Anal sex looms like a big brown star over gay male identity. Long before we come out, straight culture tells us it’s what we do and why we’re unnatural. Gay porn reinforces the former message, and once we come out other gays tend to sort us according to our presumptive “roles”: top, bottom or versatile. Even if your honest answer — one that may take awhile to get to — is none of the above, much of your hunt for your sex involves navigating a landscape littered with expectations of butt sex and advice on how best to go about it. Given the generational disconnect between younger and older gay men, received wisdom on how to bottom is one of the few traditions getting handed down. The advice I see on Internet message boards today reminds me of what my friends and sexual partners used to tell me.
I don’t bottom, and my topping technique consists of closing my eyes and hoping for the best. While the fact that I’ve been able to escort indicates that I’m far from the only one, the fact remains that I’d have made a lot more money throughout my escorting career if I liked to fuck and get fucked. If someone buys one of these paintings, I’ll be making money off bottoming without actually having to do it.
Because the white backgrounds are coated with glass microspheres — the tiny beads that make the paint on roads reflective at night — the white text is effectively backlit under certatin lighting conditions and the background shimmers and appears satiny, whereas they appear more muted and minimalist in at other times.
I got the idea of using the microbeads from Mary Corse, a Los Angeles painter who shares some perceptual concerns with the Southern California light-and-space artists. Her paintings are completely abstract and geometric, while the way I’m using the glass beads is more akin to Glenn Ligon‘s use of coal dust to created legibility issues in his text paintings, although in mine the words fall in and out of legibility depending on lighting conditions and where the viewer is. (It was about a year ago that I discovered Corse’s work in Pacific Standard Time exhibitions at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego and the Getty Museum; around the same time I saw the Ligon retrospective on its stop at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. That is, the road trip that this blog documented during its first few months made this series possible.)
Similarly, how one reads the content — as funny, sad, disgusting, practical, maybe even erotic — depends on where the viewer is vis-a-vis his or her own feelings about anal sex, which is a topic that defines most straight people’s and many gay men’s views of homosexuality despite its rising popularity among heterosexuals. I wanted to make paintings in which issues of physical perception and interpretive perception intertwined, and I liked the idea of trying to make a beautiful, shimmering, seductive painting of vaguely scatological subject matter.
Although they look nothing alike the iron-on paintings on view through Saturday at Zoya Tommy Contemporary (closing reception 6-8 p.m. Wednesday – please come!), both bodies of work were created with methods that allow for both structure and deviation, for both planning and chance, for both reproduction and the handmade, for both autobiography and appropriation. Both are also informed by — and in some respects crudely mirror — my experiences as a print journalist who increasingly relies on new media to create old media. And what’s more old media than painting?
These paintings will be on view as part of ProjeXion, a three-person show with Tim Gonzalez and Alexandre Rosa opening with a reception from 6-9 p.m. Friday at Avis Frank Gallery. Come check them out. In my apartment, the changes are gradual and subtle, but we’re experimenting with lighting them to more theatrical effect for the opening.
For the Houston Chronicle’s postmortem on the Menil Collection’s removal of The Art Guys Marry a Plant from its campus — but not from its collection, despite what you may have read on Glasstire — ace reporter Molly Glentzer plays stenographer to Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, serving up this fawning, one-sided account of the controversy that sums up an anonymous, shadowy group of critics’ alleged interpretation of the piece without identifying or quoting one of them. (I never described the performance as “a parody of same-sex marriage.”) Nor does it report the fact that not only did The Art Guys lie when they wrote Glasstire that the tree and plaque had been removed from the museum’s collection — the Menil had decided to rotate the work off view and let The Art Guys store it off-site on its behalf, but retained ownership — but that Galbreth’s wife, Glasstire founder and executive director Rainey Knudson, posted a diatribe falsely accusing the Menil of de-accessioning the piece that is still on the nonprofit website’s homepage. (Moments ago, Knudson wrote that she stands “by the spirit and letter of my article.”)
