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Still from 'Isle of the Dead' (2008)


The collective of anonymous young artists who go by the name Bruce High Quality Foundation has generated much buzz in the New York art world and some puzzlement since emerging in 2004. They’ve been celebrated as a breath of fresh air and suspected of self-entitlement and covert careerism. Who are they? Where did they come from? Are they insiders or outsiders?

“The Bruce High Quality Foundation: Ode to Joy, 2001-2013,” a messy, cacophonous retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum, sheds little light on such questions, and since much of what the foundation has done has involved performance, lectures and the creation of a tuition-free art school and other sorts of social action, it may not be the right occasion for definitive judgment. But the show of about 50 pieces, organized by Eugenie Tsai, the museum’s curator of contemporary art, brings enough together for some assessment.

First, there’s the title, “Ode to Joy,” a reference to the popular fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony. It’s the official anthem of the European Union and was a favorite with the Nazis; Hitler liked to have it played on his birthday. Using it to name the show is in keeping with the High Quality Foundation’s jaundiced view of mainstream culture.

There are some things here that are funny to think about again. One day in 2005, two foundation members in a small boat followed a barge carrying “Floating Island” — a sculpture conceived by Robert Smithson — their own vessel equipped with an orange structure like one of “The Gates,”the Christo and Jeanne-Claude work that had recently graced Central Park. The boat is displayed here on a bed of rocks, recalling a nice spoof of expensive, anodyne public art.

A big inflated rat at the start of the show gestures toward support for union activism, but most of the group’s efforts aim to deflate the cult of art. In a large, glossy photograph and a bigger version on canvas, naked men replace the women in a construction mimicking Picasso’s “Desmoiselle’s d’Avignon.” This might have meant something back in the 1970s, when feminism was making art world waves. Now it’s a clichéd idea.

Giant silk-screen-on-canvas reproductions of the photograph of soldiers raising the flag at Iwo Jima also beat a conceptual dead horse. A photographic re-creation of Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa” with foundation members assuming positions of shipwreck victims on a junky, makeshift platform at the East River’s edge is supposed to allegorize the economic plight of ordinary Americans, but comes off as more of an art-about-art joke.

Better, because they are provocatively ambiguous, are a couple of imitation Warhols. “The Wives (Silver on Grey)” is a series of photo-based, silk-screened portraits of women identified as spouses of wealthy men convicted of corrupt business dealings. Is this sexist or mock-sexist? Hard to say.

“Stations of the Cross” is a set of canvases hanging in a long row, each a blurry, silk-screened, photographic image of the World Trade Center twin towers shortly after the planes hit. This work might project elegiac feelings, but in the context of a show in which mockery is the prevailing spirit, it’s potentially offensive. (The foundation, incidentally, claims its purpose is to preserve the legacy of Bruce High Quality, a “social sculptor” who died in the Sept. 11 attacks.)

A separate, room-filling installation addresses the low-risk topic of the pedagogy of art. The middle of the gallery is occupied by classroom furniture clumsily cobbled together out of wallboard. Green chalkboards on the walls are covered by mostly illegible verbiage scribbled in chalk. Kitschy reproductions of classical head sculptures splattered with primary colors and with cigarette butts stuck in their mouths are displayed on a ledge above the chalkboards. Presented within museum-style vitrines are crude copies of ancient Greek and Roman artifacts that look as if they were made by middle-school art students.

It’s mystifying that a group of young rebels supposed to be savvy operators could produce such mirthless and toothless satire.

One thing that the Bruce High Quality Foundation is really good at is making videos. Its members montage voices, music, movie and television clips from YouTube with skillful panache. The soundtrack alone for “Five Courses of Empire” — a mix of jazz, pop, rock and classical — is a joy to listen to. “We Like America and America Likes Us” has a long, plangent voice-over dramatizing tortured love affairs between different personifications of America and different narrators. It sounds authentically felt.

“Isle of the Dead” is a short zombie movie in which an unspecified catastrophe has killed off the art world population. A young female zombie rises from a gallery floor and, to the sound of “Summer of ’69,” Bryan Adams’s rousing, nostalgic rock anthem, shuffles her way to a theater filled with other, grumbling waking dead. As images of avant-garde art and news events from the ’60s flicker on the movie screen, the ghoulish audience rises and sings the Adams song in unison. Its refrain, “Those were the best days of my life,” evokes a time when it appeared that truly radical happenings were transforming art and culture.

By contrast to the facile, academic commentary animating much of the group’s other work, these videos have an affecting pathos.

If, as they evidently are, the members of the Bruce High Quality Foundation are millennials, who entered adulthood after Sept. 11 — an economically and spiritually challenging time to come of age — then it’s easier to look with sympathy past their too-often stale irreverence and to sense genuine feelings of sadness and disappointment combined with plucky determination to carry on anyway. All things considered, they at least deserve an A for effort.

The Bruce High Quality Foundation exhibition continues through Sept. 22 at the Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, at Prospect Park; (718) 638-5000,