiences while growing up; they each came from families with five children and were raised in white, middle class homes. In addition, they almost have the same birthday; Massing was born on January 4, 1959 in Buffalo, New York, whereas Galbreth was born on January 6, 1956 in Philadelphia. Following their similar, yet largely inconspicuous upbringings, the two men eventually made their separate ways to Houston and in the spring of 1992 met at the University of Houston's Lawndale Art and Performance Center. In 1993, Massing and Galbreth first performed The Art Guys Agree on Painting, a now famous stunt in which they dipped their right hands into buckets of paint and then shook hands over a piece of paper; the action produced a "drip painting" reminiscent of the work of Jackson Pollock, but more important, the seeds for a whimsical and dynamic collaboration were sown. In the following year, Galbreth earned a Master of Fine Arts degree from UH, and Massing, following the advice of sculptor James Surls, completed his undergraduate work there. Since then the two men have abandoned their respective identities as independent artists and worked together under the anonymous rubric of the Art Guys, as curator Lynn Herbert suggested in the exhibition catalogue, however, their collaboration may have predated their initial meeting by more than twenty years. On each of their respective birthdays in 1960—just 48 hours apart—the parents of Massing and Galbreth photographed their sons wearing holsters and toy guns. “For any other two adults, such a discovery would he dismissed as mere happenstance. The Art Guys, however, elect to ponder the possibility of these photographs representing the first 'Art Guys' work," Herbert wrote. While playing cowboy was a typical custom for middle class hoys in 1960s America, the two photographs of Massing and Galbreth wielding phallic toy pistols foreshadowed their collaborative explorations of other boyish customs and perhaps even their decision to dwell in Texas, the stereotypical heart of the gun-toting Old West.
That the Art Guys would consider two old family snapshots as evidence of their first project reveals just how much they esteem the accidental and ephemeral aspects of making art. Indeed, a number of the works included in "Think Twice" were made from photographs resembling amateur snapshots taken: by the artists or witnesses to their performances. Although in the case of performance art, the action is usually considered the finished work. Massing and Galbreth have sometimes exhibited their documentary photographs along with the physical remains of past performances in order to create new works of an. In Product Test 91: Suitcase Drag. Houston In San Antonio Highway 90A, 234.7 Miles, 1937, for example, the Art Guys attached a red suitcase to the bumper of a pick-up truck and dragged it on the road in order to test, not unlike obsessive consumer product inspectors, its durability. Originally intended for an exhibition at the Blue Star An Space in San Antonio, the scarred suitcase was installed in "Think Twice"" alongside a commemorative brass plaque and a Type C print showing the performance in progress.
Photography has not only proven to he an effective method of documenting such projects, but has enabled the An Guys to envision, through such techniques as collage and montage, proposals that were difficult or impossible to carry out. In Suitcase Tower Maquette,1995, another example of their fascination with luggage, the Art Guys created a miniature stale model of a circular rower composed entirely of suitcases. Although a life-size version has nor been constructed, the exhibition catalogue proved to he the ideal venue for reproducing a clever photographic montage showing Massing and Galbreth trapped in the center of the tower maquette. In another outlandish proposal titled The Big Sneeze from 101 of the Worlds Greatest Sculpture Proposals, 1991, the Art Guys made use of appropriated photographic images glued to the surface of a drawing outlining their plan for the construction of a monumental mechanical nose. Although the protect was intended to be funny, they placed their proposed proboscis in a more serious an historical context by juxtaposing their sketches to images cut from magazines showing a venerated presidential nose from Mount Rushmore and a medieval bust missing its nose. Unlike the Art Guys’ imagined Suitcase Tower, this project was realized for the exhibition in The Big Sneeze, 1994-5, an enormous wall-mounted nose which periodically erupted, as the title implied, and spewed forth green snot into a catch basin on the floor. The work was an appropriate testament to the Art Guys' technical ingenuity as well as to their childish attraction to disgusting thingsYes, in the world of the Art Guys even boogers can be art.
