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The Debate Continues...

The latest chapter of Art Guys Marry a Plant divides Houston arts community

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The Art Guys Marry a Plant Photo by Everett Taasevigen
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The wedding on June 13, 2009, at the Lillie and Hugh Roy Cullen Sculpture Garden at the MFAH Photo by Everett Taasevigen
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The tree on the grounds of the Menil Collection Photo via TheArtGuys.com
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Wedding cake topper Photo via TheArtGuys.com
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This weekend, the Houston art world will add to its annals of art history not one, but two controversial performance pieces — one planted firmly in the "concept" camp with the other touting a solidly "political" angle. The local art community appears equally divided, with many opinions but few individuals willing to go on the record with their gripes.

The story begins on a sunny Saturday morning in June 2009, when noted Houston art duo, The Art Guys, married a live oak tree in a public wedding ceremony sponsored by the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston. Nearly 600 guests attended the event at the Cullen Sculpture Garden of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, including the existing human wives of “Art Guys” Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing.

This Saturday marks the newest chapter of the Art Guys Marry a Plant piece, as the happily married live oak officially joins The Menil Collection in a public dedication ceremony. The event will place the tree on the grounds of the revered museum, which houses an esteemed collection of works produced by a range of artists, from Max Ernst and Marcel Duchamp to Andy Warhol and Cindy Sherman.

In the past week, however, Houston Chronicle arts writer Douglas Britt has attempted to redirect attention surrounding the tree dedication with the staging of his own counter marriage (and “swift, amicable divorce”) to Houston art publicist Reese Darby. Titled Art Gay Marries a Woman, the ceremony takes place tonight as a warmup act for an amateur strip contest. Acclaimed artist Dario Robleto has conceived a special "giveaway piece" for the occasion, Britt said.

 "They didn't even maintain a superficial commitment to the tree," Britt told CultureMap in an email exchange. "Menil groundskeepers, not them, will care for it." 

In light of the 2005 Texas ban on gay marriage, the writer views his arrangement with Reese as a legal “gesture of civil obedience” that comments on the manner in which The Art Guys “ignore the social context” surrounding their tree marriage.

"They didn't even maintain a superficial commitment to the tree," he told CultureMap in an email exchange. "Menil groundskeepers, not them, will care for it."

Britt spoke out against the Marry a Plant project in 2009, claiming the work “inadvertently reinforces” a slippery slope argument that labels gay marriage as a gateway to allowing people to marry animals and other non-human partners.

"This is particularly difficult for me as I love The Art Guys," noted Houston gallerist Wade Wilson, "but I am also very committed to civil and human rights for all — without exception. Douglas Britt’s point is well-taken..."

 “Marriage and the ceremony are structures and contrivances that we didn’t invent,” Galbreth said. “[They’re] just the material available to us as artists in a social-sculptural way.”

Not all people in the arts community agree, however. A number of individuals, all of whom declined to have their names listed, noted a concern about the Art Gay Marries a Woman project’s treatment of Reese, who seems little more than a prop in a performance piece.

Others questioned the choice of venue, which Britt called his “favorite gay strip club” in a video wedding invitation, feeling the establishment comes off as unfriendly to women. In the end, many suggested, the strip club venue overrides the very attention to "social context" Britt felt lacking in the Marry a Tree piece.

Dubbed by The New York Times as a cross between John Cage and the Smothers Brothers (as well as "part Dada, part David Letterman"), The Art Guys are notorious for their often silly vaudevillian flair, which sometimes outstages any underlying political or social commentary.

They've done 24-hour stints as convenience store clerks and plastered themselves in advertising space. They spent the better part of a year "bulking up" for a 1995 exhibition at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, with which the Art Guys would organize the 2009 tree wedding with then-CAM-curator Toby Kamps, now the Menil's modern and contemporary art curator.

"From an historical perspective, The Art Guys have done a lot of quasi-contentious work," said artist and Glasstire news and events editor Bill Davenport. "The fact that they've stepped into actual controversy is somewhat unexpected. I can imagine they're probably somewhat surprised themselves."

When CultureMap spoke with The Art Guys earlier this week, the artists remained focused on the continued evolution of the Marry a Plant project in terms of conceptual art and welcomed any commentary as part of the piece's full artistic scope.

“There’s been a lot of conjecture and a lot of writing about this piece,” Michael Galbreth said. “We can’t control what people think. We don’t intend to.”

“We wish to do our work in the most public of circumstances as often as we can,” he continued, “and then to allow people to think about things themselves and to consider the same things we consider.”

While both Galbreth and Massing support gay marriage rights, they insist their intent for the project was to use the act of marriage in the broadest sense, an ancient formal union between two abstract entities.

“Marriage and the ceremony are structures and contrivances that we didn’t invent,” Galbreth said. “[They’re] just the material available to us as artists in a social-sculptural way.”

He said the concept of marriage in the tree wedding ceremony had little meaning for the artists aside from being "considered an absurd gesture."

 “[People] are welcome to feel as though we’re making fun of gay marriage, which we’re not,” said Jack Massing about the Marry a Plant piece. “That’s definitely there, without a doubt, because it’s about marriage, but marriage in a bigger sense than just gay marriage. There are a lot of other kinds of marriage.”

In closing, Massing said that an essential part of the piece was the notion of “becoming more aware of your surroundings,” a recurring theme throughout the history of modern performance art.

The dedication ceremony for The Art Guys Marry a Plant takes place Saturday at 10:30 a.m. in Menil Park, between The Menil Collection and the Rothko Chapel. A reception for the artists’ new Mountains of of Molehills exhibit follows at noon at the Art Guys Studio (5755 Knox).

Douglas Britt and Reese Darby’s The Art Gay Marries a Woman marriage will be staged on at 10:30 tonight at Tony's Corner Pocket (817 West Dallas).

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