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Absolut Art Guise

Those headed east on the Sunset Strip in recent months may have noticed an Absolut Vodka billboard between Fairfax and Crescent Heights that seems to be taking a preternaturally long time to be put up. In fact, that’s the whole point: The ”ongoing installation“ is the conceptual handiwork of a Houston duo known as the Art Guys (or alternatively, ”Art Guise“), who vow to paint over a giant Absolut bottle and the legend ”ABSOLUT ART GUYS“ 1,000 times.

Sort of a more cerebral, less visceral pair of Tom Greens -- although their deadpan seems quite consciously camera-ready -- Jack Massing and Michael Galbreth have spent the last 20 years perfecting a gently mannered ironic assault on the status quo. They have commemorated the winter solstice by spending 24 hours at a table at Denny‘s, curated a downtown Houston gallery housed in a mop closet, and worked out for a year before premiering their ”sculptural bodies“ during amateur night at male strip club La Bare. In between, they’ve managed more traditional exhibitions at the New Museum in New York and the Contemporary Art Museum in Lyons, France, as well as the occasional lecture at Harvard.

And in the finest tradition of Mark Kostabi, Robert Longo and Andy Warhol, the Art Guys have commissioned local talent to do the actual work, which they carefully monitor by cell phone from Texas. The difference (as they explain it) is that in applying the 1,000 coats, painter and video artist Adam Harteau is being paid well, is much in evidence on their Web site (www.theartguys.com), and generally works only between 3 and 6 most weekday afternoons. Harteau (who was on coat No. 385 at last sighting) anticipates he‘ll finish sometime in late September, with possible celebrity guest artists coming in to apply special coats (No. 500, say).

As with most of their work, the Art Guys’ Absolut billboard traffics in loaded topics, self-consciously calling into question the nested issues of art, patronage and self-promotion in a conceptual, baldly ironic manner that just happens to place their brand name in giant letters above Sunset Boulevard.

”We‘ve always wanted to see our name up in paint,“ enthuses Massing, in town to meet with various film-management and production entities. ”Especially here in Hollywood.“

Similarly, the Art Guys’ most recent project, titled Suits: The Clothes Make the Man, involves touring the country in designer suits created by fellow Texan Todd Oldham that have been decorated with the labels of various corporate patrons, to be followed by a book and film documenting the experience. Art critic Dave Hickey, the author of Air Guitar and one of their long-standing champions, explains what they are up to in an essay to be included in the book.

”The trick of the whole affair,“ writes Hickey, ”the hook, would be that, technically, the Art Guys would not be the ‘artists’ in this affair. They would get legit. They would take a step up the art-world food chain from the subservient position of ‘artist’ to the power position of ‘sponsoring institution.’ Rather than adorning an institution with their art, they would select an artist to adorn them, as Picassos adorn the Museum of Modern Art . . . The logos of the sponsoring businesses would be embroidered onto Oldham‘s suits, a la NASCAR racing uniforms. Simultaneously, as this marketing operation was getting under weigh, the Art Guys set out to sell their Oldham exhibition (and their swelling number of corporate sponsors) to a television production company who would market their marketing by making a television documentary of the whole process -- ’process‘ being a sexy buzzword in late-20th-century art marketing.“

”It’s not art about business,“ says Galbreth from the safety and comfort of the Art Guys‘ Houston compound. ”The art is business. And that bugs people. We don’t work in wood or stone; we work in business. To those for whom art is putatively something lofty and pure, that probably seems a violation. But artists are always at the forefront of investigating the things that dominate the culture . . . And Absolut knows that. Their campaign involves associating artists‘ names with their product. Their very first art ad, 20 years ago, was Absolut Warhol. We fit easily within those parameters.“

And if Absolut gets the power of association with the names it chooses, what exactly do the Art Guys get out of it? Galbreth has no problem with that one:

”Money.“