Brand, Iconography and Culture. A Conversation with The Art Guys.

SUITS1“That’s an important methodology for us, to take a wrong-headed idea and take it to the Nth degree.”

My first encounter with The Art Guys was around 1998 as they were launching their SUITS project. Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing, aka The Art Guys, leased advertising space on business suits designed by Todd Oldham and wore them for a year throughout the United States, including a runway walk in Times Square. I’m a brand guy, not an art critic, but I immediately loved this mashup of art, hype and culture.

The New York Times called The Art Guys “a cross between Dada, David Letterman, John Cage and the Smothers Brothers.” Truly, they are outrageous, hilarious and unabashedly entrepreneurial, which reminds me of a few professors here at McCombs.

I re-encountered The Art Guys as I searched Glasstire in preparation for my interview with art journalist Rainey Knudson. Her journal on the Texas art world features a recent work entitled The Art Guys Marry a Plant. I immediately knew it was time to catch up with Galbreth and Massing. (I didn’t know at the time that Michael Galbreth and Rainey Knudson are married, which makes Galbreth a bigamist?)

Here are Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing on the interplay between art, culture and the American brand…

On cliches and brand imagery in their art work. Audio 2:10

lawnmower.detailJM: “As contemporary artists we identify with things in contemporary culture. Push the clock back 200 years and go to any art school on the planet, and you have art students mixing oil paints or carving wood or marble. At that point you don’t have artists  identifying with the frying pan and identifying that object as a stereotype or a cliche, because it wasn’t in the lexicon of popular culture. As popular culture became more prevalent, post World War I, then you have people identifying with all sorts of things, such as the automobile. Something switched in mass production and popular culture when there was a critical mass. People were able to identify with those things and use them in their artwork. So we enjoy looking at things that are ubiquitous in this throw-away society. Those objects, like a lawn mower, are something that we can use as materials in art. Like the bowl of fruit in a still life. We are using materials that are around us all the time.”

The brand called You, and the brand called The Art Guys. Audio 4:25

Suits.Tms.SqMG: “We got very heavily into investigating the idea and philosophy of brand and how that plays in society, but we have moved on to different things and we don’t specifically employ those ideas of branding in our work now. The Art Guys from the very beginning have used ourselves as a brand, it’s a third entity. And we’ve been able to use this third entity in a very successful way to market ourselves. It didn’t start out that way, it started as kind of an ornery, contradictory way of working in art school. But now people recognize The Art Guys far more so than they recognize us as individuals. Technically it is a brand, we have trademarked The Art Guys as a conceptual artwork with the idea of then selling it.

“I think of brand in the sense of Marshall McLuhan, as an extended self. The whole notion of branding yourself is a deep psychological tendency that human beings seem to have to extend themselves. Andy Warhol certainly understood this idea, that he was something bigger than his flesh and bones, which plays into the idea of celebrity. When we did the SUITS project the goal was to make ourselves into celebrities in a way that didn’t exist prior to the suit, so that we could use ourselves as a brand. It was very faux, but it ended up being very successful.”

JM: “It goes back to what I said earlier about using the materials available around us. We ended up using ourselves as materials, and we’ve used ourselves in many different ways for many different projects.  We are our own pigment or our own stone.”

MG: “That grows out of a form of performance art which grew out of the idea of using the body as sculpture, which began in the mid-twentieth century. We actually think of The Art Guys as a project unto itself, so that everything we do is under the guise of art. And it doesn’t really matter who our own identities are anymore. It disappears into the entity of The Art Guys. It’s a very strange thing, it’s like our lives have become much more private the more public The Art Guys become.”

The Art Guys offer to sell their brand and reformat themselves. Audio 3:07

JM: “We are not like a corporation in the traditional sense. We see The Art Guys brand as a piece of artwork in itself, and if anyone wanted to pay for it we would be very happy to trade that for monetary gain, and then we would reformat ourselves, just as Madonna did so many times.”

MG: “The idea of selling the brand is just kind of a contrarian experiment. It’s typical of what we’ve always done with our work, to throw something out there and see what happens, whether it succeeds or not. We created The Art Guys and we can uncreate The Art Guys. What is funny, I suppose, is that the idea of selling the name of The Art Guys highlights the notion that the name is something separate from the work. The Art Guys is a meta-project.

“What happens, as you well know, is that what branding does for companies is it tries to intermingle, and make the company’s products indistinguishable from the brand, but the idea of selling The Art Guys trademark is that we want to distinguish it. It’s a radical idea if you think about it. We’ve taken this brand of The Art Guys and manipulated and used it for 25 years, and then after all this time we voluntarily, purposely give it up, for no reason, at the potential height of its success. That seems absolutely ludicrous, but for us that’s an important methodology for us, to take a wrong-headed idea and take it to the Nth degree.”

Advice to brand managers from The Art Guys. Audio 1:04

JM: “I think they should become more involved in Creative Commons and give more stuff away. They should be more liberal with it and relinquish more stuff. People use the McDonald’s logo or their name in jokes or in artwork and they really have no control over it ultimately, but they keep playing their power in the management of their image and to me it seems really silly.”

A final word on life after marriage to a plant. Audio :56

Wedding photograph: Everett Tassevigen

DW: “Has married life affected your creative process at all?”

MG: “No it hasn’t except the more involved we become in our work the more complicated it becomes, as you well know. The family structure is very different.”

JM: “At first I was very embracing but now I’m a little overwhelmed by all my tree-inlaws.”

MG: “That piece [The Art Guys Marry a Plant] actually has a life of its own. With the many different projects we’ve done over the years, that particular piece has gained a lot of notoriety. And I think as time goes on people will probably think about it in different ways. It’s a piece that has its own life.”


5 thoughts on “Brand, Iconography and Culture. A Conversation with The Art Guys.”

  1. Mike and Jack have always hung 10 on the Nth degree. I think they should rebrand themselves as the SmART Economy Guys.

  2. They were a begrudging sensation from the beginning. Some of their “failures” became great icons of “how to succeed when all goes into the toilet of absurdity.” Mirror, mirror!
    They are very complex guys dealing at au-courant levels it takes people months to comprehend. Almost said accept.

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