Life, Death, and Much, Much More!
A Miami Getaway with The Bruce High Quality Foundation
by Matthew Alie
For some artists, death marks a transformation from celebrity to mythology. In the quote above, eccentric art duo Gilbert & George touch upon the familiar notion that-for the true genius- art is the source of immortality. Death can fall like a period at the end of a profound statement; it can enshrine a career in prophetic vision and cement the artist’s place in cultural history. And particularly for those already famous in life, viewing their work through the lens of death can add value to a piece like museum glass. Bruce High Quality, the late-great social sculptor from Jersey City who you’ve never heard of, got a head start on all this by dying before he did anything else.
The Bruce High Quality Foundation, the official arbiter of the artist’s estate, is an anonymous collective of New York based artists known for their unique brand of criticism. Choosing to tackle major paradoxes at the heart of the contemporary art world (literally in the case of their ongoing performance Public Sculpture Tackle), they fight fire with fire. The sculptures, videos, and performances for which they are known frame an intimate knowledge of art history and the art market with intriguing contradiction and satisfyingly immature satire. Their star in the art world is rapidly rising as they look ahead towards their debut at the esteemed Whitney Biennial and P.S.1’s “Greater New York” exhibition.
The long and fascinating relationship between the art market and art history is continually explored and exploited by the Bruces, as the members of the Foundation are known. Over the last century, the assessment of monetary versus cultural values in art has changed from an inseparable process to a virtually indistinguishable one. If I sell something you think is entirely worthless for millions, you certainly won’t have the luxury of ignoring it. Inversely, if a work gains cultural clout (sometimes via the death of the artist) it will in turn command greater capital weight. For example, some remark that dying was the best career move Jean-Michel Basquiat ever made; even in this time of economic strife, his legend continues to hold fast in the upper echelons of collections and sales. It is an ugly thought given his youth but still relevant.
Well aware that “death is for losers” and “afterlife is for geniuses,” The Bruce High Quality Foundation turned this triedand- true relationship on its head by starting with the death of its founder and cultivating his mythology as a premise for new art. In a culture driven by celebrity, the anonymous collective thrusts Bruce High Quality forth to seize the cultural (and therefore financial) value art history reserves for its mythical figures. They say get busy living or get busy dying-but why not do both?
For three days at the beginning of each December, Art Basel Miami descends upon the sunny shores of Florida like a hurricane. In its sixth incarnation this year, the international art festival drew the richest of collectors, the sexiest of stars, and the baddest of the it-kids. An overwhelming quantity of art sprawled across the central trade show and the many satellite fairs that have sprung up over the years, satisfying every niche market. Amidst a sea of pulsing techno and beach hotels, the spectacle of artistry pivoted around a slavish will to party. Guest lists and the VVVIP’s from last night’s events were the constant topic of conversation, along with who showed, sold, and for how much. For the many New Yorkers in town, it all blended together into a glamour-puss never-never land. And it was the perfect, if unlikely, stage for art by The Bruce High Quality Foundation.
For the art-goers, that punch-drunk, getaway feel of Miami Beach was not just the mojitos and palm trees. In the past two years nearly every conversation in the arts has been framed by or focused on economic struggle. Many institutions, unable to meet their overhead costs, have folded. Artists have been forced out of practice to meet the costs of living. Influential collectors have seen their fortunes disappear. Because so many are struggling, some say the bubble burst. Others, searching for that silver lining, say it’s a shakedown, a trimming of the fat. But the top of the market has held firm at auction and at festivals like Art Basel Miami, with blue-chip artists fetching impressive prices. Perhaps satirical artist William Powhida is right when he suggests the bubble just shrank rather than burst. For those attending the festival, these distressing issues were hardly forgotten-but Art Basel had an amazing way of muffling them.
At the main fair in Miami this year, large price tags hung from cloying and anachronistic portraits of Michael Jackson. One was an oversized oil painting of the King of Pop as the equestrian King Philip II by artist Kehinde Wiley, who has made his name painting portraits of contemporary young black men framed by traditional elements of European decorative painting. The other was a series of large-format photographs by artist David LaChappelle, featuring a stunning resemblance of Jackson in a number of Romantic European imaginings (lush, sun dappled woods, etc). It was a given even at conception that these faux-masterpieces were going to be worth serious money. They have all the elements of being valuable: famous visual artists- portraying the specter of Jackson’s celebrity-front and center in Art Basel Miami. Unfortunately for our cultural icons, the best franchise often comes after death.
Meanwhile, just down the road from the convention center, unusual things were happening to Death in the hands of The Bruce High Quality Foundation. In the executive ballroom of the art-chic W Hotel, they presented an exhibition of new works entitled Happy Endings with the support of the independent curator Vito Schnabel. The show was a series of works at the intersection between sculpture, video, and sound that read the pulse of the insular art world. The worry and struggle of today’s economic turmoil is touched with nostalgia for better times. There is a desire for things to be the way they were. Continuing to draw on the language and mythology they have cultivated since their inception, the Bruces mercilessly hit on this theme in a manner that is at once mocking and indulgent. Andrea Bocelli’s “Time to Say Goodbye” blares somewhere from within a series of frothing mop-buckets at the entrance to the show. An old T.V. monitor set into a silver briefcase plays back images of artworks and intelligentsia from the good times in recent decades, while across the room the voices of art-world zombies groan along to a special rendition of Bryan Adam’s “Summer of ’69.” Packaged with the faded glory of an old high school photo album, the exhibition was an unglamorous, cacophonous, and bitterly funny portrayal of what the art community has become. The sense of real and metaphorical death in the art world became inescapable-but whatever tenderness that invoked was coupled with a healthy dose of good-riddance.