While Knudson continues the scorched-earth part of The Art Guys’s brand war, seeking to inflict maximum embarrassment and fundraising difficulties on the Menil as punishment for their humiliation, Glentzer busies herself burnishing the duo’s victim status and good-guy brand. (There’s money at stake, after all: The Art Guys are trying to sell their brand.) After mentioning the No Zoning catalog’s assertion back in 2009 that “(The Art Guys) hope their wedding guests will shape the meaning of this provocative union,” Glentzer lets loose with this howler:
Maybe, in hindsight, they wish that last sentence hadn’t been printed. Some people thought “The Art Guys Marry a Plant” was just silly. The scrappy little oak could have just disappeared quietly into someone’s yard after that, where it might have flourished in spite of the drought and enjoyed a quiet life of shading humans and sheltering squirrels and raccoons.
She doesn’t say whether “the scrappy little oak” that withered for months inside the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston during the five-month No Zoning run is the same “scrappy little oak” that got planted at the Menil, but never mind. What’s really outrageous about Glentzer’s suggestion that the tree could have “just disappeared” is that it ignores the well-documented fact that, although Massing said during our original interview that somewhere “deep in the woods” might be the tree’s best destination, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, Rice University and the Menil had already rebuffed The Art Guys’s attempts to give them the tree. (They had already been trying to give the MFAH the tree when we talked but said it didn’t look like it was going to happen.)
A few paragraphs down comes this whopper:
Massing said they want to return to their older methods – “more ArtGuysian in attitude” – when it was all about the fun of investigations, research, trial and error, and “doing things out in public, away from the paradigms of galleries and museums.
“The ‘Marry a Plant’ project was very much about all that,” he added. “But there’s great pressures on the art world.”
Huh? The ‘Marry a Plant’ project was performed in the sculpture garden of a museum with a $1 billion endowment — the same museum The Art Guys hoped would permanently plant it there. They also sold wedding cake toppers in the gift shop of the museum across the street and had the tree-planting ceremony on the grounds of yet another museum (during which they made a point of thanking every current and former director of every institution that had come into contact with the piece). I guess by that definition, my wedding on the stage of a gay strip club was inside the gallery-museum paradigm. The Art Guys’ desperate longing for institutional acceptance at any price is partly what made this performance’s inclusion in No Zoning — a show that, come to think of it, was supposed to be about Houston artists “doing things out in public, away from the paradigms of galleries and museums” — so ill-conceived. Also, if they actually had done the piece “out in public, away from the paradigms of galleries and museums,” not only would less controversy accompanied the performance, but it would have died down once it was over.
As it happens, I pointed out in my original article the fact that this piece didn’t measure up to previous ArtGuysian actions. Read the bulk of my criticism below, and you’ll see that I didn’t call The Art Guys or their piece homophobic, but objected, first and foremost, to their insistence that it was a real wedding and their claim to blur the gap between art and life. I also pointed out that the piece inadvertently reinforced the slippery-slope argument. The word ‘inadvertent’ should indicate to any literate person that I understood this was not their intention. I was pointing out failures in carrying out their intentions, not accusing them of evil intentions.
“This is an actual wedding,” Galbreth insists. “This is not a pretend wedding. When the Art Guys do things, it’s the real thing.”
Usually, that’s true. For the 1994 behavior work Bucket Feet, the Art Guys really did walk 10 miles through downtown with buckets of water attached to their feet. For Blow Through Town (1995), they actually took to the streets with leaf blowers, blowing piles of debris across a 15-mile stretch of the city. And they’ve vowed that their wives won’t get to keep so much as a teaspoon of their ashes if Forever Yours sells.
For their big fat not-so-gay wedding, the Art Guys are playing it straight. The vows and format will be as traditional as possible. An ordained minister will officiate, and he’ll only address the Art Guys, because trees can’t talk and the Lorax hasn’t been invited. After all, one “fairly simple read(ing)” of the piece that Massing suggests is that it’s “an acknowledgement of man’s existence and how it bumps up and interacts with nature.”
