Professors, patrons and University of Houston students stood in anticipation at high noon outside the campus' new Cougar Village freshman dorm on Wednesday, awaiting the reveal of The Art Guys' latest installation, "The Statue of Four Lies."
"Today, literally, is our first time seeing it, just as everyone else," Art Guy Michael Galbreth told CultureMap. "Up until now, the statues have been concealed."
The Art Guys, the collaborative title of UH alumni Galbreth and Jack Massing, first conceived the design of the installation a year ago and had kept the installation under red drapes until the reveal. True to their propensity for the theatrical, Galbreth and Massing coordinated an elaborate ceremony before spectators could see the statues, which are only part of a larger installation grounded on a limestone stage and backdrop.
The pre-unveiling festivities included introductory music by Hank Schyma and Stu Mulligan (Jim Pirtle) singing "God Bless America" from lyrics written on various parts of his body, followed by Honors College professor Richard Armstrong speaking in a sardonic voice on the importance of absurdity on college campuses. As dignitaries spoke, a messenger airplane hovered overhead carrying a flowing banner with the title, "The Statue of Four Lies."
Such elaborately composed happenings have earned The Art Guys recognition from the New York Times as "a cross between Dada, David Letterman, John Cage and the Smothers Brothers."
The Guys enlisted entertainer Okashunal "OK" Sabudis BrownKlown to perform "magic tricks" for the audience. The clown, also known as Nestor Topchy, offered antics involving a can of whipped cream, a lit fuse and a disappearing act (in which the character absconded behind the sparkling new dorm). The juxtaposition of Topchy's avant-garde piece and the UH cheerleaders standing behind him embodies the Art Guys' keen eye for irony.
"It means a lot to us to do something here at the University of Houston," Galbreth said of his alma mater. He and Massing met as art students at UH in 1981.
Massing told CultureMap, "It was great studying art here in the early '80s. The Lawndale Annex was in full swing." (The Annex was the precursor to the Lawndale Art Center.) "We were involved pretty heavily from the beginning, doing performance and sculpture at UH and setting up shows at Lawndale," Massing added.
As art students, Galbreth and Massing studied under acclaimed sculptor James Surls, to whom Massing attributes not so much art instruction as inspiration for the holistic lifestyle of an artist.
"He can teach you how to weld or carve, all that stuff, but what he did best was inspire students how to live like artists," Massing said. "Mike and I took that lesson and are continuing with it."
Indeed, The Art Guys are bringing art into every life process, whether it be marrying a tree or selling funerary busts of themselves. The pair's passion for bringing art into the everyday is closely aligned with the University's "Percent for Art Program," an initiative in which one percent of all funds for a new building are dedicated to public art projects. Andy Warhol, Frank Stella, Luis Jimenez, Carlos Cruz Diaz and Jim Love are among the names scattered about the school.
On the addition of the new work, UH president Renu Khator commented, "I am just so proud — it's defining art for a Tier 1 university. The work makes you think; people will come here to contemplate." Khator was also beaming over the current construction of seven buildings on campus, which translates to seven more art installations.
In his address, curator of public art collections Mike Guidry explained that The Art Guys' installation makes reference to "The Statue of Three Lies" at Harvard University (one of the lies being that the statue is not of John Harvard). The UH incarnation includes its own set of lies, one of which is a plaque reading, "Erected circa 1983."
The two statues of The Art Guys are in a presentative position, arms outstretched.
"It's a theatrical pose," Galbreth explained. "There are different things, not meanings, but allusions, built into the piece. You'll just have to discover them."
A time capsule, to be salvaged on the university's centennial, was buried behind the plaque. Continues Massing:
We have a history here as students, and we taught here as well. So we have a certain amount of empathy and connection to the campus as well as to public art in and of itself. Putting a piece of art here that was not connected necessarily to the university would have been a mistake. So we decided to make something interactive. This is like a moment frozen in time."
Although "The Statue of Four Lies" communicates permanence through bronze and stone, it is pregnant with potential.
"From here on," explained Massing, "students will interact with these sculptures for the rest of the time that they're here, either by posing with them, dressing them up, putting moustaches on them and bags on their heads ... or what have you."