In one of those rare events that are all the more special because they are celebrated by the few rather than the many, an archly conceptual artist of the otherwise brashly figurative and paint-drenched 1980s East Village scene has recently snuck back into town for an intimate and unadvertised week-long show in a Williamsburg apartment.
Upon his return, Mike Osterhout, whose silence of more than 15 years since leaving the New York art world is typical of his penchant for self-abnegating career decisions, brought with him a diverse body of work -- that is, a range of eccentric creative gestures both difficult and distinct, the kind of things that have long characterized him as an artist’s artist.
Never easy to categorize, Osterhout began his career in the 1970s among the Bay Area Conceptualists, whose odd humor and irascible iconoclasm have proven to be as respected by critics as they are suspect to the market. Osterhout’s own efforts most closely approximate the radical life-as-art convergences set forth in the 1986 New Museum exhibition, "Choices: Making an Art of Everyday Life," of which he was a part.
Opening the MO David Gallery, named after the persona he invented to work as an art critic on behalf of other artists (first in San Francisco and later in New York in 1984), Osterhout did as much to bring to wider attention artists like David Ireland, Tony Oursler and Tony Labat as he did to confuse his own identity. It certainly didn’t help that the artist posing as the critic-turned-art-dealer MO David was showing his own work under the name of Kristan Kohl, a fictitious German woman painter.
One would imagine that by the time Osterhout closed his gallery, biographically assassinated Kohl and left the city for the mountains, the art world and history might happily bid farewell for good to this unorthodox imposter. But if living your art and making art of your life is inevitably akin to the endurance art practices from which the notion was spawned, it also involves an act of faith that does not perish quite so easily as most mid-career droughts.
Among the most telling of Osterhout’s early conceptual tropes was an action which involved his becoming ordained in seminary school as a Conceptual Artist, a creepy companion to his other real-life performances, including adopting a needy orphan boy via mail order, buying and branding a cow, and tattooing a dozen people with his own custom designs.
Osterhout may well be most fondly remembered by many of his former East Village colleagues for his role as preacher at the Church of the Little Green Man, which ran as a Sunday afternoon performance-based mock religion. Featuring a congregation that included artists Karen Finley, Kembra Pfahler and several other notables, a church band with which he would record under the name Purple Geezus, and a gas-fueled "eternal flame" to ignite the dollar bill that church visitors were required to sacrifice for admission, Osterhout’s church ran for many years in the clubs, bars and strip joints of a then less morally attuned downtown Manhattan.
With such a back-story it is perhaps less surprising that much of this artist’s time since then has been dedicated to hunting and the refurbishment of a village church in the Catskill Mountains as a work of art. This said, few if any had much idea of what Mike Osterhout would hang on the walls of a small apartment-cum-gallery as evidence of his studio practice. And most abundant of the many pleasant improbabilities encountered at his recent exhibition was a whole new body of Kohl canvases, presumably back-dated pre-mortem, as I’m sure I long ago wrote her obituary in High Times magazine.
Kohl’s new works are large, crazy-quilted collages of prurient decorative media that are in our view far superior to her earlier (or later) monochrome paintings. The best of these by far is the large canvas papered with a tessellated pattern of torn-up dollar bills, a raw material that is no doubt less expensive these days than other major currencies, if not cheaper than the magazine and catalogue pages typically employed in the other works in this series.
Also on hand in the show was a set of another dozen tattoo designs for inking, hung next to blood prints from the former endeavor for context, as well as newly distilled cases of bottled "holy water," lovingly packaged and assuredly blessed by the Little Green Man.
A handful of fans have followed this artist’s literary trail via his blog, huntingwithsupermodels.com, which chronicles his upstate misadventures at further length. Much of this activity, when not involving the production of a never-seen personal television show using disposable drugstore handicams, focuses on the art of turkey calling, at which our subject is expert. (As it happens, this exhibition was mounted in the apartment of one of those aforementioned models, who apparently enjoys the company of this hunter as artist-with-a-gun.)
In Williamsburg, the sole evidence of this martial woodsmanship was a 9mm handgun and case, the wry process artifact of a recent art action, for which Osterhout carried the pistol as he flew via commercial airlines back and forth from Los Angeles. This exhibit -- the encased gun on a small table, surmounted by a color photograph of the man himself sitting in sunglasses and bathrobe in a hotel room, like a revivified Hunter S. Thompson -- was itself visually more concise and effective than the art that has otherwise been characteristic of his practice in his upstate redoubt, typically involving the remains of animals he has killed.
But as a rural artist, Osterhout has taken up the most traditional artistic practice, that of buying and remodeling a farmhouse (the practice, derivative of his work with the church -- which began a decade ago -- was brought into the contemporary art field more recently by Richard Prince, who sold his house, and the art it contained, to the Guggenheim Museum). Osterhout’s house, now with a $75,000 price tag, includes new white siding but remains sans septic, and is no doubt best appreciated without the benefit of any interior views, as the structure remains a shell. Yet to these eyes at least it’s as good an investment as any Gordon Matta-Clark commission and a far better bet than most of the similarly messy and manic conceptualisms that have recently sprung up.
Living in Brooklyn for a week, occupying a hypothetical space that served simultaneously as home, studio and gallery, Osterhout’s dissimilation of the contemporary art world is happily reminiscent of those halcyon days in the East Village that the current crop of Lower East Side Galleries may gladly reference but could hardly hope to understand. For this if nothing else we should applaud the artist, whomever he may pretend to be.
CARLO MCCORMICK is senior editor of Paper magazine.