Two weeks after the attack on the tree at the center of their controversial Art Guys Marry a Plant project, the art team of Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing still seemed a bit shaken by the surprise act of vandalism.
“We’re big boys,” Galbreth told CultureMap in an interview at the Art Guys’ studio. “There’s not much people can do hurt our feelings after 28 years of working together.
“Honestly, though, we don’t know how to deal with this yet. For now, we’ve decided not to remain silent.”
Former Houston Chronicle arts writer Douglas Britt, now Devon Britt-Darby, led the opposition with a staged public protest marriage and a string of heated online videos about the piece. Following his sudden Nov. 28 departure from the Chronicle, Britt-Darby embarked on a soul-searching road trip he currently charts on his blog.
"I can't think of another instance in Houston when an artwork has been publicly vandalized," Galbreth said. "This is new and strange to us . . .
On Nov. 30, a piece of curtain hardware acting as a wedding ring around one of the tree’s branches was stolen, according to Jack Massing. The artists decided to remain quiet and replace the ring after tensions calmed, but on the morning of Dec. 3, the tree was discovered snapped near its base.
At 2:30 p.m. the day of the vandalism, Houston police received a phone call reporting a Nov. 29 argument between The Art Guys and art dealer Hiram Butler outside Butler’s gallery. The artists declined to comment on the occurrence and Butler, who filed the complaint, could not be reached.
The details of the verbal confrontation remain unclear, although the incident has been confirmed in a HPD report obtained by CultureMap.
"There's an irony to this protest that doesn’t seem to get discussed," Massing said. "If you have a group of people trying to get their rights under the law — and I totally believe in equal marriage rights — trying to violate someone else’s right to make art seems like odd choice.”
"I can't think of another instance in Houston when an artwork has been publicly vandalized," Galbreth said. "This is new and strange to us . . . I love this city and I love the art community here. We deserve a higher-level of discourse.
"As far as the actions that have occurred with this piece, something has changed. You can't damage a Paul Kittelson sculpture, if you don't like it. You can't do it to Joe Mancuso or Rachel Hecker, if you don't like their work."
“We don’t have any control over what people say about the piece and that’s fine,” Massing said. “However, we do have something to say about someone who tries to vandalize a piece of art — that’s just wrong.”
The Art Guys Lie in State
Turning to a nearby computer, Galbreth brought up images from a 2008 piece entitled The Art Guys Lie in State. For the work, which was staged for an hour during the noon hour lunch rush, the two artists assumed the role of dignified corpses placed on risers in the Rotunda of Houston’s City Hall.
As a point of comparison to the tree marriage, he said, passersby could interpret the project as a commentary on the death of a gay couple, but they could also view it as a piece on funeral practices or the role of government in death. The piece, like the Marry a Plant project, isn’t intended to be about one specific aspect of death, but rather about a broader look at death itself.
"We don’t have any control over what people say about the piece and that’s fine,” Massing said. “However, we do have something to say about someone who tries to vandalize a piece of art — that’s just wrong.”
"We do stuff in public contrary to a lot of social norms," Galbreth said. "In some ways we ask for criticism like this. But we always do our work in an open and self-critical way. We're not asking anyone to do anything. We're just inviting them along to watch.”
Nevertheless, The Art Guys Marry a Plant has received a barrage of anti-gay accusations in the past two years while what they view as a similar Lie in State piece received mainly positive reviews.
The Umbrella Man
To explain the complex nature of reading intent, Galbreth and Massing showed a brief online video called The Umbrella Man by Errol Morris, marking the recent 48th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination.
Long a suspect in JFK’s shooting, Louis Steven Witt was brought before a U.S. House committee to explain why he was the only person in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 carrying an umbrella. For years, conspiracy theorists speculated on Witt’s involvement, going so far as to suggest his mysterious black umbrella was equipped with a gun. In the end Witt claimed it was only a simple act of protest about Joseph Kennedy’s actions at the start of World War II.
Galbreth sees similarities with that situation and the criticism of the Marry a Plant piece.
“You can’t just assign these meanings to things, these sinister meanings that don’t exist," he said. "It’s not fair. You can’t put a gun in the umbrella.”