But there won’t be a marriage license, because the Texas constitutional amendment banning gay marriage, which voters passed overwhelmingly in 2005, leaves no wiggle room for quirky exceptions, spelling out that marriage “shall consist only of the union of one man and one woman.”
As for the sapling, it’s not moving in with either of the Art Guys, who plan to plant it in a location to be determined — Massing says he thinks somewhere “deep in the woods” might be the best place — with or without a commemorative ceremony and plaque.
Press releases notwithstanding, this “behavior” doesn’t blur the boundary between art and life. It draws a bright, bold outline between art and Galbreth’s and Massing’s lives, at any rate. The same federal government that recognizes the Art Guys’ trademark also recognizes their real-life marriages to women.
But when it comes to the boundary between this artwork and the lives of gay and lesbian couples — even those in states where gay marriage is legal — the piece blurs it much more effectively. As far as Uncle Sam is concerned, their unions have no more legal standing than the Art Guys’ marriage to a tree. Of course, it also inadvertently reinforces the “slippery slope” argument that if we let gays wed, next we’ll allow people to marry animals, and so on.
If I thought The Art Guys Marry a Plant was “a parody of same-sex marriage,” I would have led with the “slippery slope” point and dropped “inadvertently.” But in order for The Art Guys to head off damage to their brand, they’ve spent the last few years working overtime to brand others as PC bullies so they can rebrand themselves as victims. Their lie about the ownership of the tree is the latest iteration of that branding campaign, and they’ve enlisted the statewide art website — a nonprofit, at that — and Houston’s newspaper of record to do their bidding for them. The institutional rot at the Menil is nothing compared to that at the tag-team of Glasstire and the Houston Chronicle.
Somebody’s lying about what happened to the tree and plaque comprising The Art Guys Marry a Plant. The Art Guys and Glasstire founder Rainey Knudson — a wife of one of The Art Guys — say the Menil Collection removed the artwork from its collection, and other media outlets have duly repeated their account. But Menil director Josef Helfenstein told Texas Monthly writer Mimi Swartz that “The Menil Collection and the Art Guys removed the work The Art Guys Marry a Plant from the grounds where it has been on view since 2011. The Menil Collection wishes to make clear that it has not de-accessioned the work, nor has it taken any steps toward de-accessioning the work, which continues to be a part of the institution’s collection.”
Either The Art Guys own the piece or are merely acting as off-site storage for it on behalf of the real owner, the Menil. The distinction matters. If The Art Guys and Knudson want to make a case that the Menil acted improperly in rotating the piece off view, let them. Of course, that would put them in the awkward position of arguing that somehow their piece, unlike the museum’s Magrittes, Picassos, Rothkos, etc., is too important ever to be taken off view. Now, putting a piece into storage to avoid dealing with the controversy around it is a pretty cowardly thing for a museum to do, but it’s nowhere near as bad as de-accessioning it. And The Art Guys, whose practice is all about branding, have chosen to respond the damage to their own brand by trying to inflict as much damage as possible on other people’s — first mine, then Hiram Butler’s, and now the Menil’s. So instead of attacking the Menil on legitimate but less scandal-worthy grounds, they used an influential media platform to accuse the Menil of one of the gravest possible sins — de-accessioning in order to avoid controversy.
Unless Helfenstein is lying. Hard to see how he could get away with it, though.
Still, the cognitive dissonance it takes to absorb the rest of Helfenstein’s statement to Swartz is overwhelming:
The Menil is fully aware of the intense responses that have arisen regarding this work. The Menil has engaged in numerous discussions with parties who have felt injured or offended because the work was being displayed, and parties who have felt injured or offended because the work has been vandalized and might not be displayed. The Menil has preferred to conduct these conversations in private.
