Playing the clown 

After all the humor, horror, hoaxes and chutzpah artist Jef Bourgeau has served the Detroit art community, you can't help but want to slam him with a banana cream pie.

During the last decade and a half, Bourgeau has fooled the media into printing press releases, biographies, interviews and obituaries for people he's invented. He's conned audiences and critics by exhibiting his own work under assumed names at the Pontiac gallery he's operated since 1996, Museum of New Art. And he's asserted that portraits of locals, such as Oakland University gallery director Dick Goody, are of well-known 20th-century artists.

Bourgeau assumes the freedom to appropriate and even to fabricate, inspiring both admiration and outrage, depending on your sensibilities. However, concerning everyday life and the art world, his art has never failed to ask this pivotal question: What is reality?

The more you know about the man and his art, the less genuine they both seem. A string of small exhibitions promised to him at the Detroit Institute of Arts was abruptly canceled by director Graham Beal, just after the first one opened in 1999. So abruptly a photographer was locked inside.

Having created a "Bathtub Jesus" and exhibiting fake menstrual blood and piss, Bourgeau riffed on the infamous "Young British Artists," whose work at the Brooklyn Museum's Sensation show in 1997 (including Chris Ofili's black Madonna, painted with elephant shit) sparked an international controversy. "I never understand censorship when it happens," he states simply. His philosophy remains, "You can do anything you want." His current solo retrospective at Oakland University Gallery, which includes work by his "doppelgängers," is proof of that.

Bourgeau conceives nihilistic work inspired by dada, work meant to jolt assumptions about what constitutes an artist, an artwork, a gallery, a museum and life. Often his art is about art itself, but he has taken on popular culture too, aiming to shock. At the gallery, the ventriloquist's dummy so beloved by baby boomers, Howdy Doody, hangs himself in a piece first exhibited at Bourgeau's 2002 kaBOOM show. That bright orange smile remains intact as Howdy dangles above an overturned stool.

And in the spirit of Marcel Duchamp painting a moustache on a copy of the Mona Lisa, Bourgeau also messes with the masters. In "Chest (Donald Judd)," he compares the minimalist's iconic work to a commonplace chest of drawers, since the furniture's volumes are likewise arranged in horizontal stacks. The piece of white text on a black background reads "An Object Like a Painting," recalling Magritte's "This is Not a Pipe" by questioning what constitutes a work of art. And his copy of Man Ray's "Object to be Destroyed With Instructions" was smashed with a hammer at the exhibit's opening by Bourgeau's daughter.

In a fake press release for his Picasso's Camera show last year, Bourgeau, a lover of gothic narrative, concocted a convoluted story about a newly found box camera with a cracked lens and roll of film once owned by Picasso — a camera that, Bourgeau would have us believe, was accidentally responsible for cubism. In his "Lost Picasso" portraits here, such as "Carlos Valentin 1906," Bourgeau patches together disjointed faces to emulate rebellious modernist experimentation.

Whether in a comic spoof on iconic art or the tragic lampooning of a pop culture hero, Bourgeau's work consistently explores the theme of corrupted innocence, juxtaposing what's idyllic and distressing. "Blue House on the Moon," a model of an ordinary home painted bright blue, displays in each of its five front windows fake blue fingers that read as outsized obscenities and as violence impinging on the clueless commonplace.

Other work with this goal to traumatize include "A Boy's Life," in which a young blond boy, seen only from the back, watches an endless parade of tanks outside his train window.

In the excellent catalog that accompanies the exhibition, Jef Bourgeau: A User's Manual, former DIA curator Jan van der Marck writes that "Bourgeau kicked the tires off the social vehicles meant to propel art." Of course, Firesign Theatre long ago established that "we're all bozos on this bus" — so kick away.


Jef Bourgeau: A Retrospective runs through Oct. 7, at Oakland University Art Gallery, 208 Wilson Hall, Oakland University, Rochestser; 248-370-3005.

Christina Hill writes about art for Metro Times. Send comments to

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