The Bruces might not appeal to everyone, but their work is for everyone. Since 2004, the anonymous crew of artists has plotted inspiring projects outside New York’s major institutions: they’ve organized a free school (Bruce High Quality Foundation University), assembled an anti-Whitney Biennial (The Brucennial), and created low-to-no cost public art projects. In all these projects, you, too, can be a Bruce, simply by participating in whatever way you feel comfortable.
These projects, however, make up very little of Ode to Joy, the Brooklyn Museum’s retrospective of the nine-year-old collective. What’s on view in the museum’s corner gallery are a whole lot of paintings, documentation of public art projects and theatrical performances, and several installation works. It’s crammed with paintings, hung at times no more than seven inches above the floor. The show does not look good, and that’s through no fault of the artists. That blame lies with overzealous curation, which seeks to put as much work as possible into a small space (50 works, exactly, which range from the 72 x 180 inch painting Raft of the Medusa to the 18 x 18 inch photograph Public Sculpture Tackle (Beuys)). Regrettably, the exhibition does not do justice to the foundation’s varied projects, the more interesting of which cannot be represented in this, or possibly any, exhibition.
The problems begin upon entrance, just outside the main gallery’s glass entrance doors. The first work on view, Con te Partiro, consists of a musical mop inside a plastic janitor’s bucket; Andrea Bocelli’s 1990s hit song of the same name accompanies the installation. Bocelli may be an opera singer, but there’s nothing highbrow about the song; it’s operatic pop, representative of the cultural crossover in which the Bruces take part. Though it shows the foundation’s embrace of both pop culture and art culture, that subtlety is lost on visitors uninitiated into the Bruces’ critique-filled world, who more often than not, mistook the work as a mistake, left by the museum’s janitorial staff. That the work stood just feet away from African Innovations, a collections-based show of African art from 2,500 years ago through today, did not help to clarify matters. The work would’ve have fared better at a distance from another exhibition, or at the exit doors of the gallery, after visitors were given some context, and knew a little more about the crew’s output.
Once you enter Ode to Joy, that output consists of dozens of paintings. That’s too bad because the Bruces are not great painters. The works on view are all large-scale acrylic screen prints, and range from straightforward art-historical riffs on Diego Velázquez’s Las Meninas to Wives, which looks like any number of Warhol’s celebrity prints. All these paintings have been given the Warhol treatment; they share the same pop art squeegee marks as a generic, pop-art screenprint, and in works like Stations of the Cross, there’s an emphasis on serial reproduction. To be fair, I’ve seen some of the foundation’s large-scale paintings installed in large, white-walled galleries; there, the monumental indifference seemed humorous, since they were able to mock the expansive, commercial gallery space; in this congested space, they lose that bite.
The strongest works in the show are the Bruces’s videos and installation works. One of those, Gate, is integral to the BHQF’s coming-of-age. That project, The Gate: Not the Idea of the Thing but the Thing Itself, brought some fame to the Bruces in 2005; they made a boat with their own version of an orange Christo and Jean-Claude gate, and chased after Robert Smithson’s Floating Island. The island itself was high profile project that brought to life a Smithson sketch that imagined a tug boat pulling an island around Manhattan. In the end, the flora and fauna of the floating island would be planted in Central Park. The BHQF humorous stunt then, was also a rather poignant proposal; that the Gates, and perhaps public art in general, should also be made permanent in Central Park.
The videos, though, do not fare quite as well as the installation works. Seven of BHQF videos are on view, but these videos, which range from seven to twenty-two minutes, are placed on a single-channel loop. If you’re lucky, you’ll catch the beginning of a video and be able to watch it all the way through. More than likely, you’ll end up midway through a twenty-minute long video, and then realize you won’t be able to catch the beginning—unless you watch the six other videos all the way through. These videos are individual, stand-alone works, but they’re not valued as such with this presentation.
This problem may have a solution though. It looks like the Brooklyn Museum is shopping around Ode to Joy as a touring exhibition, so it may land in the hands of a more deft curatorial team. Another venue may not be solve the work selection issues, but they’ll certainly be able to address some of the presentation issues that so burden this show.