Why, a Duck!

What You Did See at AMOA's Art Guys Exhibition

Clown (Ha Ha Ha), by the Art Guys
How many ducks does it take to make an Art Guys exhibition? "Wildlife," the recent exhibition at the Austin Museum of Art at Laguna Gloria, contained the work of Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, the fearless duo from Houston who call themselves the Art Guys. The subjects/objects in the exhibition are animals -- ducks, fish, deer, a goat, a javelina -- trophies procured by the artists and embellished, converted, distorted, transformed into art.

There were duck jokes and duck puns a-plenty. The galleries are filled with animal images and recycled body parts. E I E I O, in the upstairs gallery, had tiny feathers, beautifully drawn, splattered with (mixed media) blood. Don't worry, it was probably paint. Two duck trophies wrapped in duct tape, one in black and the other silver, hung upside down on the wall. Three of the mixed media fowls that the Guys brought to Austin were rejected by the museum's co-curators as too foul to be included in the show (see companion story). A largemouth bass wriggled out from the wall, situated about 30 inches off the floor. Its red plastic mouth gaped open. The accompanying label identified the medium as "bass trophy and human sex toy."

"Holy cow!" said a woman across the gallery from me. She was laughing. I couldn't tell if she was reading the title of a drawing -- a diptych with a left wing on the left panel and a right wing on the right -- or commenting on the work, Holy Cow! The wings were beautifully rendered, the right somewhat more bloodied than the left. The Art Guys draw very well. They also have an astonishingly sharp graphic sense, obvious in every work on paper in the museum. They are also smart. And they are clever -- perhaps too clever, like the lovable, oh-so-smart neighbor boy who is kind to his mother but keeps getting kicked out of school for being a prankster. The Art Guys have a talent for making others laugh at the goofy, the sinful, the ugly, the nasty. They make light of weighty issues and take a serious look at the mundane. That's what art is supposed to do, isn't it?

The Guys made N-I-C-E with yellow, blue, red, and green blinking lights and wood bark. The letters spelled out the last word I'd have used to describe their exhibition. But back to the ducks. Dead Duck #3 had nose-dived into a block of concrete. Dry Duck, with a wing on one side and a doll arm affixed to the other, was applying Right Guard anti-perspirant under its wing. "How sinful," giggled the woman as she stared at the duck.

"Oh boy, look at this, Judy," said her partner, pointing up at Lamp Duck, displayed high on a wall with a lightbulb for a head. "Oh, geez."

I couldn't wait until they began to read the drawings: Duck walks into a drug store and buys a chapstick. The clerk sez, "Will that be cash or charge?" The duck sez, "Just put it on my bill!" -- A Duck Joke.
The drawing was entitled, 101 of the Greatest Ideas for Li'l Duckies (and Goosies). There were drawings upstairs and down -- drawings for sculpture or drawings made to work out the details as sculptures were being realized. What difference did it make which came first, the duck or the egg? Oh, those guys! They drew duck "bills" (altered paper money and duckie mouths), substitute wings (airplane wings, paddles, golf clubs), and a marble (as in "cat's eye") duck. The drawings offered insight into their process, described the dialog that these collaborators share. Is this really how they create together, two grown men trained in art history and anatomy and life? Galbreth and Massing met while students at the University of Houston and have produced collaborative projects since 1983. Is this really how they invent their silly/serious sculptures? The drawings managed to both reel visitors in and keep them at a distance through a strange combination of cerebral and silly images and words. Viewers past a certain age were reaching for their reading glasses to apprehend every last inch of meaning.

Downstairs, the middle gallery was more than a little off-putting for the kind of person who imagines that wall-mounted trophies follow you around a room with glassy-eyed stares. I always feel that way, which made it hard to laugh with the laughing javelina, Clown (Ha Ha Ha), wearing a wig and red nose. A motion sensor set off an eerie chuckle if you made the right moves in front of the piece. A second trophy with motion sensor and sound had been tampered with, apparently. While it spoke to me at the Lynn Goode Gallery in Houston, I Was Tampered With made no sound at all in the AMOA gallery when I was there.

Both sides of the narrow gallery where Tampered was located were lined with trophy heads adorned with wigs, goofy glasses with nose, and even a concrete block. At the far end of the gallery, standing like the king among his courtiers, was Robert Jr., a bobcat wearing a young boy's preppy costume, blue blazer with pocket crest, khaki slacks, and loafers. The relationship of the head to the clothes was eerie. Party Animal, an antelope trophy, looked like I feel the morning after an unpleasant night before. The antelope appeared to need more than an aspirin to cure what ailed him; the signs of wear and tear (on his fur) were irreversible. Looking at his condition, I felt more than a little uneasy. Perhaps that was the point.

In the far gallery, Dust Bunnies refreshed the mood. The Art Guys had formed little polystyrene rabbits and coated them with dust -- genuine Art Guy Dust, I'm told by the docent. A broom and dustpan stood nearby. The Guys used chicken wire and fish hooks as the basis for drawings in this room, and described The Emergence of Modernism using a hen trophy with a square head. "What if...," you heard them asking each other as you strolled through the room. What if dust really gathered itself into bunny shapes, what if you used an exploding fishing lure, what if you poked fun at people who need trophies to prove their worth? What if you told a joke that wasn't really funny and everyone laughed?

Dead animals resurrected as art made me uneasy. I wanted to laugh out loud at these dirty little schoolyard jokes -- in fact, I did laugh the first time I saw them in Houston -- but my respect for life (and death) muffled the sound this time around. Is the Art Guys' work disrespectful or is turning animals into trophies the obscene act? The Guys didn't do that. Someone else did that. They just made me look at those trophies with new eyes.

"It's creepy. Isn't it creepy?" asked the man in front of Roger.

"Kind of disturbing," the woman said.

The Museum's main gallery was dominated by a series of drawings on paper, 15 Works From 101 of the World's Greatest Sculpture Proposals. A string of familiar phrases ran across the top of the drawings, often jumping mid-phrase from frame to frame. Fish or cut bait, stubborn as a mule, go whole hog, white elephant, horse of a different color, paper tiger, pig latin, kangaroo court. One way or another, it seems, we integrate animals into our lives, our patois, our behavior.

My blonde cat, who stares down at me from the computer monitor as I write, would have loved this show, especially the mannequin parts that dangled from the ceiling -- colorfully painted and sparkly legs, arms, hands, torso, and head. They were fitted with fishing lures, sharp hooks affixed everywhere. Ouch. That was us dangling up there, above the art, above the animals. Human lures. Fishing for compliments? Fishing for understanding? Fishing for insight into this exhibition! Duchamp, the early 20th-century artist who gave us the "ready-made" and gave artists permission to be Art Guys, would have loved the show, too. He once said, "Art is produced by a succession of individuals expressing themselves; it is not a question of progress." So, perhaps there's no pressure to pronounce the show "good" or "bad" or to rank the artists against their peers. But it was good for me and for a lot of other folks.

A lot of people came to hear Galbreth and Massey talk about the work in this exhibit during closing festivities last Sunday. (The opening reception had been canceled because of the ice storm.) I suppose they wanted information about the Art Guys' work straight from the horses' mouths. Afterward, the Austin Museum of Art locked the doors long after the horses had gone.

Rebecca S. Cohen is an arts writer and recovering art dealer.

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More by Rebecca S. Cohen
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