Mastering the Midwest

Houston invades Chicago: Art Guys dock "fix- ice machine" sculpture at Navy Pier

Houston invades Chicago: Art Guys dock "fix- ice machine" sculpture at Navy Pier

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The Art Guys, "fix- ice machine." Photo via The Art Guys
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The inspiration for "fix- ice machine."
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Ed Ruscha, "Untitled (#1), 2007-08, Acrylic on canvas. Collection of Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.
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Shepard Fairey with his Obama Hope artwork at Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston
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The Art Guys Photo by Mark Seliger
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Headed to the Windy City this summer? You'll want to stop by the Chicago Navy Pier, where the Houston-based The Art Guys have installed, "fix - ice machine," a treated plywood and lumber text-based sculpture. The work is part of an outdoor exhibition curated by Joseph Tabet in collaboration with Dave Hickey.

The Art Guys are accompanied by other illustrious art world names like Terry Allen and Shepard Fairey, the artist behind the iconic Obama "HOPE" poster.

The Art Guys' mammoth sculpture features the typo-ridden advertisement, "FIX- ICEMACHENE." What may initially appear a commentary on global warming is in fact a Dada take on a local repairman's oft-misspelled advertisement signs. "There's a person in our neighborhood of Acre Homes that puts up hand-painted signs to fix things like washers and dryers," says Michael Galbreth of The Art Guys. The artist argues, however, that the appropriated phrase has no particular meaning, describing the work as a "big sculpture spectacle."

 Despite the sculpture's meaninglessness, The Art Guys say they drew inspiration from such diverse sources as Texas highways and 1960s conceptual art. 

Despite the sculpture's meaninglessness, The Art Guys say they drew inspiration from such diverse sources as Texas highways and 1960s conceptual art. "The idea dates back 20 years to a very large 'T' that sits out in front of a business on the side of the freeway on the way from here to Dallas," says Galbreth, explaining that he became fond of the letter's non-sequitur appeal and the idea of "hovering words with no relationship to themselves."

The other half of The Art Guys, Jack Massing, adds, "It doesn't have meaning, but anytime you make anything, people automatically find meaning to it, like seeing God in the clouds. Since this work is language-based, there's obvious meaning spectators will associate with words. For example, the ice machine in my freezer is broken — but that had nothing to do with this project."

Massing says that the aspect of text as art partially derives from the work of Los Angeles-based artist Ed Ruscha. "Ruscha came up with the notion that a word could have a portrait just like a dog or a person," says Massing, who also cites Wayne White's paintings of words on landscapes as inspiration.

Over the past decades, Chicago has evolved into a model for quality civic art agendas under the auspices of former Mayor Richard M. Daley. A city once defined by its manufacturing and commercial base is now widely associated with icons such as Millennium Park's "Cloud Gate" (also known as, "The Bean"), a massive, reflective steel structure designed by sculptor Anish Kapoor.

"Chicago is committed to the idea of public art integrated into the fabric of the city," Galbreth says. "It's a very urban, pedestrian place. They get that, so they invest in it. This idea of civicness — it's attractive to me."

That "civicness" is on full display at the reinvigorated Navy Pier recreational destination on the shore of Lake Michigan. This year's summer exhibition represents a new initiative to annually employ temporary public art onto the site. An estimated three million people visited the sculptures during the weekend of their unveiling.

The Art Guys were handpicked for the show by art writer Dave Hickey, who assisted the Navy Pier's curator Joseph Tabot.

"We were contacted out of the blue at the end of April — it was a very, very, very fast turnaround," Galbreth says.

Budget constraints led the team to plywood. Explains Galbreth, "It was so modest, but our goal was to try to do something that would be of interest to the general public. When people go to the Navy Pier, they are expecting to be entertained. It had to be palatable, and language is one of those things."

Can't make it to Chicago before the sculpture comes down on Nov. 6? The Art Guys will be featured in a group exhibition at McClain Gallery opening on Friday. Their next venture is a project with the East End Management District.