JEF BOURGEAU: A USER'S MANUAL
By ROGER GREEN
Booth Arts Writer
The challenge to “Think outside the box” might seem definitively 2007. But the strategy has a long, influential history, not least as regards the development of modern art.
Recall that Impressionism rejected academic conventions while abstraction disposed of recognizable imagery and dada cast logic and reason overboard. The intent has always been to question orthodoxies, to stimulate new ways of thinking and ultimately to foster meaningful social change.
Today that tradition continues in the work of Detroit artist Jef Bourgeau, who for nearly 40 nearly years has thought creatively outside the box, assimilating sophisticated critical theory while utilizing new technology to achieve penetrating, expressive aims. Through Oct. 7, the Oakland University Art Gallery is showing a retrospective of Bourgeau’s inventive art. The exhibit was curated by Jan van der Marck, former chief curator at the Detroit Institute of Arts.
Items on view, dating from 1968 to the present, are paintings, prints. photographs, assemblages, videos and materials documenting conceptual projects. The thread linking them and guiding Bourgeau’s development is pinpointed in van der Marck’s illuminating catalog essay. Simulation, the fundamental link, has been identified by cultural theorist Jean Baudrillard as endemic to the present “hyperreal” age, in which simulated copies have superseded original objects. Bourgeau has taken up and run with the notion of simulation, exercising it in slippery critiques of society, in particular of the art world and its politics.
Viewers will note that, despite Bourgeau’s satiric, even subversive aims, his craftsmanship is always superb. Working in a variety of media, he’s created and is showing a body of remarkably polished two- and three-dimensional objects.
One assemblage, “American Beauty (Sleeping)” comprises a playpen holding the bust of a child mannequin and a carpenter’s hammer. The piece is a comment about imminent violence against children -- think Columbine -- intensified by crisp construction from spare, unsullied parts. In a series of mixed-media pieces Bourgeau distills the essence of well-known artists into memorable, marketable, black-and-white logos (Magritte is a pipe, Matisse a pair of scissors). Here again, the workmanship is meticulous.
It’s just this technical perfection that makes Bourgeau’s conceptual projects -- gutsy exercises in simulation -- believable. His exhibit “Picasso’s Camera” purported to reveal the unrecognized genesis of Cubism: a camera with a cracked lens belonging to the artist. From what Bourgeau alleged was a roll of undeveloped film found in the camera, he created a series of fractured photo portraits, jestfully but convincingly redefining one of the wellsprings of modern art.
Most recently, Bourgeau has extended simulation into performance, assuming the identities of made-up, international artists and exhibiting their works with the aim of questioning curatorship, authenticity and the marketing of art. One of Bourgeau’s alter egos, Norwegian photographer Stig Eklund, creates moody pictures materializing northern angst and light.
In fact, Eklund’s and others’ pictures are creditible works of art in their own right. Continuing to make art under fake identities should be Bourgeau’s next career move, van der Marck said. The ability to do that testifies to Bourgeau’s endless invention, including self-invention, and to a talent that merits hearty applause.
Bad boy Bourgeau back on art scene
Michael H. Hodges for The Detroit News
Artist Jef Bourgeau worked under aliases for seven years after his last exhibit was shut down for being too offensive. See full image
Jef Bourgeau, a celebrated thorn-in-the-side of the local art establishment, is the subject of a major retrospective at the Oakland University Art Gallery opening tomorrow and running through Oct. 7.
Bourgeau, 57, may be best known for his last exhibition that abruptly closed.
That show, which opened in November 1999 only to be shuttered three days later, featured two works that the Detroit Institute of Arts found too offensive for public display.
One was entitled "Bathtub Jesus." The other was a piece tackling racist attitudes that employed a racial epithet in its title. Bourgeau declined to remove or retitle the works, and the exhibition was padlocked.
Shortly thereafter, Bourgeau, an installation artist who's broadened into video, painting and photography, found himself hauled into court on pornography charges involving "Fear No Art," at his Museum of New Art (MONA) in Pontiac. That case was dismissed.
Both flaps occurred in the shadow of a 1999 censorship battle at the Brooklyn Museum of Art in New York that ignited a nationwide debate about artistic freedom. Mayor Rudolph Giuliani had denounced the museum's show, "Sensation," calling it obscene, and demanding its removal from the public museum.
Says Dick Goody, director of Oakland University's gallery: "I've always admired Jef's audacity. Artists are risktakers. And if they're not, they're usually not very good."
Goody promises, however, that the OUAG exhibition -- for better or worse --will not contain anything particularly shocking.
"We are a public university gallery," he says. "We're not about generating those sorts of controversies. But Jef's work is serious and broad enough to make an exciting exhibition."
The exhibition includes a catalog written by Jan van der Marck, one-time curator of contemporary art at the DIA and founding director of Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art.
Many of Bourgeau's works on display are drawn from the past seven years and were created under aliases, like "Norwegian photographer Stig Eklund." Bourgeau insists the DIA controversy made his work too radioactive to sell under his own name in the Detroit area.
"I've cycled through the alter egos and am back to myself," Bourgeau says. "So as an artist's project, it's come full circle."
The seven years when Bourgeau operated under aliases don't seem to have diminished his standing among figures in the Detroit art community.
Marsha Miro, acting-director of the Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, calls Bourgeau's art "fascinating," particularly those works that call into question the art world and its values.
Says van der Marck, "Jef is a man of my heart. His art is great. He's one of the most interesting artists I have dealt with in a very long time -- certainly one of the most interesting in Detroit."