The Menil seeks to engage in a vigorous conversation about contemporary works of art and their subjects. We exhibit sometimes controversial works and organize public discussions of the issues they raise, including same-sex love and gender identity. In this regard, we are proud to be presenting the current exhibition The Progress of Love and the forthcoming exhibition Forrest Bess.
Huh? Where’s the public discussion of the issues raised by The Art Guys Marry a Plant? We’re still waiting.
Yesterday Glasstire reported the remarkable news that the Menil Collection had decided to remove The Art Guys Marry a Plant from its permanent collection. (The background story is long and complicated, but there’s background here, here and here.) Today, Glasstire founder Rainey Knudson posted a rant in which she defended the piece and distorted the criticism it has received — she’s the wife of one of The Art Guys, after all — but rightly attacked the Menil’s “institutional cowardice.” Here’s where she hits the nail right on the head:
The Menil Collection has caved. And now they are trying to quietly make this whole situation go away.
From 2009, the time of the original wedding ceremony, to the moment the Menil announced in mid-2011 that they would be accessioning the piece in a dedication ceremony, until last month — all through 3+ years of off-and-on, sometimes frenzied media attention — the director of the Menil Collection, Josef Helfenstein, never once communicated with the artists, either via email, or phone, or letter, or in person. He never asked them what they thought about the artwork, and certainly never lent reassurance that that the Menil would stand by them, as it stands by all the artists in its collection who were “provocateurs” during their time (more on that issue later). In addition, he made no public statement regarding the artwork whatsoever, one way or another. The director was mute.
All true, and also consistent with how the Menil dealt with the critics of its acquisition, not just the artists. All the Menil has wanted to do since coming under fire for the accession is “quietly make this whole situation go away” — first by trying to silently ride out the controversy, and then, when it became clear that wouldn’t happen, to move the tree.
Notice I said move the tree, not remove it from its collection. So what happened?
Finally, in December 2012, the Art Guys were asked to meet with Helfenstein for a meeting in which he announced his decision to move the tree, either behind a building somewhere on the Menil campus, or preferably, off the premises entirely. The Art Guys were asked what they wanted. They said they wanted the tree to stay where it was. Their request was refused, and they were told that the tree would have to go. Given that decision, they asked to have it returned to them rather than be ignominiously hidden behind a building somewhere in Montrose.
So the museum, which owns thousands more artworks than it can put on display at any given time, apparently gave the artists the choice of whether to allow it to put this artwork in storage or to give it back to them. Is it standard Menil policy to let artists or collectors decide whether an artwork they have given the museum can ever be taken off view? Was the artwork given to the museum on the condition that it never be put into storage (in this case outdoor storage, given the nature of the piece)?
The real evidence of “institutional failure of breathtaking cowardice,” to use Knudson’s phrase, lies not in whether the tree stayed or went — no one’s going to approve of every piece a museum owns — as in the museum’s unwillingness to foster an open discussion of an artwork in its collection. The Menil acted embarrassed about the accession from the start, never truly backing up the piece, and Knudson aptly sums up the reasons why:
- They’re tired of the controversy around the artwork;
- They need to raise money for their drawing center and want this distraction to go away;
- They don’t believe in the artwork and are sorry they ever accepted it into their collection.
Given that silence was the Menil’s insistent posture, moving the tree and its accompanying plaque are better than leaving them, but if you believe museums should encourage and facilitate debate about controversial artworks they have collected, then it’s hard to argue with Knudson’s conclusion that the “Menil Collection has clearly lost its way.” Of course, that was already clear back in 2011, when the Menil quietly acquired The Art Guys Marry a Plant.
My first commercial gallery exhibition opens from 6-8 p.m. tonight at Zoya Tommy Contemporary, 3227 Milam, Houston. Please come if you can. Here is a statement I emailed Zoya about the works on view:
In summer 2010 I ended a six-year layoff from making art by stumbling upon a simple, rudimentary process to produce pictures in which performance, photography and painting could interact. The process involved using inkjet heat transfer paper intended for t-shirt iron-ons to sear images that had been captured on video into painted or unpainted canvas, then, in some cases, isolating figures in the images with more paint.
