Answers to Questions
Answers to Questions, British duo John Wood and Paul Harrison’s expansive survey show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, could just as easily be titled “Bro Solutions.” A tongue-in-cheek neologism coined by my boyfriend and his studiomate, “bro solutions” describes the casual, low-end MacGyverism of post-adolescent dudes. Think creative repair jobs using masking tape, substituting beer for milk in a recipe, and using the basic architectural features of the studio as a “jailhouse gym.” In this exhibition, Wood and Harrison’s video works feature brief, humorous conceptual pranks that hinge (pardon the pun) on slapdash props and sets constructed in their studio. The clever installation comprised of half walls of exposed sheetrock that form corridors, projection walls and mini-blackboxes, echoes the artists’ techniques. The show succeeds when Wood and Harrison embrace the absurd, self-consciously admitting the limits of their own bodies. It falters when one-liners are played out for populist yuks—when bros become heroes trying to reauthor the conceptual wheel.
Wood and Harrison met at art school in 1989. They began working collaboratively in 1993. The best of their early works on view chronicle the honest and clumsy negotiation of their collaborative practice as they navigate the territory mined by performance artists of the 1970s such as Bruce Nauman and Yvonne Rainer. Their unvirtuosic performance style works to great effect in Three-Legged (1997). In it, the artists dodge tennis balls being fired from a pitching machine with their legs tied together, as in a three-legged race. The camera is positioned just behind the shaft of the undeniably phallic apparatus. Wood and Harrison struggle together through the three minutes of the video to avoid being hit, cowering even after the machine stops firing, and slump to the floor together, exhausted, before self-consciously unknotting their legs. Board (1993), the earliest work in the show, is an obvious yet frustrating send-up of Judson Dance Theatre performances of the 1960s such as Robert Morris and Carolee Schneemann’s Site (1964). Wood and Harrison use a human-sized plywood sheet as a prop to help them crouch, roll and jump as contemporary dancers do. But the board’s stubborn position between them is not as much of an abstruse Minimalist object as a barrier against homosocial contact, bringing to mind the frat boy exclamation “no homo!” What is ultimately asserted in this bratty video is a next-generation smugness (you posed the questions; now, we answer them).
One-liners riffing on Minimalist and Conceptualist themes abound elsewhere in the show, placing Wood and Harrison in a category with countrymates Martin Creed and Jonathan Monk, as well as the Swiss duo Fischli and Weiss. Some works don’t hold up to the comparison. The boring Night and Day (2008), a twenty-minute-plus video installation of a series of Chinese paper lanterns resembling the solar system’s planets switching on and off, owes an obvious debt to Creed’s Work No. 227, the lights going on and off, which won the Turner Prize in 2001. Mic/Amp (Apologies to Mr. Reich) (2007), in which a microphone dangles in front of an amp, to produce feedback, equally falls flat. One More Kilometer (2009) is a more successful transformation of a canonical work. The artists reconsider Walter de Maria’s sublime installation Broken Kilometer in a dynamic time-based performance where a kilometer of paper is shaved through by a belt sander. Hundredweight (2003), a five-channel installation on an 18-minute loop, summarizes the artist’s concerns of ephemerality and insularity (and according to the wall label, Beckettian staging techniques), skipping straight to the punchline. A camera positioned surveillance-style shows the artists engaged in a series of preparatory and exhaustive actions: spilling Yves Klein bluish paint on the floor to reveal the reflection of overhead lights, holding a box in the corner and letting it fall to the ground, and lassoing a bucket of tennis balls.
Answers to Questions, organized by Senior Curator Toby Kamps, serves as the curator’s institutional swan song—he left the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston back in the fall to begin working up the street at Houston’s legendary Menil Collection. With the impending change in the museum’s curatorial staff, this exhibition marks a point for some deserved reflection on boys-will-be-boys art in Houston. The official opening of Wood and Harrison’s exhibition on February 12 featured a “battle” between Wood and Harrison and Houston-based art pranksters the Art Guys (Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing) and emphasized the parallel between the British artists and homegrown conceptual antics. The Art Guys have shown around the country; most notably, they toured the nation in their project SUITS: The Clothes Make the Man in 1998-99, in which they sold ad space on suits specially tailored by Todd Oldham. (Recently Morgan Spurlock, who rose to fame as the director of Super Size Me, staged a similar action to SUITS, and was accused in a statement by The Art Guys of intellectual property violation.) For a 2009 prank/performance for NO ZONING, an exhibition also co-curated by Kamps about Houston-based artist projects and interventions, the Art Guys, both married to women, walked the political tightrope in a staged performance The Art Guys Marry a Plant in the sculpture garden at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston. While the artists claimed absurdity for their action instead of a specific stance on gay marriage, the action rhymes not unproblematically with Wood and Harrison’s one-liners. Did the performance emphasize the nonsensical restriction on marriage equality, or could it also be repurposed by conservative interests to support the position that indeed all marriages outside the confines of heterosexual unions are “unnatural”? In the performances by The Art Guys and Wood and Harrison alike, unmarked white male bodies stand in as the artistic protagonists for social and art-historical commentary. Whether these actions are read as critical updates or anachronistic throwbacks to well-worn conceptual tactics is up for debate.
Wood and Harrison’s show may also be thrown into sharper relief against the curatorial zeal for various testosterone-filled collectives around town. The Austin-based group of ten artists, Okay Mountain, is currently exhibiting at the Blaffer Art Museum at the University of Houston. And in the fall, the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston invited zine collective Sketch Klubb to present at one of their monthly Slide Jams. Both of these groups are comprised of artists who create individual work in different mediums. While Okay Mountain’s cohesive show at the Blaffer investigates groupthink sardonically through props and a video meant to mimic the initiation rites of religious cults, Sketch Klubb appeared less comfortable (and rightly so) with situating their tits-and-dicks iconography in a critical construct at the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston. Not surprisingly, the community-building aspects of both collectives’ production often get overshadowed in this institutional light. Okay Mountain has become known primarily for their gallery programming in Austin, featuring both local and non-local artists. (Unfortunately, they’ve recently shuttered their East Austin gallery space.) Various Sketch Klubb members run independent spaces around town (Russell Etchen co-founded bookstore/exhibition space Domy Books, while Cody Ledvina, along with Brian Rod, organizes an artist-run space called Tha Joanna in a small bungalow-style house just behind the Menil Collection.) The negative aspects, then, are when the enthusiasm for a boyish—or flat-out sexist—aesthetic goes unchecked. Sketch Klubb members blithely re-appropriate feminist language in calling their group a “quilting club for men.” How the resulting imagery functions, however, needs deeper consideration.
To be fair, much of the Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston’s recent exhibition programming has spoken to critical and feminist concerns, from a phenomenal presentation of ICA Philadelphia’s Dance with Camera to the knockout Hand+Made: The Performative Impulse of Art and Craft organized by curator Valerie Cassel-Oliver last summer. Oliver has recently been promoted as Kamps’ successor as Senior Curator. The willingness, however, to promote bro-ish pranksterism under the guise of mass appeal needs curatorial rethinking and critical deconstruction on a wider scale. In other words, the answers to questions may not always be a one-liner. And sometimes, asking the bigger questions can be a more rigorously critical task.
Answers to Questions: John Wood and Paul Harrison is on view at Contemporary Arts Museum of Houston, through April 24th, 2011.