The Bruce High Quality Foundation: Ode to Joy, 2001-2013, Brooklyn Museum, New York – review

The hop from rebellion to celebrity has become so quick and painless that some young artists barely have time to make an angry point before vanishing into the establishment they’ve been attacking. That’s what happened to the Bruce High Quality Foundation, a collective of nominally anonymous young men who got together in 2004 to offer “an alternative to everything”.

They donned American football helmets and hurled themselves at public sculptures such as Robert Indiana’s “Love”, documenting the stunts on video. They painted a limo to look like a distended school bus and took it on a nationwide teaching tour. It wasn’t long before they were turning up at Art Basel dinners, posing for photographs with plates over their faces, simultaneously protesting against “the star-making machinery of the art market” and deftly manipulating it. If the men behind the masks had been a gang of middle-aged suburban postal workers, instead of 30-ish Cooper Union grads living in hippest Brooklyn, the art world would have yawned. As it is, the Bruces are famous for being unfamous.

The latest institution to anoint them is the Brooklyn Museum, which is presenting an exhibition of “less than 17,000 works” – actually about 50 wisps and fragments that hardly add up to a provocation, much less a retrospective. The paintings, clips, silkscreens and Play-Doh sculptures poke at art-historical conventions with tedious irreverence. Named after a fictitious artist who was supposedly killed in the 9/11 attack on New York, Bruce High Quality Foundation emerged out of the intellectual atmosphere of Cooper Union, where no boundary is left unblurred, no status unsubverted, no category uncritiqued. Student pranks morphed effortlessly into artistic statements, which the art world laps up, since nobody loves a tired joke better than its butt.

The group specialises in restaging certified masterpieces, the highbrow equivalent of poking your face into the openings in a Mt Rushmore cutout. There’s “The Bachelors of Avignon”, in which the Bruces ghost their naked (male) bodies onto the aggressive whores in Picasso’s “Demoiselles”; a black-and-white silkscreened remake of Velázquez’s “Las Meninas”; and “Wives”, a version of Andy Warhol’s “Most Wanted Men” in which photos of white-collar criminals’ spouses replace the original’s series of mug shots.

The nameless artists have been disarmingly candid about their indifference to their sources. “It’s been important for us to think of art history as a material, as more stuff to work with, whether it’s to honour or to disparage it. It’s as much a material as anything else, wood or plaster,” one member told Art in America. Contempt for the past has a grand lineage by now, going back at least to 1919, when Duchamp slapped whiskers on the “Mona Lisa”, and it doesn’t seem to have made much progress since. The Brooklyn show is full of ye olde scorn.

For “The Raft”, the Bruces stripped down to their bathing trunks, floated a contraption made of mattresses, foam mats, salvaged wood and a shopping cart on to the East River, and struck the pose from Géricault’s “Raft of the Medusa”. The resulting photo is elaborate enough that it’s worth pausing to ask what the collective is trying to achieve, beyond a laddish snicker. There’s no point in scrutinising its metaphor-choked mission statement: “To invest the experience of public space with wonder, to resurrect art history from the bowels of despair, and to impregnate the institutions of art with the joy of man’s desiring.”

Re-enactments can be an investigative tool, and Bruce High Quality has even started an artistic “detective agency”, but works such as “The Raft” don’t even make clear what the question is, let alone offer conclusions. Is the dishevelled gang of Brooklyn artists navigating across the river towards Manhattan glory? Is art foundering on the shoals of Bloomberg-era commerce? Or does even asking mean falling into a lazy predilection for sincerity and sense?

The original “Raft of the Medusa” is a searing, intricate work of radical rhetoric, specific in its target and sophisticated in its techniques. The subject was plucked from the headlines: when a French frigate sank in 1816, politicians and officers (including the captain) grabbed the lifeboats and left the crew to drift on a makeshift raft. Two weeks of starvation, murder and cannibalism ensued. Géricault interviewed survivors, visited morgues, and gathered severed limbs. The result was a monumental – and risky – indictment of authority, in the form of the Bourbon monarchy.

To this ensemble of artistic courage, virtuosic technique and fierce reportage, Bruce High Quality Foundation’s intervention adds . . . nothing much. Géricault weathered the controversy and became a star. The Bruces bypassed the hard part and coasted to fame on a bed of mockery. Vito Schnabel, boy wonder among art dealers and heir to the self-promotional talents of his father Julian, represents the group and lubricates their relationships with hedge funders and real estate tycoons.

All of which would be fine if the foundation’s work really did bring joy: great talent justifies great hypocrisy. Instead, it often displays an easy, nasty cynicism that is hard to swallow. The most tasteless item in the Brooklyn show is “Stations of the Cross”, another nod to Warhol. In a sequence of “Crash”-like silkscreens we see blurry stills of a plane hitting the World Trade Center, sending up a plume of smoke. Those images are not just wood or plaster to be manipulated at will; they aren’t antique playthings for artistic scavengers – they are records of actual mass murder, and they deserve something better than sniggering disrespect.

Until September 22,

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