Their Name Is Bruce

New York

Left: New Museum curator Massimiliano Gioni, artists Hanna Liden and Rob Pruitt, and dealer Gavin Brown. Right: Curator Vito Schnabel (right). (All photos: John Arthur Peetz)

LAST THURSDAY, as both the Whitney Biennial and a snowstorm descended on New York, I schlepped through the slush to SoHo, where the third annual Brucennial was happening in a former discount-fashion outlet (lent by Aby Rosen, an art collector and real estate developer regularly featured in the New York Social Diary). In case you haven’t heard, the Brucennial is the “Bruce High Quality Foundation’s ‘sort of democratic’ response to the Whitney Biennial,” I was briefed by an art maven, “which is also a bit odd, because they’re in the Whitney Biennial. All the daily critics seem to love them, and I’ve never completely gathered why (except for the crazy name).” I feared just a crowded hipsterish opening scene—with Julian Schnabel’s son running around. But my source urged me to check out this “cause célèbre of the moment.”

Organized by the aforementioned Vito Schnabel (who resembled the young Henry Hill in Goodfellas, with Julian Schnabel’s features superimposed, and seemed to be wearing a pajama top) and gushed over by the aforementioned art-world validators, I was curious to experience the steak behind the “Bruce” sizzle. The Bruces are “sort of like ‘Art Club 2000’ wannabes, which is something of a weird idea,” explained my informant. Or like the Guerrilla Girls, I thought, but instead of gorilla masks they all go by the moniker Bruce, and instead of exposing sexism in the art world they’ve branded themselves as “pedagogical” in some vague way. “They’re the most cheeky—and thus the most unthreatening/consumable and successful of the ‘pedagogical’ art-group projects to have sprouted up recently.” As an out-and-proud nerd, if pedagogy is “the new black” this season I’m all for it. Instead of curators doing studio visits, Brucennial pieces were self-submitted via Bruces, friends-of-Bruces, or however.

“We wanted a theme that was general enough to include almost anything,” one Bruce told the New York Times. They picked “miseducation,” though I never would have guessed. (Mission accomplished?) The crowded salon-style installation on the white walls of the anodyne former retail space did recall MFA thesis shows I’d attended. And the work looked like a sampler platter of current “practice,” a lot of it figurative, some garbage-based, found objects, textural abstract blobs, assemblages with monitors. A dive-bar-worthy graffitied cubicle labeled FOR DRUGS: NOT A BATHROOM; a motorized bouquet of plastic black-eyed Susans whirling around a platform; a Holy Bible rigged like the retro board game Operation; a cute painting of a dog on a vet’s table by Theo Rosenblum; plus a pornish area. Pieces by David Salle, Julian Schnabel, Terry Richardson (exposing his schlong), and Rita Ackermann “democratically” mingled with the unknowns. A genuine “pedagogue” from a Dumbo Studio art program was delightedly interviewing people, to be posted on YouTube. It was hopping. Gavin Brown, Rob Pruitt, Jeffrey Deitch, and Jerry Saltz wandered around, and Schnabel père looked affable and portly in a fedora, overcoat, and sneakers.

Left: Lauren Hutton (left). Right: People at the opening for the Brucennial.

So what’s the deal with this show? I asked an ingratiating-looking artist in a furry hat who was lurking around his piece: “A bunch of connected people doing something semi-interesting?” he guessed, like it was a quiz. Intrigued and puzzled by the hype, I lingered quite awhile. Attempting to process the visual cacophony, a thoughtful sculptor I ran into found herself touching everything (lightly!). “There’s so much stimulation here,” she said, “it cancels itself out”—though she appreciated the silver foil covering the ceiling beams. Also attempting to have some kind of aesthetic moment before I left, I stood regarding a Charles Ray–esque floor piece: A wee Picasso, creepily realistic as a garden gnome, mowed a petite Astroturf lawn with a tiny red lawn mower.

The well-dressed guy next to me soliloquized: “It’s a reflection of a repetition of something that was done before . . .” or something like that.

“Are you an artist?” I inquired.

That always takes them aback. He looked perturbed, then blurted confidently, “No. I get paid for what I do. I’m a commercial artist. Do you know the AT&T logo?”

Then he scurried away.