Guys will be guys

In David Lean's 1957 film Bridge on the River Kwai, British World War II soldiers held hostage in a Japanese POW camp are forced to build a bridge across a jungle river. If they refuse, their captors will kill them. If they try to escape, the surrounding flora and fauna will eat them for lunch. While they comply with the bridge-building in their own insidiously clever way, they live to see another day.

Think of Texas as enemy territory for conceptual art. Think of the powers-that-be as hostile, obtuse, and narrow. Then think of the Art Guys as the builders of that bridge--the thoughtful compromise--between the avant-garde and the common Texan. Fear breeds intolerance, and the Houston-based Art Guys, a duo of University of Houston grads, jump that obstacle by breeding familiarity with unpretentious smarts, diligence, and good-humor. The high art contingent from Los Angeles to New York may claim them as favorite sons, may extol their virtue as bona fide artistes, but that would never guarantee any conceptual artist security or success in this tightly cinched Bible Belt. Yet in the Art Guys' case, the most crotchety redneck would let them live, thrive even--because he likes the way that bridge is coming along. He uncocks his shotgun. "Lookin' good, boys. Keep it up."

For their 15 or so years of collaboration, the Art Guys have never sold out or bowed down to Bubba--not unless that's part of their artwork, anyway. They just happen to possess the type of humor and wiles that ensure impressive crossover appeal. A few of their performances or installations fly over the heads of typical armchair athletes like a runaway ball, but most of their work instead curves down to bonk the unwitting viewer on the nose. It may disconcert a non-art fan, but only playfully so.

Just because a big, jutting, glass sphere is clearly constructed out of mere Rolling Rock bottles doesn't invalidate it as art (or keep it out of fine art museums); Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing are--like their forebears Duchamp and Joseph Beuys--screwing around with the formal definition of "art," but they never condescend or alienate their audience in the process. (They often, in fact, satirize the artists who satirize art, as in their faux-Fluxus installations such as "Piano for Falling Man," and "Music for Sideburns.") If the Art Guys walk 10 miles through downtown Houston wearing water-filled metal buckets on their feet, then you're certainly invited, and there's no lofty agenda; you can either laugh with them or at them or at yourself for bothering even to watch, or you can ignore the whole spectacle--any and every response from the viewer counts. Galbreth and Massing drop objects on each other's heads, sit in a roadside diner for days at a time, even cover everyday objects with 1000 coats of paint, all for your enjoyment (and doubtlessly theirs), and despite the absurdity, it's never pointless. The Art Guys are bringing art--well-conceived, nontraditional art--to the masses, come hell or high water, and they'll make sure everyone gets it.

A handful of the Art Guys' pieces are on display at the Barry Whistler Gallery; it's a quiet, modest exhibit compared to some of what they've staged at Whistler in the past (setting a match-covered wall on fire, for example), but it's a decent cross-section of Art Guy mentality in all its endearing oddness. Aside from a few beer-bottle and suitcase sculptures (the quintessential Art Guy concern with structural integrity) are several large, detailed sketches from their series 101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals, which outline the potential construction of some rather ambitious, preposterous installations. "Study for 101 Appliances" shows, in uncompromising graphite, every conceivable home device crammed together on the floor like cattle and attached by countless extension cords to one huge wall. It's accompanied by a sort of rambling, quasi-theory text--Thermal electric domestic appliances utilize the property of electric current...But look closely, and buried deep within the narrative, indistinct from the rest of the printed words, is I yanked my cock out from between her tits and held it above her as it spurted out a....

This interruption is then bookended by more banal techno-speak. Boys will be--I mean, Guys--will be boys; they always have been, but never threateningly so. Thus, the wall display that diagrams an Exploding Fishing Lure behind showcase glass, complete with instructions on how to build a pop-bottle grenade and disguise it in a casing, all to blow an unfortunate fish's mind. Adjacent to that are some comically altered objects with titles that drive the punch line home: "Duck Tape" is two hanging, freshly "killed" flying fowl made purely out of--you guessed it. These and more fill the back room at Whistler.

