SMOKIN' BHQF's 'Self-Portrait (Virgin).'
Parked out front of Brown University's gray modernist Granoff Center on a recent sunny morning were one of those 15-foot-tall inflatable rats that unions install in front of businesses they're protesting and a limousine sloppily painted to resemble a yellow and black school bus.
They were the work of an anonymous gang of Brooklyn art pranksters, formed in 2001, who go by the name Bruce High Quality Foundation. Their motto: "Professional problems. Amateur solutions."
The Bruces, as they're known, occupy the curious position of both art critics and art world darlings. The rat and the limo are part of their wiseass but sharp critique of the art world and economics — which has been wholly embraced by the art world.
"Freedom," their amusing exhibit in the Cohen Gallery at the Granoff (154 Angell St, Providence, through June 3), arrives in advance of a retrospective titled "Ode to Joy, 2001-2013" that is scheduled to open at the Brooklyn Museum in June.
Varying from two to eight or so guys, the Bruces met while studying art at New York's Cooper Union (which then had free tuition; it's going to begin charging in fall 2014). In 2005, when a tugboat towed a barge of parkland around Manhattan to posthumously realize a Robert Smithson land art proposal, they chased behind it in a boat carrying a model of one of Christo and Jeanne-Claude's Gates, which filled Central Park that year.
On and off since 2009, they've operated the Bruce High Quality Foundation University — or BHQFU — in New York. Topics of their free seminars this spring included drawing, surveillance, art criticism, collaboration, and finding inspiration in math and science.
Inside Brown's gallery, the Bruces offer witty, purposefully sophomoric pranks. A life-sized statue of Humphrey Bogart listens via headphones to the audio book of Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. A backyard sculpture of the Virgin Mary and child stands with cigarettes stuffed in their mouths. Andy Warhol-style screenprints recreate Picasso's iconic 1907 cubist painting Les Demoiselles d'Avignon with photos of nude dudes.
The school bus-limo comes from their Teach 4 Amerika cross-country road trip, which began in 2011. It's in the '60s Yippie tradition of lampooning the world, while also seriously mulling how to fix it. "The $200,000 debt model of art education is simply untenable," they've said.
At Brown, that reads like an attack on the expense and privilege of the Ivy League school. But headphones along the exterior play recorded quotes on economics and art by John Cage, Martin Luther, and Adam Smith, as well as factoids like Leonard Bernstein supposedly lost three pounds while conducting Mahler and Beethoven symphonies. Perhaps it's just an absurd cartoon.
The face of the inflatable rat is face painted like a clown. It's funny but also kind of sad. The Bruces seem to be acknowledging — embracing? — how easily their economic critique is laughed off by the powers that be.