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The Guise of Artiness

[whitespace] the Art Guys
Pen Pals: Conceptual weisenheimers Michael Galbreth (left) and Jack Massing have dubbed themselves the Art Guys and taken on the sacred cows of 'high' art.

The Art Guys make 'Common Nonsense' of high-browism

By Ann Elliott Sherman

BECAUSE THE Art Guys--Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing--create very tongue-in-cheek conceptual art, they're often referred to as the current equivalent of Marcel Duchamp or the Fluxus artists of the 1960s. As their moniker (and its alternative spelling, Aaart Guise), suggests, however, the two Houston-based artists take themselves a whole lot less seriously than any nihilists from France, Germany or New York ever could.

What distinguishes the Art Guys from previous art-world wisenheimers is their unabashedly populist, peculiarly American perspective. Common Nonsense, their current show at the de Saisset Museum in Santa Clara, provides ample evidence that these guys are particularly fond of concepts involving--what else?--cheese and beer.

The Art Guys' humor not only works on the level of artsy in-joke or intellectual deconstruction but also plays to the average Jo(e). Visitors might laugh at an exposé of the latent silliness of a Big Idea, just because something is wonderfully tacky and weird, or both. A prime example is Cheese Grid, a spoof of minimalist sculpture made by arranging American cheese slices into a slowly hardening geometric mosaic.

Like the Marx Brothers, the Art Guys give the high- and low-brow equal time as targets for tomfoolery. In the time-honored tradition of tourist-trap souvenir shops, The Eyes Have It features googly eyes pasted on everything from men's briefs to paper towels. Consumer Reports meets '60s TV ads for luggage in Product Test #1, a red suitcase that shows every one of the 234.7 miles it was dragged between Houston and San Antonio, Texas.

Groaningly literal Travel Logs come in two versions: the deluxe "trunk" with leather straps and metal suitcase locks; the economy model consisting of a bundle of thinner sticks held together with a piece of plastic.

Clearly, no art-history degree is required to "get" works like these. But after Massing and Galbreth met as art students at the University of Houston, they began collaborating on lampoons of various art movements, artistic conceits or jargon, an ongoing public service they are only too glad to provide.

Looney creations like Tri-Graphialite Device--pencils stuck into a paintbrush handle--might also work as simple sight gags. However, true appreciation of the apt irony of wrapping a toy Mercedes in rough twine and copper wire (with the occasional twig or rusty nail carefully placed so as not to cause any actual damage), burying the whole thing in mud and calling it German Angst probably requires more contextual knowledge.

Similarly, viewers can relate to the Corona Tower built out of empty bottles of the Mexican beer on the level of a frat boy--or delight in interpreting it and companion pieces such as Absolut Sphere as right-on deflations of the removed, pristine preciousness of landscape sculptor Andy Goldsworthy's spheres and cairns of manzanita and slate.

Is the shelf of labeled cocktails titled Drink Sculpture a woozy send-up of those congealed display-case samplers provided in some establishments for the enlightenment of the clueless customer or a snipe at Jeff Koons' smirking delivery of icons of lower-class escape and desire in sculpture expressly created for collection by upper-crust snobs? A question to which the Art Guys might reply, "Sure. And here's looking up your old address."

IN SOME WAYS, these kitschy goofs are Art Guys Lite, easy going down and not a lot to digest. But in their extended performance projects, though still kidding around, Galbreth and Massing get their audiences to re-examine pop-culture trends by wholeheartedly embracing them and presenting them in the unexpected context of "high" art and its institutions.

Several years ago, they sculpted their physiques, working out with personal trainers to "bulk up" for a museum retrospective. Last year, Massing and Galbreth accepted every offer for long-distance service or credit cards they received (Hello, Yes and Credit Where Credit Is Due).

These days, the Art Guys are riffing on ubiquitous product placement in the media and the phenomenon of aging rock stars marketing their futures like pork bellies on the commodities market. The down-home reference point for Suits: The Clothes Make the Man might be the logo-plastered jumpsuits of NASCAR drivers, but the ad space being hawked to corporations and mom-and-pop businesses alike is on Todd Oldham-designed gray-flannel suits to be worn by the Art Guys at every public appearance throughout 1998.

In the 1980s, artists attacked "commodity fetishism" even as artworks became investment commodities traded for absurd sums. Get with it and cut the crap, the Art Guys imply; be the commodity, and eliminate the middlemen while you're at it. Now there's the apotheosis of the current millennium.

For purists who like to pretend that artists and the art world are above the crass commercialism and networking food chain of the fashion and entertainment industries, the Art Guys would like nothing more than to open their googly eyes for a good Three Stooges poke.


Common Nonsense runs through March 15 at the de Saisset Museum, Santa Clara University, 500 El Camino Real, Santa Clara. (408/554-6877)

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From the February 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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