Bob and Roberta Smith

Brother-and-sister act Bob and Roberta Smith (no relation to the New York Times’s art scribe) is one—or, more accurately, two—of several pseudonymous identities that the British artist born Patrick Brill has adopted while distributing his homespun, semi-anarchic output over the past decade. But more than that, I am Bob and Roberta Smith—or so stated several button badges purchasable at Hales’s entrance; another recurrent phrase was ART NOT WAR.

Declarative sentences, usually brightly painted on salvaged wood and reveling in the inept graphic flourishes of a novice sign-writer, are the tragicomic bedrock of the Smiths’ art. Served up like that, how seriously can you take statements like “Art can stop terrorism DEAD in its tracks” or “La la la la la stuff your fucking ID cards la la la up your fuckin’ arse la la”?—both examples drawn from the show’s centerpiece sculpture, Big Nest (all works 2005), a cacophonous donnybrook of “phrases collected during the recent bombings in London” shouting from myriad lengths of discarded baseboard arranged into the shape of a spiky hexagonal corral.

You get the impression that the Smiths care plenty, actually. If the impotent wrath of the British electorate is never far from this show’s accessible, knockabout surface, at its core is a borderline schizophre- nia seemingly influenced by the selfsame current events. Supposedly “Bob” and “Roberta” were separately responsible for the displayed pieces, with Roberta fashioning nests (like the one described above) and Bob sulkily causing chaos—dropping cowpat-like lumps of concrete on the gallery floor—or watching a small television painted red except for a little porthole onto the screen and tuned, on my visit, at least, to the news (Partial TV). Meanwhile, we don’t know which of the two authored 110% Pessimism, a wall-based collage of signs skewering British politicians as “nutters” and “bloody idiots,” culminating in the judgment “They are evil”—but its opposing number, 75% Optimism, is frequently nurturing, even maternal, and certainly more upbeat (e.g., “I’m gonna take over the entertainment industry”). Still, if on a piecemeal level this phraseology is all straightforward enough, it accrues into a giant hairball of inconsistency. By which point, the notion that I am Bob and Roberta Smith shouldn’t require repeating.

The Smiths don’t stoop to insulting their audience, though; and while their project involves negotiating the widespread abhorrence of demagoguery—sometimes by superficially being as preachy as possible—it is more pointedly concerned with cajoling audiences into exercising choice. That they offer such innocuous ways of doing so (choose a badge; agree with or cavil at a political statement) suggests a somewhat melancholic estimation of the audience’s mental torpor: For all the comic crapulence of their audience-participation activities, the Smiths are social anatomists and oblique tacticians rather than jokers. Deadman’s Record Collection #14, for example, offers the opportunity to spin a record on a battered turntable—provided you take a shortcut to gravitas by donning a coat whose pockets are filled with concrete. Yet such ridiculous overemphasis only underlines the quotidian pathos of the work’s back story: Bob, we’re informed by the press materials, acquired the disks when clearing out dead people’s rooms in a home for the senile and infirm. I put on a sound-effects record. Exemplifying the hazardous and bittersweet transmission of meaning typical of the Smiths’ art, out of a storm of crackles emerges the cry of a cuckoo.

Martin Herbert