The ability of the camera to record a specific moment in time proved useful in Bulk Up for CAM, 1994-95, a year-long project combining photography, body art, and performance. In this work the Art Guys embarked on an ambitious regimen of dieting and exercise to strengthen and tone their bodies. Before beginning their workout routines, however, Massing and Galbreth were photographed separately in poses emphasizing the apparent flabbiness of their bodies. In these two small gelatin silver prints the artists stood before the camera wearing only jeans and old sneakers; the lighting cleverly highlighted their hunched shoulders, soft abdomens, droopy eyelids, and messy hair. In short, both looked like they could barely get out of bed that morning, much less hit a dumbbell. These images were juxtaposed next to two monumental photographs of Massing and Galbreth taken following a year of regular exercise. In these images the Art Guys, clad only in Spandex shorts, grin with satisfaction as they show tiff their bulging biceps and sculpted pecs. The year of exercise not only improved their bodies but apparently sharpened their minds as well—gone were the dimwitted facial expressions and unkempt appearances of their former selves. The juxtaposition of these two sets of photographs on the museum wall parodied the countless “before and after" images from advertisements showing satisfied individuals espousing the benefits of various miracle diets, pills, creams, and exercise machines. As with many of the Art Guys’ projects, however, Bulk Up for CAM was also rooted in the artists' culturally ascribed gender roles; it both reflected and perpetuated masculine obsession with physical prowess and big muscles.
Not unlike many of their fellow males the Art Guys have also had a long-standing relationship with the medium of television. Some of their projects, such as Lambchops for the Motor City, 1987-88, have utilized video as a means of recording and repackaging past performances. Video Jukebox, an overactive display created for the exhibition, enabled visitors to sample from a menu of more than a dozen short videos including musical compositions, documentary clips of past events and performances, and even television commercials. In Music for BB's, 1983, the earliest video in the jukebox. Massing and Galbreth dropped BB pellets through a glass funnel in order to record, à la John Cage, the musical possibilities of non-musical objects. Interestingly not all of the videos in the jukebox were actually produced by Massing and Galbreth. In Dining at Denny's: Food for Thought,I988, an excerpt from a broadcast of television Channel 13’s program Good Morning Houston, local reporters bantered about the Art Guys' latest stunt— sitting in a Denny's restaurant for twenty-four hours in order to commemorate the winter solstice—and ironically; pondered whether or not such an act was indeed art. It is a question that Massing and Galbreth deliberately provoked in these and other works.
While the camera is obviously an integral component of the Art Guys’ oeuvre does not dominate their creative output. The Art Guys have never favored one particular medium over another, but instead have dabbled in virtually everything from painting to whittling. Hierarehical distinctions between different tools, materials, concepts, and approaches simply do not apply to their work—they have been immutably democratic in terms of their creative methodologies and ever-willing to try new things. From time to time they have reached into their seemingly bottomless bag of tricks in order to explore innovative approaches to such established and frequently used techniques as appreciation. Since appropriation, by definition, involves taking something improperly or without permission, the Art Guys apparently could not resist crossing the fine line separating artistic appropriation and outright theft. Not satisfied with merely appropriating images of works of art, the Art Guys have gone so far as to make additions to existing works of art by other artists and to incorporate entire works into their own creations. In Gorilla Art, 1995, for example. Massing and Galbreth temporarily attached two monkey topiaries to the palm tree in Mel Chin's monumental sculpture Manilla Palm, 1978, installed on the west lawn of the CAM. In a more daring act, the Art Guys stole a small Michael Tracy sculpture from their Dallas-based an dealer Barry Whistler, enclosed it within a glass vitrine, arid labeled it Appropriation #7, Barry Whistler 12/3/91, 8:35am, 1991-94. Incorporated into an Art Guys assemblage, the Tracy sculpture lost its autonomy as an individual work of art; fetishized within its glass case, it was reduced to the level of the stolen athletic sock comprisingAppropriation #1, Ed Wilson, 6/9/91, 6:45pm, 1991-94. In these works the Art Guys combined a natural sense of puerile mischief with a Duchampian interest in the meaning and aesthetics of common and unusual objects.