Leading up to the opening, the glamorous task of hauling their sculptures down to Miami fell to me. On Tuesday before Thanksgiving, I pulled away from their studio space in Brooklyn in a packed 24-foot Budget rental truck. Later, staying at a highway motel in Georgia, I worried that someone might break into the truck in search of furniture or objects of obvious material value. Dwelling on that thought for a moment, I imagined that treasure hunters would be sorely disappointed to discover the heap of societal waste someone felt the need to drive 1,300 miles down the coast. What expressions would fall on their faces when the cut lock revealed some spliced silver mannequins, an 8-foot-tall sagging Styrofoam Earth (complete with loudspeakers sticking out at odd angles), industrial mopbuckets covered in red or blue pigment, T.V.s that may have once been the pride of a low-budget living room in the early 1980s, and much, much more? I quickly felt assured that the real value of the works, ranging from $1,000 to $60,000, was a very safe secret. So the precious cargo and I arrived on Thanksgiving day without incident, the Bruces flew in, and on Black Friday we began installation. As it happens, we had more than enough time to set up before the opening nearly a week after our arrival, with some minor hiccups (the 1,500-gallon plastic backyard pool with the floating T.V. proved difficult to fill with a leaky gardening hose). Surprised by the unusual amount of spare time, the Bruces decided they’d just make another piece. After disappearing in their rental car for several hours, they returned with bags upon bags full of plastic, porcelain, and wood tchotchkes. We spent the rest of the day sitting on the beach painting signature “Bruce” masks on each figurine-a white mask with red lips, blue eyes, and a couple moles to be placed at one’s artistic discretion. And, somehow in that process, a bunch of junk came to be worth lots of money.
Here is a funny phenomenon: the artists, curators, and dealers that are in the position to channel money into the art world are given a sort of unmonitored, shamanistic power to establish value. In a sense, what the Bruces had just done was magic: literally making something out of nothing by the touch of their hands. Of course, the piece they created that afternoon entered into a wide array of long-standing art historical dialogues: the unique versus mass-produced art object, the use of the mask, kitsch-as-high-art, and so on. But what’s unusual about their process is that it doesn’t build on these pre-existing dialogues so much as it comments on the dialogues themselves, and it isn’t flattering. I enjoy the piece for this satire and suddenly, before I even know it, I’m guilty. I’m appreciating a bunch of cruddy figurines, an idea I thought I was laughing at. This is the type of compelling paradox the Foundation’s work illicits.
In their 2008 publication The Bruce High Quality Foundation & Other Ideas, the Foundation describes itself as “a collective necromancer, constantly in contact with Bruce, its founder, and art history, its numerous ancestors.” In the case of the painted figurines and all their found objects, the Bruces resurrect elements of societal and cultural waste. The space between extreme value and absolute worthlessness has collapsed: if someone buys those figurines, they might live forever in a collection or museum. If not, we could just throw them out… again.
Using art to criticize the art world is hardly a novel concept, and there was plenty of opportunity for it at this year’s fair. The aforementioned William Powhida (who, upon seeing Deitch Project’s booth at Miami, compared founder Jeffrey Deitch to a drug dealer in an ice-cream truck) caught critical attention with his work. But upon hearing Powhida’s remarks, Mr. Deitch observed that “The irony is that by exposing art celebrity culture, he’s becoming a celebrity himself. So hats off to him.” For many, this shifting of the spotlight threatens or appears to undermine the integrity of their message. You know the word: Sellout!
Reporting from the star-studded opening, private dinner, and after-party for the Happy Endings exhibition, New York Times writer Julia Chaplin seems to suggest that the Bruces, an unlikely thrift-shop gaggle surrounded by high-rollers, are struggling with this trope. But more recently in the New York Times Magazine’s “Nifty Fifty,” a string of fifty zeitgeist profiles introducing creative talent in 2009 and beyond, David Colman takes a better perspective. He introduces the Bruce’s legacy as a “curious mash-up of sober scholarship and juvenile pranksterism that is . . . not only novel, it’s also intriguingly hard to nail down. Just start with the collective’s claim that its halfdozen or twentysomething members wish to remain anonymous to declaim the art-world star system. But their anonymity seems just as cannily calibrated to fast-track their burgeoning celebrity status – which has landed them in both the Whitney Biennial and P.S.1’s ‘Greater New York’ show this spring.” He acknowledges their outsider-status appears to be at odds with their royal stages, but the Bruces’ path to commercial and critical acclaim is an intentional one: It is “cannily calibrated,” as opposed to a confounding byproduct.
The reality is that the Foundation sidesteps the doubleedged sword of “outsider-art” in two crucial respects. Firstly, they’re an Estate built on the premise of Bruce High Quality’s divine genius, so what could be better than his posthumous celebrity ascent? It means their absurdist prophecy is becoming reality, and that the broader art community is playing its part. Secondly, having their work seen and collected is not the entirety of their experiment. This past fall marked the inauguration of The Bruce High Quality Foundation University (BHQFU), an autonomous forum for free education. It is a sincere attempt to couple their critique of established institutions and methods with practical alternatives. They have stayed true to their official slogan: “Professional Problems, Amateur Solutions.” Somewhere, Bruce High Quality is smiling down on them.