Brooklyn’s beloved Bruce High Quality Foundation (BHQF) is having a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. This is an insider show from a group that tries very hard to appear as outsiders while being completely fluent in artspeak, increasingly known as International Art English.
The Bruces, as they’re often affectionately referred to, are a group that aims to “invest the experience of public space with wonder, to resurrect art history from the bowels of despair, and to impregnate the institutions of art with the joy of man’s desiring,” in their own words. The problem with that is not everyone thinks art history really needs resurrecting from the “bowels of despair.” There are many artists, art groups, and collectives that are grappling with art history in diverse and interesting ways, but these kind of extreme statements reveal BHQF’s strengths — polemical statements that make you want to believe them — and weaknesses —insularity that makes you wonder if they are looking at the work of other artists enough.
The joke of the Bruces is that they are in fact insiders, even if everyone loves to point out that they’re anonymous. This is a group that has been invited to show at the 2010 Whitney Biennial, do an installation and teach classes at the Russian oligarch-funded New Holland island in St. Petersburg, Russia, and create elaborate installations at the W Hotel in South Beach during art fair week (their opening was attended by billionaire collectors). They’re represented by Vito Schnabel, son of artist Julian Schnabel.Their insistence on anonymity can also be frustrating considering they often criticize others; anonymous critics, as anyone in the age of the internet knows, can be irritating because it removes them from individual scrutiny. Are the Bruces all white? Are they all rich? Are they all male? Are they all straight? Are they American citizens? Do they have other art careers? The group was once known to be all (or at least mostly) male graduates of Cooper Union, but fact-checking that is difficult.
Critic Christian Viveros-Faune places a nice spin on BHQF’s desire to be anonymous. In a recent review, he writes, “The Bruces’ Batmanning of celebrity consequently frees them to be actual working artists rather than superstar wannabes.” That seems too kind, since anonymity is nothing new as a ploy for attention or publicity in the art world or even in the realm of pop culture. The Guerrila Girls and Banksy are two examples of how anonymity doesn’t necessarily hinder art world stardom, and in the case of the latter, it actually helped to transform the British street artist (we’re still assuming one individual though we really have no real proof it is) into a superstar.
One of BHQF’s skills is their ability to remix established art-world norms and inject a confrontational posture that creates discussion and generates press. Their Brucennial, for instance, is really a reworking of Sideshow Gallery’s come-one, come-all annual, but set in opposition to the Whitney Biennial, which makes the idea sexier though not much different.
But that’s not to say there aren’t interesting things about the Bruces, including their explorations of the nature of arts education and art norms, which can be fascinating. Where they get less interesting is when they veer off into examining questions of labor, which, though noble, often comes off feeling a tad hollow. Their appropriation of the inflatable rat used by American unions is one such example. Their 2012 exhibition at Lever House on Park Avenue, Art History with Labor, featured a large bronze replica of the inflatable rat in the courtyard of the complex, “The New Colossus” (2012). I’m going to give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that their intention may have been to make viewers think about the relationship of labor, art, and money at the epicenter of Park Avenue’s 1% excess, but in reality it domesticates the power of a symbol being used by real protesters throughout the city — even the Lever House website explains it “undermined the political content” of the original symbol.
The group’s strongest work comes through performances like “The Gate: Not the Idea of the Thing but the Thing Itself” (2005), in which they chased a re-creation of Robert Smithson’s “Floating Island” in a boat that was outfitted with a faux Christo and Jeanne-Claude “Gate” across the East River. In “The Gate,” the act of chasing and possibly diverting or changing art history seems to capture the bigger goal of BHQF. Their Bruce High Quality Foundation University is equally important as one of many new forms of alternative arts education that have emerged since 2008. And then there are their numerous and wonky self-portraits (they’re anonymous, get it?), which comment on the nature of contemporary identity cobbled together from history, accident, and taste.
The current show at the Brooklyn Museum is a good primer for those who may not know the work of BHQF. It includes numerous versions of their riff on Michelangelo’s beloved “David,” which has become the group’s avatar of sorts.
Despite BHQF’s shortcoming, I do recommend this show. It is not that I don’t like the ambition of the Bruces and their body of work, but I simply wish some of their rhetoric would wash away so that their performances, objects, and projects could have more room to speak for themselves.