Dallas visual artists Brian Jones and Brian Scott are better known as the art duo, Chuck & George. They’re currently showing in three different galleries, and KERA’s Jerome Weeks reports one of their works is an elaborate room, like a little hall of mirrors, all of them filled with Chuck & George.
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Brian K. Jones and Brian K. Scott say their home is their biggest artwork. It’s a funky, older, wood-frame house in Oak Cliff. On the porch — among many other objects — there’s a plastic lobster, a Van Gogh found at a Dollar Store and a bust of Zeus with bad teeth and a clown nose. Today is special because it’s Speed Bump, Oak Cliff’s annual tour of artists’ studios. And the Brians’ house has been a highlight of the tour for many years. Inside, people are checking out the art crowding the walls. They’re even inspecting the walls. What looks like wallpaper and woodgrain is, in fact, handpainted by the two Brians.
“We don’t know what’s real in this house,” says Brian Jones, aka Chuck. “And we have a lot of people’s art we collect. The fireplace mantle is full of broken ceramics from our cats. There’s toys that I found on a landfill.” But Brian Scott — aka George — merrily declares, “I think it’s like a funhouse!”
The two Brians first won attention as Chuck & George in 1999 with The Pursuit of Love in the Trinity River Basin. The series of paintings was based on work by the late-18th-century artist, Jean-Honore Fragonard — specifically, the famous Fragonard room in the Frick Collection with its sequence of four paintings, ‘The Pursuit of Love.” The Chuck & George ‘Fragonards’ put the French master’s flirtatious aristocrats and playful cherubs in among the dead dogs and concrete pylons beneath the Commerce Street viaduct.
That mix of sophistication and mockery marks the Brians’ artwork. Brian Scott, in particular, compares today’s cultural climate to the rococo, which added a degree of bemused detachment and rampant self-indulgence to Baroque ornament. The Brians enjoy the over-the-top splendor and delicacy of the rococo while undercutting it all with a seedy, graphic naughtiness. Their works are occasionally festooned with naked genitals or the occasional disemboweled teddy bear. Not coincidentally, the two Brians have work in the Dirty New Rococo show at Homeland Security. And not surprisingly, their paintings often feature outrageous caricatures. Fat or scrawny, male or female — with bloated body parts and boiled-pink faces, their figures recall the scathing satiric penwork of George Cruikshank or Thomas Rowlandson.
“When you do caricatures,” Brian Jones says, “you exaggerate the grotesque of an individual. And at that point, you whittle it down. It’s like movies. The easiest movie to watch is the one full of stereotypes. And those are the people you want to see killed anyway. ”
To which, Brian Scott replies, “I strive for beauty.”
The two Brians created their alter egos Chuck & George while studying art at UNT in the ‘90s. They were irked by classmates who offered pretentious concepts to explain their lazy or incompetent work. Brian Jones’ favorite example is the student who had clearly pulled a plastic Texaco gas station travel cup out of his car, brought it in and solemnly declared that his piece was a comment on “Big Oil.” Bored and irritated, the Brians began secretly spoofing such work by bringing in their own efforts at ‘bad art.’ When asked, they said the pieces were done by their friends, Chuck & George. Eventually, the Brians were asked to enter Chuck & George’s works in student shows.
So — how soon did the Brians realize that Chuck & George were becoming more successful than either of them individually? “Pretty quickly,” Jones replies. But he adds that they’ve come to prize Chuck & George because, working together, they’ve pushed their work deeper, taken more risks: “We had less fear.”
Today is special not just because of the studio tour. The Brians were up to five this morning prepping their latest, most ambitious and elaborate work — and this evening is the opening at Conduit Gallery. The installation is called Tablescrappin’ — it refers both to swapping yarns and arguing around a table as well as scrapbooking, collecting and piecing things together.
At the Conduit, the Brians took over a small room, seven and half feet by twelve. They painted the wallpaper and wood flooring. They put up a sequence of self-portrait prints in which the Alice-in-Wonderland feel of the room becomes merrily violent and monstrous.
As gruesome or outre as their work can be, there’s often a childlike spirit animating it. They’ve taken their self-portraits and realized them as ceramic masks, large and small, with some of the small ones held in a candy dish on a table. There’s an old-style TV in the room running a fuzzy, animated version of the same cartoony images, and there’s even a Marcel Duchamp-ish peephole in one wall. Look through it and you see a miniature of the very room you’re in, right down to the tiny TV set running the videos.
The Brians did it all — the painting, the printmaking, the video animation, the ceramic work, even the wallpaper and the woodgrain. The level of detail and follow-through is more meticulous than anything they’ve done before. It’s a whole new level of complexity and finish.
Heyd Fontenot is the director of Central Trak, UTD’s gallery and artists residency — which is showing some of Brian Jones’ photographic work in its current show, That Mortal Coil. Fontenot says the attention the Brians are getting these days is well-deserved: ” They’re brilliant artists.” Then he steps into Tablescrappin’ and steps out with a grin. The result of the room’s “macro-micro, where-am-I?” mirrorings makes “you feel like you’re on drugs,” he declares.
The Brians have often had jokey self-references in their works; many of them are simply self-portraits or portraits of friends, some are inspired by real-life incidents that happened to them (“Chuck & George Take a Ride on a Borrowed Deus ex Machina, and a Few Other Things That Really Happened on a Perfect Day”). But Tablescrappin’ ramps this up into a manic, through-the-looking-glass quality – with its tiny worlds inside each other, mirroring and replicating each other.
“If we didn’t have an inside joke, ” Brian Scott says, “I don’t know if we’d make something. Our second show at Gray Matters was called ‘The Far Too Insular World of Chuck & George.’ And I like, you know, that we paint our friends and –
“They beg us not to,” says Brian Jones.
Tablescrappin’ has already been picked up for the fall by a gallery in San Antonio — and another in Little Rock.