Marrying a tree isn’t a new story. The Art Guys, Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth, did it back in June 2009 in the Museum of Fine Arts’ sculpture garden. The piece garnered mass disdain- for one thing it wasn’t art and for another it cast a foul light on the controversy surrounding the issue of gay marriage. The pomp and circumstance of the ceremony seemed like so much gilding the lily (or covering a pile of shit in glitter) to critical and aesthetic observers that the tree dying in the CAMH’s art gallery over the next month as a part of “No Zoning” went largely unnoticed. Luckily the tree was given a reprieve from its darkened existence when the exhibit ended and the tiny Live Oak was moved to outside Galbreth’s home in Acres Homes for the next year and a half. The back-and-forth between artists and critics subsided and “No Zoning” was dubbed one of the best exhibits of the year based on other, stronger works in the show.
One of the toughest critics of “The Art Guys Marry a Plant” was Houston Chronicle art and society writer Douglas Britt, who took a strong line against the work’s implied attack on gay marriage. Whether the Art Guys were reinforcing the slippery slope argument of conservatives that allowing gay marriage will lead to plural marriage, marrying humans and animals, et al or Galbreth and Massing were critiquing the denial of rights to gay couples with an absurd extension of their argument went unestablished. Galbreth and Massing went back to producing uncontroversial, self-referentially banal works for airports and public spaces and Britt went back to reviewing exhibitions and society ladies’ soirees. Everything was hunky dory until the tree came out of hiding in November this year. Then shit just exploded.
The Menil Collection decided to buy the piece, planting the tree in their park and holding a ceremony with the artists. The background action was that Toby Kamps, the curator of “No Zoning”, and the Zilkhas, collectors of Art Guys works, facilitated the purchase by the Menil- Kamps’ new employer and a receiver of the Zilkhas’ benefaction. Collectors gifting works to museums happens all the time. It increases the value of works by the same artists in the collectors’ private holdings. They aren’t usually new works, though. This validation of “the Art Guys Marry a Plant” set something off in Britt- he mounted a psychological cliff prepared for a steep descent.
First, Britt mounted a vocal protest across the street during the sculpture’s dedication. Then he wrote an article for the Chron denouncing the artwork, which had all mention of the Zilkhas censored by the editor. Britt begged every woman he knew to marry him, as a conceptual artwork. While they all turned him down, he met Reese Darby on Twitter and married her in a gay bar. He posted videos about how someone could easily damage the little tree in the Menil’s park that was suddenly a big deal. Britt changed his name to Devon Britt-Darby. He outed himself as a male escort, took a leave and/or was fired from the Houston Chronicle, started the blog Reliable Narratives to chronicle a trip to Miami comparing his years as a meth addict to now, and posted dozens of pictures and videos of himself in various states of undress. During the time he was out of town someone snapped “The Art Guys Marry a Plant” in half, provoking uproar from Britt and everyone else except the Art Guys. The morning of the ‘attack’ on the artwork a police report was filed after an altercation between Massing, Galbreth and gallerist Hiram Butler in front of his gallery. Huffington Post reports “They [The Art Guys] called him [Butler] “a coward and an evil fuck” and accused him of being “an unhappy homosexual.”” Rumors are that the tree smasher could have been a sympathizer with Britt-Darby, the Art Guys, a friend of Butler or just bored teenagers. Both the art critic and the artists have been accused of mass hypocrisy and both responded with harsh vitriol. Britt-Darby is still out of town, posting pics of his abs on his blog and railing against the Art Guys. The tree has been saved for the moment, even if it is a stub of its former self.
After all this mess, the most important result is that the Chronicle has no art critic and will not get a new one for the foreseeable future. Britt and the Art Guys have equaled each other in navel-gazing, demonstrating their inability to explain themselves clearly or to make art or art criticism accessible. They have alienated many people with their callous actions and set the Houston artworld further back from recognizing conceptual artwork as valid for years to come. Accusations of homophobia, witch hunting and professional incompetence are seeping out of the controversy which will inevitably leave a stain on Houston’s already soiled reputation. In the end, both Britt and the Art Guys are living out their own version of “art as life” by extending the metaphors made well-worn by Joseph Beuys and Bruce Nauman and abandoning the idea of “art for art’s sake.” There is no beauty to be found in the Art Guys’ works or Britt’s social sculpture web videos, only the pain of destroying art in a misguided run towards celebrity. As an anonymous commenter on Robert Boyd’s art blog “The Great God Pan is Dead” remarks; “I recommended some time ago that someone should buy Britt a shirt and stuff it in his mouth.” I’d say he should buy three.
p.s. – “The Great God Pan is Dead” is deftly reviewing the best and worst Houston exhibits of 2011, check it out. Boyd is the only art critic left in Houston.