The Tree of Strife

When the Art Guys, Houston’s zany performance art duo, staged a faux wedding to a live oak in 2009, they thought they were raising questions about man and nature. But before long, The Art Guys Marry a Plant had become a flashpoint for the fight over gay marriage, inspiring vitriolic outbursts, pitting friend against friend, and causing at least one dramatic emotional breakdown. Was this the provocative artists’ greatest public failure? Or was it the most successful work of art they’d ever created?
TREE OF LIFE
Photo by Everett Taasevigen

At the beginning of what was to be an unsparing summer in more ways than one, two middle-aged men prepared for their June wedding. The year was 2009. Months earlier, they had sent out invitations, and they’d scheduled a wedding announcement in the newspaper. Now they put on tuxedos and walked down the aisle in front of friends and family inside the sculpture garden of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, with works by Alexander Calder and Henri Matisse looking on.

What a casual observer might think was out of the ordinary—that these two men were marrying each other—was, in fact, not what was out of the ordinary. That became obvious when the grooms started pulling a squeaky-wheeled wagon behind them, upon which bobbed a potted live oak sapling. They parked themselves before a florid-faced minister, recited vows to honor and protect the tree, and then married it, putting a ring on one of its taller branches. Afterward, the crowd decamped across the street to the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston, where everyone ate wedding cake—except, of course, the tree.

If you happened to be familiar with Houston’s art scene, this event might not have seemed so strange. The faux wedding, in fact, was just another presentation by the Art Guys, two popular performance artists who have been pulling off such acts in the city for almost thirty years. Michael Galbreth and Jack Massing are what some might call social sculptors; they aim, as one recent catalog put it, to make “visible the usually unconsidered patterns of behavior, thought, and life in general.” This vision is infused with irony and humor: art pieces conceived by the two have famously required them to wear suits with corporate logos at public appearances for an entire year, walk ten miles around downtown Houston with buckets of water on their feet, and cover a dumpster with gold paint. They have performed as exotic dancers at a ladies’ strip joint, worked 24 hours at a Stop-N-Go, and erected fourteen-foot statues of themselves in front of a used-car lot. The Art Guys, in other words, are known as court jesters, Shakespearean fools, or, as the New York Times explained in 1995, “part Dada, part David Letterman . . . a cross between John Cage and the Smothers Brothers.”

So The Art Guys Marry a Plant —as this wedding performance was titled—was just their latest zany effort. What the two artists had not carefully considered, however, was their timing. The piece, they stated, was intended to raise questions about man’s relationship to nature. But it was debuting exactly one year after same-sex marriage had been legalized, to much fanfare, in California—only to be promptly repealed by voters five months later. As other states considered the fallout and as Barack Obama rode into office in 2009 on promises that included repealing the Defense of Marriage Act, a heated conversation about gay rights had begun to grip the country. Houston, a city with the sixth-largest gay community in the nation, was not immune. And suddenly, what had started as a serious goof, or a project that was goofily serious, became something far more akin to an art world version of a WWE SmackDown.

First came a sour review by the Houston Chronicle ’s art critic, who wrote that the Art Guys and their tree were making light of “the country’s hottest civil rights issue.” The Art Guys responded that he had it all wrong: they’d always been in favor of gay marriage. Pretty soon, the response to the response, and all the responses that followed, had ginned up a state of hysteria that managed to ensnare the city’s only daily newspaper, every major art museum, and just about everyone in the art scene—pitting friend against friend, accelerating at least one very public emotional breakdown, and, in December, inspiring one attempted arboricide. No matter how often and how passionately the Art Guys insisted that their intent had been to address marriage in the broadest, most ancient, and most metaphorical way, no one listened, and no one cared. The two had lit the fuse to a hidden time bomb in a city that prides itself on its tolerance, and the subsequent explosion produced painful questions about the validity of identity politics and the very meaning of art. Was The Art Guys Marry a Plant the city’s best piece of public art? Or its worst? Right now, Houston’s art community is too war-torn and wounded to answer.

We are not the first people to marry a plant,” Galbreth told me without a trace of humor when I visited the sprawling metal building in Acres Homes that serves as the Art Guys’ studio last December. Inside, the cavernous space is like a cross between Pee-wee’s Playhouse and an airplane hangar, with gleaming power tools making way for some of the artists’ works. A gigantic skull rendered with burnt matchsticks hangs on a wall; a black banister inlaid with artificial eyes lines the staircase. The overall atmosphere is of the best boys’ hideout ever.

But the Art Guys aren’t boys anymore. Galbreth, 56, is a tall, loose-limbed man with a shock of graying hair and bushy, hardworking eyebrows. Owing to his modest upbringing in Tennessee, he has something of a courtly, aw-shucks manner, but, maybe owing to his years as a successful artist, he tends to speak with an almost majestic intensity. This means that, depending on the circumstances, Galbreth can resemble a cheerful bag boy at the grocery store or a Pentecostal minister who has just spied the devil in a back pew. Massing, 53, who grew up near Buffalo, New York, is more reserved; his sun-weathered good looks and reticent cool have, more than a few times, inspired comparisons to James Dean.

The Art Guys might not be the most famous artists in Houston, but they are indisputably local fixtures. They met and began working together in 1983, when both attended the University of Houston and fell under the spell of sculptor James

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