The Unkindest Cut
Wait a minute . . . did Matisse ever really paint a chain saw?
The story you are about to read is true. No names have been changed to protect the art critic who got punked.
First, let me say for the record that I rarely read press releases until after I’ve already seen a show because I don’t want a gallery or museum press office telling me what to think. A passing glance at the press release for “Allegedly: The Hugh Brown Chainsaw Collection” at Grand Central Art Center tells me that Brown takes famous artists’ work and inserts chain saws into them.
I imagine Da Vinci’s The Last Supper with Jesus as Leatherface, disciples eating and drinking, unaware, as if nothing out of the norm is happening. “Great!” I think. “Trash art, ripe for an easy critical reaming.”
I call my nephew Branden and invite him. “Mmmm, chain saws,” the veteran Gears of War gamer purrs. “Sounds promising.”
We get there early, and people are already milling around inside, despite the CLOSED sign hanging on the door.
The front display window has a chain saw covered with Jackson Pollock splatters, behind which sits a yellow board with the word “Allegedly” spelled out cursively in chain.
The first work to greet us once inside is feminist-collage artist Barbara Kruger’s bold red-black-and-white portrait of a man holding a chain saw at crotch level, with “I saw therefore I am” emblazoned across the image. I’m a fan of Kruger’s, but I have never seen this piece before. I fall in love with it immediately.
I don’t know the work of the next couple of artists—photographer Irving Penn and assemblage artist Joseph Cornell—but like them, too. When I arrive at the Man Ray and the Andres Serrano—again, unfamiliar works, clearly in those artists’ respective styles, that just happen to contain chain saws—it dawns on me that I had misinterpreted the press release. I had walked in thinking that Hugh Brown was an artist, but he’s really a collector! As my nephew and I make our way through the hefty exhibition—about 40 pieces, including Warhols, a Hockney and a Matisse—it’s clear this Brown guy has a shitload of money and fine, albeit fixated, taste.
Outside of a museum, this is one of the most amazing collections I’ve ever seen, and I tell my nephew as much. It is at the Keith Haring—a pair of purple cartoon figures climbing an orange pyramid toward a glowing chain saw—that I tell Bran he is incredibly lucky to be seeing all of these famous artists.
I repeat as much to Rick Stein, executive director of Arts Orange County, when I run into him near a piece by multimedia artist Bruce Nauman, Was/Saw. We talk about the dimly hopeful state of the arts in OC, and I mention how impressed I am with this show, where we are surrounded by all these famous artists in OC! He looks at me a beat longer than normal—then changes the subject.
My nephew and I turn to the next pieces, a trio of Walker Evans photographs. One is a small general store in Alabama, all wood walls and shelves stuffed with various store goods, a chain saw sitting on the countertop. Another is of a car parked outside a chain-saw-parts store. The last, a movie theater.
And . . . there’s an ad for Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 on the movie theater’s marquee. The photo is dated 1936, but . . . the film came out in 1986.
Holy shit. I fell for it. I totally fell for it. Hugh Brown doesn’t insert chain saws into famous works, as I’d originally assumed. He creates works in the style of famous artists, only with chain saws.
And these elaborate, tongue-in-cheek forgeries/homages are so stylistically spot-on he actually had me going. (One other critic present admitted to being snookered, too, but that person’s secret is safe with me.) Once I got over the embarrassment of explaining to the nephew, I was even more impressed, even exhilarated. The works are a great art-history teaching tool: During my visit, I extolled the virtues of the individual artists and gave my nephew their backgrounds—Serrano and the NEA, Matisse’s symbolism, and Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup cans.
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Brown’s mastery of a multitude of art forms—David Levinthal-like photos of toys, a Pollock painting to go with the front window display, the Mapplethorpe photos or surreal fur-lined sculpture à la Oppenheim—is damn cool.
But this isn’t cheap parody. If anything, it highlights the idea that style is empty. That it can be stolen and replicated by anyone with the talent to do so. Even more, when we go to a museum, we may be told we’re seeing the real thing, but how do we really know?
“Allegedly: The Hugh Brown Chainsaw Collection” at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 567-7233; www.grandcentralartcenter.com. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m.; Fri.-Sat., 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Through June 14. Free.