The Appropriations series also included a variety of other small objects claimed to have been taken from different movers and shakers in the Houston an scene: a Neuberger Museum pin from former CAM director Suzanne Delehanty, a coffee mug from current Museum of Fine Arts director Peter Mario, and a miniature cello belonging to former Diverse-works director Caroline Huber and her husband Menil Collection curator Walter Hopps. Displaying stolen objects in a security conscious museum, particularly when several of the objects once belonged to prominent museum professionals, was an act not lacking in irony. The stolen knick-knacks not only questioned why our culture values an object which has been placed tin a pedestal and defined as "art," but also addressed the problematic issue of cultural theft and museum complicity. Whether it is an Impressionist masterpiece confiscated from Nazi Germany or a humble coffee mug appropriated for a work of art, how does one define and enforce the ownership of stolen property? Better yet, what is the role of the museum in the debate—victim or perpetrator? Along this vein, the Art Guys continued to poke fun at the serious business of museum security in On Guard, 1995, a project involving the "apptopriation" of members of the CAM staff. Depending on the day of the week, visitors to the exhibition would see museum guards singing, wearing silly hats, or carrying plastic ray guns. It was clear from this project as well as the giant mechanical googly eyes mounted on the exterior of the building that the Art Guys enjoyed remaking the museum's stuffy image into one mote sympathetic to their world view.
Although "Think Twice" showcased the work of the An Guys in a very privileged space—an elite an museum—some of the performances which coincided with the exhibition involved activities and locations with more democratic appeal. In one such performance titled Blow Through Town, 1995, Massing and Galbreth walked through the streets of Houston while using leaf blowers to blow leaves and refuse from one neighborhood to the next. The Art Guys began their odyssey at the corner of Lawndale and Dismuke—the site where they first met in 1982—and continued to walk several miles to the “Art Guy’s World Headquarters," their current studio in the Heights section of Houston. In between these two locations, Massing and Galbreth walked through such neighborhoods as Chinatown, the mostly African-American Fourth Ward, and the outskirts of posh, overwhelmingly white River Oaks. Although these communities ate isolated from one another because of racial, economic, and social barrier, the Art Guys drew attention to their close physical proximity and conceptually linked them through the act of blowing debris, from one block to the next. By using leaf blowers, the Art Guys further collapsed racial stereotypes by placing themselves in the role often associated with Mexican-American laborers who are seen everyday in Houston wielding the devices while lending the yards of affluent residents, like many of the Art Guys' projects, however, Blow Through Town also followed in the footsteps of other conceptual artists— particularly Joseph Beuys, Richard Long, and Dennis Oppenheim—who have also practiced walking as a method of making art.
Although "art" and "guys" are two words that do not always mix. Massing and Galbreth seem to have discovered the formula for successfully integrating their jobs as artists with their social roles as men. The unique duality of their collaboration has enabled them to accomplish together what few other artists have been able to do alone. Their work is conceptually rich and sophisticated enough to satisfy the most jaded theoreticians, yet it is firmly rooted in the populist traditions of middle class America. Throughout their oeuvre the Art Guys have paid homage to Duchamp, Fluxus, Cage, and Klein, but equally as important, they have found rich meaning in such everyday cultural effluence as baseball, Coca-Cola, and Camel cigarettes. In short, virtually anyone can find meaning in their work. The Art Guys may indeed celebrate immaturity, the unconventional, and consumer excess, but like devout post-modernists, they do so in order to question canonical standards and doctrines. Despite their sophomoric antics and slapstick sense of humor—or better yet, because of them—the Art Guys have made some very serious art.
William R. Thompson is the Curatorial Assistant for Twentieth Century Art and Textiles and Costume at theMuseum of Fine Arts, Houston.