Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Two-on-One: Conceptual Art Smackdown Provides Much-Needed (Comic) Relief for Summer Doldrums

Things have seemed kinda dull around here, haven’t they? We’ve got a mayor’s race under way, historic or potentially historic, with the two leading candidates of the moment being a black lawyer-insider who isn’t running as a “black candidate” and a gay female elected citywide official who isn’t running as a “gay woman candidate” (probably wouldn’t fly anyway), as well as the SWPL white-man candidate who is indeed running as the SWPL white candidate (not gonna fly at all, but we hope stays in the race all the way, if just for contrast).* But despite this interesting mix, the campaign thus far seems flat and uninspiring (which is probably how it should be, so if you’re a mayoral candidate reading this under no circumstances should you, on our account, employ any lofty Obama-toric in your next speech on TIRZs, or go out and get a DWI this weekend).

And the weather: we’re very tired of this weather (perhaps the source of our ennui). This afternoon we noticed that even the trees in our neighborhood—the water-gulping behemoths—seem bedraggled and listless, as if they were too dry and brittle to root down any further for a sip of H20 and would just as soon keel on over and end their misery.

But this, mi amigo, is H-Town, as the Chronicle’s Teen Columnist-Blogurbator so jauntily calls it (and calls it and calls it), so you and I know that some trifling entertainment tailored to capture our full, undivided attention is never too far down the massively cracked, seamed and pot-holed road. Sure enough, the road rose up to greet us today in the form of this blog posting by Chronicle art critic Douglas Britt (which came to our attention via linkage from the eagle-eyed tastemakers at blogHouston—we’re not a regular reader of the newspaper’s arts blog, although we’re open to the possibility of becoming one if days are lengthened to 26 hours.). It seems that Sr. Britt had the gall, the temerity, the sheer cast-iron cojones, to actually criticize—let’s be precise: mildly criticize—one of the scared moo-cows of the local art world, the duo selling themselves as the** Art Guys, who, thanks to corporate largesse and near-worshipful local “critics,” have gone about staging their conceptual-art works, to rarely a discouraging word, for well more than a decade.

We actually read Britt’s preview/review of the art guys’ latest “show” in last Thursday’s newspaper and found it to be a gentile, good-natured dismissal of the art guys’ “big, fat, not-so-gay wedding,” in which the two artistes, who apparently are both married heterosexuals (nothing wrong with that), were to “marry” a “live oak sapling,” as Britt described it, during an outdoor ceremony Saturday at the Museum of Fine Arts (we couldn’t make it ’cause we had to stay home and scratch our nuts). Britt believed that this performance was some statement or commentary on, or somehow hooked to, the debate over legalized gay marriage—a belief that one of the art guys both strenuously denied and seemed to kinda confirm (“piggybacking” on the issue) in the critic’s piece. If it was such a statement, it was a strange and muddled one, paralleling, as Britt noted way too far down in his review, the “slippery slope” argument of gay-marriage critics that once you allow men to marry men and women to marry women the next thing you know people will be petitioning to get hitched to dogs, cats, emus, ’74 Buick Electras, live oak saplings, etc. It even crossed our mind that if Britt were right maybe that the art guys were against gay marriage, which would indeed take some cast-iron cojones, to be so contrarian in the not-so-wide world of art. (But they ain’t—against gay marriage, that is).

After the art guys (or guy, we weren’t clear on the logistics) were conjoined to the sapling in holy matrimony, Britt followed up with a blog post affirming his initial judgment (accompanied by some sort of video we didn’t watch--scratchin’ our sack again). That posting drew an “open letter” from art guy Michael Galbraith--with footnotes, real footnotes!***--which Britt put up on his blog. Galbraith, coming on like Huey Newton in a wicker chair in 1969, opened up with a right-on-man quote from artist Bruce Nauman that included a bad word the Chronicle can’t print (it was “poo-smacker,” if we remember right), then again empahtically denied the tree-marriage ceremony had anything to do with gay marriage and drew this strange 2+2=5 analogy:
In your article you referenced an older work of ours, "Bucket Feet," in which we walked around downtown Houston with buckets of water attached to our feet. Now, what if someone believed that the action of impeding our normal capabilities of walking somehow referenced walking disabilities? I suppose they would be free to do so, but we simply walked around with buckets on our feet. And that's that.
And this:
We, The Art Guys (capital "T," by the way) do what we do regardless of what people think or how they think. And for the most part, we do it right in front of people so that they may share and experience and judge for themselves. There are other ways of working. This is what we often do.
(We’ve never judged for our particular self, because it seems we always have this itch to scratch.)

The letter went on at some length in an apparent attempt to place the art guys in some conceptual-art tradition, which we always thought was not the point, but then we’re a product of the Louisiana public school system.

We don’t know who’s right or wrong in this and really don’t care. But we do enjoy a good fight (boxing’s gotten really dull of late, with all those slew-footed Russian heavyweights). We fervently hope these exchanges blossom into a full-blown blood feud, with the art guys designing their next promotion to fully eviscerate Britt (figuratively, of course, but perhaps literally if he’ll cooperate) and Britt using his blog postings to carry out a Winchell-like vendetta against the art guys. We don’t care if they collude. That’s exactly what this town needs--a meaningless yet vitriolic public feud.

Let’s get it on!****

*By the way, we’ve opened bidding on the coveted Slampo’s Place mayoral endorsement, starting at $100. The lucky winner will get unlimited free, laudatory and unquestioning “coverage” in this blog, some of it possibly “fact-based” (some possibly not). Plus, we’ll post funny hand-drawn pictures of the other candidates. Cash only, please, and we ask that the bribe be listed on your disclosure report as a payment to “SuperSexy Donuts” for “snacks for staff.”

the, lower case.

*** Not like these.

**** -- M. Gaye, 1974


Robert Boyd said...

I realize this post is like a million years old, but I wasn't a Slampo reader then, so it's as if it were brand new to me.

Being an art critic in Houston (or any non-art capital town) is both easy and hard. Easy because all you have to do is write good reviews and be a booster of the local scene. Hard because sometimes you don't like some art and would like to say so but you just can't! Because if you did, you might damage the fragile local art scene! And you might give ammunition to all the art-haters out there who are themselves just itching to destroy the fragile local art scene!

It's really rare that you see bad reviews locally. I'm guilty of the "only write about things I like" syndrome. But I think Houston artists could use some harsh assessments and even intemperate, ill-considered rants. It would liven shit up, at the very least.

Slampo said...

I'd forgotten all about this ... and how could I? ... but I think you make a sorta-similar point in a more succinct fashion. (BTW, I'm almost positive I meant "gentle" and not "gentile" in the 4th paragraph.) Being an art critic in Houston is like covering high school sports for a newspaper in a small town, where a certain level of cheerleading comes with the job. Even if something is blatantly suck-a-trocious, you don't wanna slay it to death because that would be all out of proportion to the context. Further complicating the task is that a critic for a general-interest publication like a newspaper has to address not only to the narrower/insular art world but also a wider audience, on the off-chance somebody in the wider world might pass his or her eyes over the criticism. The NY Times actually does a pretty good job of this, but it's the NYT. I thought this Britt fellow was pretty decent--no Dave Hickey but given time, who knows. And of course the Chronicle has since made him a society stenographer & the art writing's kinda slid, but hopefully he's making more $.