Bruce High Quality Foundation: A Retrospective Susan Inglett Gallery April 24 - May 24, 2008
On either side of the entrance to Bruce High Quality Foundation’s retrospective at Susan Inglett Gallery, two C-prints appear in modest steel frames. At right hangs an image of the New Museum’s lauded façade, with its rainbow-loud “HELL YES” motto, here reduced to unassuming silver-grays; at left is Bruce High Quality Foundation’s response: a picture of a brick building across the street from the museum, festooned with the phrase “HEAVEN FORBID” and patrolled by a tall figure peering with binoculars directly at the viewer. Recalling snapshots of Weather Underground operatives on-the-move, this dissident diptych says a great deal about the tenor of the exhibition, which tackles topics ranging from the Miami Art Fair to 9/11 with the same enthusiastic aggression. Each sculpture, photograph, combine and video in the collection points to an aspect of contemporary culture’s output and forcibly puts forth an alternative—which seems an essential function of the BHQF as a whole.
After its inception in 2004, the BHQF concocted so many appealing stories about itself, and then pulled off such unbelievable stunts thereafter, that its true history is difficult to cull from the propaganda. According to a mission statement, BHQF is a collective dedicated to preserving the extant work of the “late social sculptor” Bruce High Quality, and to carrying forward his aesthetic vision in hopes of “restoring wonder to the experience of public space.” In the retrospective, this sometimes means making smart jabs at the false idols of arts education and the fine arts industry with sculptures fashioned from KFC chicken bones hunched atop high pedestals and a Jeff Wall-sized photograph of Drawing 101 students adoring a tableau vivant of the crucifixion. But BHQF’s pursuits more often take the form of contained interventions / performances (running the gamut from playful and private music videos to risky ventures on the East river) accompanied by a barrage of mockery and Post-Modern, Post-Structuralist, Post-Everything meta-criticism. It launches a multi-pronged total-war on the art world—museums, art fairs, art schools, our compliance with them, our discourse about them, our discourse about our discourse about them—pointing most damningly to the ‘consumerist interests’ and larger social problems that lie just behind the whole mess.
This persistent interest in interventions feels apropos in light of the art community’s rising fear of art institutions and the chimerical art market, but BHQF’s contemporaries usually take a less antagonistic stance. In April, for example, a small group of SVA graduate students earned national attention by crawling along the Museum of Modern Art’s bathroom floors, scattering flower petals and installing drawings over sinks in an orchestrated comment on the museum’s impenetrability. Such demonstrations run their course silently and, because they betray no overtly aggressive intent, are dealt with gently. In fact, some institutions are beginning to welcome these happenings, even absorb them into their identity. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art Community Producer Suzanne Stein recently welcomed spontaneous dancer Kara Davis onto her Open Space blog after a similar intervention, and then interviewed demonstrator Lou Huang about his “Man Leaning on the Wall Project,” a performance so calm that museum guards thought Huang might have had the museum’s go-ahead. Few of today’s demonstrators have matched BHQF’s audacity—the collective has rolled horse-sized puppet heads into exhibitions, chased Robert Smithson’s floating “park” up the East River by motorboat with a fake Christo “gate,” and, most perfectly, reconstructed Gericault’s macabre Le Radeau de la Méduse on the shores of Brooklyn. It should be noted that these radical acts are ultimately repackaged into more consumable / digestible forms for display in galleries or art fairs, but even after this concession is made, their sense of urgency remains intact—a speech delivered via megaphone in Miami that conflates the art world with destructive hotel developers, calling them both the new conquistadors, retains its unnerving qualities even when it appears as a text in the BHQF catalogue. BQHF drops no flower petals. Their imagery centers on revolution, war, destruction, and collapse.
The retrospective’s video pieces provide further forays into darker themes. Drawing from a pool of culturally significant images, “Public Art & Collaboration” (2008) questions the social function of art and community, both of which are portrayed here in their worst forms. Under the heading of collaboration, we see a lynched African American and the first encounter between Native Americans and colonists; under public art we see war monuments and the 9/11 attacks; and though the video offers some optimistic aspects of both (including peaceful protests) the viewer leaves shaken. “Art History with Food” (2008) offers a more humorous but hardly more optimistic view, providing a timeline of important art historical moments peppered with the dates of corporate mergers and subtle economic shifts, all from the mouths of animated comfort food and canned goods—a history of consumption by the consumed. (After noting yet another recession, a dead-pan hamburger utters a “Hell yes.”) BHQF expands the implications of its work out of the aesthetic and into the political, viewing all performative manifestations of cultural tension as art pieces (see: lynching and World Trade imagery) rather than commenting solely on problems of form, or of nepotism / elitism within the art community.
Perhaps the breadth of ideas addressed by BHQF and the cacophonous intensity of its message dulls the viewer’s capacity to absorb the retrospective’s individual pieces. A pile of wooden cell phones lies ready for burning over here, Susan Sontag’s name echoes from speakers over there, and it is sometimes difficult to tell if BHQF advocates anything but dissent itself. But the collective does more than raise issues. In one catalog essayist’s interpretation of BHQF’s Radeau redux, the reenactment is a criticism of the barrier between Brooklyn and Manhattan’s art circles—young starving artists launch a doomed raft toward the promise of success but end up cannibalizing one another. Perhaps there’s more here. Crossing certainly isn’t an issue for BHQF, which has crossed the East river both literally (see: motorboat) and figuratively (into the Chelsea gallery scene). BHQF wouldn’t reenact this scene unless it wanted to revel in that moment on the limns, to demonstrate the exhilarating effect of standing on the other side, whatever the consequences. BHQF criticizes Manhattan’s exclusivity and the New Museum’s elitism—but more importantly, it disempowers them by encouraging a search for alternatives.
Learn more about Bruce High Quality Foundation by visiting http://www.thebrucehighqualityfoundation.com, or by viewing samples of their video work at http://www.youtube.com/user/thebrucehighquality.