Due to such an off-label use of the transfer process, the inkjet film adhered irregularly to the canvas and suffered various abrasions, scars, burns, peeling and other “skin conditions” analogous to deterioration of the flesh. From a practical standpoint, the method allowed for both structure and deviation, for both planning and chance, for both reproduction and the handmade, for both autobiography and appropriation. It called for enamel paint and cheap, consumer-grade materials and equipment, the parameters of which determined the size and format of the pre-stretched canvases I used – typically 18-by-24 inches, which could accommodate a simple grid arrangement of four 8.5-by-11-inch transferred images.
Another important quality of the process related to my intended use of the paintings: Initially, at least, I saw them less artworks for public display than as objects to be photographed for inclusion in a fictitious monograph of a fictitious character, a deceased, “rediscovered” artist who had died under mysterious circumstances.
The character was based on who I had been prior to abandoning painting: a San Francisco-based artist/sex worker with a widely read blog that generated not only business but art sales. I stopped painting in 2004 after suffering a psychotic episode induced by a brief but intensely destructive crystal meth addiction and returning to Houston to start over, but I wasn’t sure what would cause my character’s demise. However, I knew I wanted him, like me, to have spent time in a mental hospital, and I wanted a plot twist that involved his persuading some of his clients and admirers to make and sell paintings on his behalf according to his instructions.
That wouldn’t be possible if the character painted the way I did before my 2004 implosion – in the mannered manner of an umpteenth-generation abstract expressionist. He needed a perfunctory process that broke down into simple steps that could be executed by people with little to no skill, especially since, in practice, I was going to be the one making them.
Since I was also “playing” the character, I retrieved old escort advertising photos, some of which had included depictions of encounters with clients as well as non-clients – always with permission – from my long-defunct website using the Wayback Machine. But there wasn’t enough imagery to work with, so I started recording present-day liaisons and making paintings from the stills.
The paintings themselves, which were mostly only seen by men who saw me naked, acted as seductive signifiers for new “sitters.” Guys who otherwise might have balked at appearing in a sex tape were willing, even flattered, to be in a painting that necessitated making one. Occasionally incorporating stills I’d captured at “high-art” performances and exhibitions into the imagery further reinforced its status as art. And it no doubt helped that the often severe image degradation inherent to the process of transferring already low-resolution video stills often gave the participants a fair amount of “discretion.”
This, in turn, dovetailed with the fiction that these paintings were keepsakes clients bought from my fictitious artist/sex worker to remember him by; even if their features weren’t sufficiently obscured by the transfer process, these boudoir pictures were small enough that they could be hidden at a moment’s notice. Clients who didn’t want to be in a painting but wanted one related to their time with the character might buy a canvas that just depicted me or featured related but appropriated imagery from YouTube or XTube.
Conducted in secret due to my semi-high profile as the Houston Chronicle’s art critic and one of its society reporters, the process took on a life of its own as I became increasingly interested in the interaction between the paint, the inkjet and the image. Meanwhile, my interest in the fake monograph was sidelined by real-life developments in late 2011, as my participation in a performance led to a nervous breakdown that prompted me to come out about my once-hidden past as an escort and to reenter the profession to finance a road trip that retraced the steps of one I’d made on meth in 2004. The paintings from 2012 relate to that breakdown and journey but are not meant to illuminate it; they are among the most painterly, least informative pictures in the show.
In contrast to my upcoming group show (ProjeXion with Timothy Gonzalez and Alexandre Rosa opening Jan. 25 at Avis Frank Gallery) and solo exhibition at Art League Houston (opening May 17), Keepsakes from Several Occasions consists entirely of works made before Zoya approached me about exhibiting them. I thank her for unexpectedly giving these fictitious paintings their 15 minutes of real-world exposure. Perhaps people’s real reactions or lack thereof will make it into a fake dead-artist’s monograph yet.