The show coincides with a calendar countdown to the upcoming "Art Guys Parade" in Houston on July 25; there Galbreth and Massing unveil their newest piece, "Suits: The Clothes Make the Man." Todd Oldham, the Texas-born darling of the New York fashion scene, has designed business suits for Galbreth and Massing; the Guys have literally leased out individual spaces on the coats and slacks to dozens of advertisers--Budweiser, Philip Morris, Motorola, etc...each leased area designated by the companies' embroidered emblem. The Art Guys will march in their own parade as walking ads (think racing cars covered with logos); of course, they're toying with the notion that corporate advertising has invaded just about every niche of our lives (as in Mobil-Masterpiece Theater). It's the ultimate joke about the blurred, botched line between art and commerce, life versus lifestyle; it's funny as hell on the surface and disturbing underneath. More and more, the Art Guys' bridge is looking less like the rickety wooden thing in the film, and more like the Golden Gate.

In a one-man show over at Edith Baker Gallery, another Texan has graced this city with undeniably impressive work in a "Well, I'm back now" display. Painter Roger Winter, veteran and almost-fixture of the area (he taught art at SMU for 26 years) tried to freshen his perspective by moving to Maine, and ended up pretty much hating the change of scenery (remember that flora-and-fauna threat?). Up there in the merciless cold, his once-warm, painterly landscapes took on a creepy, isolated quality with nearly surrealistic overtones--a red fox arched in mid-air over a snowy field, a tiny set of flames in the distance, a pronounced angel swooping through the stark and empty sky. Mesmerizing work to be sure, but coming from the imagination of a considerably homesick man.

He's since moved back to a Texas ranch, and his newest paintings reflect a joyous relief in these familiar, scruffy horizons: wide-screen visions of greased railroad tracks that underline a string of rural homes; a lavender-red sunset framed by telephone poles and their gracefully swaying connective wires; hell, even a trio of glassy-eyed cows nosing up against a barbed-wire fence to get a better look at you as you pass them from your car. His smaller works, jewel-like in their intense, precise application of color, seem to glow from within like a fire opal. But his monumental works, "Union Square" in particular, are his masterworks, and several are on display here.

Winter spends part of his year (presumably this wretchedly boiling part) in Manhattan, and the giant work buzzes off the wall with Winter's depiction of Midtown noises and smells and textures. From 10 feet back, the painting nearly comes off as a crystal-clear photograph, but up close, an Impressionist quality comes to fore: dappled, rhythmic, gestural. Winter paints from photos he's taken, and he can take time to inject any work with heightened, subjective light-play.

In fact, the small companion series taken from his Union Square visits are really a set of snapshots--close-up and cropped glimpses of a mangy mutt, a lone bag lady, a young coed emerging from the cover of a newsstand. Without a doubt, that was a cold day in the Square, brisk and windy in the shade, yet everywhere the sun hits, there's a calm, skin-soothing warmth.

Impressively, for a regional artist painting regional subject matter, Winter deftly avoids the unfortunate cliches of much Southwestern landscape art--his visions pack a knowing, sophisticated, visceral observation that seems more akin to Chuck Close, Richard Estes, and Lucian Freud.

Welcome home, Mr. Winter.

One more thing
At the MAC on Wednesday, July 8, at 7pm, art critic Charles D. Mitchell will lead a panel discussion titled "The State of Installation Art, Regionally and Nationally." According to the MAC press release, Mitchell and others from the local art scene will discuss the process of installation, artists who employ such methods, its impact, etc. It's free, and anyone who digs the Art Guys, Good/Bad, Connemara and the like may want to check this out. Call (214) 953-1212.

The Art Guys are at the Barry Whistler Gallery through July 25; call (214) 939-0242; Roger Winter is at the Edith Baker Gallery through July 17; call (214) 855-5101.


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