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Almost immediately upon entering the personal orbit of A. Clarke Bedford, one discovers that he is, as he mildly offers, “into collage.”
His creaky old Mercedes station wagon is decorated with a hodgepodge of gewgaws and statuary that would put to shame even the most rococo New York taxicab. He owns a 1991 Saab 900 convertible that he’s converted into a paean to the ’30s roadster, complete with a winged chrome hood ornament, a walnut-trimmed trunk-top luggage rack, and an exterior spare tire mounted over the rear bumper. And then there’s his yard, which brings to mind a sort of dadaist Sanford and Son: Here, amid the ranches and small colonials of a Hyattsville side street, are stacked statues and urns, panels and tiles, charms and lanterns.
Most of these objects, as well as many of the items inside Bedford’s densely packed living room, have at one time or another found their way into his art, which involves the creation of satirical art histories and spans photography, painting, sculpture, performance art, and fiction-writing. The 58-year-old is the inventor, for example, of Frederick Draper Kalley, an industrialist and art collector known for his unique fascination with argyle-sock-themed art. Bedford has also chronicled more than a century’s worth of history at the Hornbuckle School of Hygiene and the Arts, which was putatively founded by Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman in the Smoky Mountains at the end of the Civil War.
Artist and art historian Beauvais Lyons, who’s collaborated with Bedford in presentations at College Art Association meetings, describes these projects as examples of “fictive art.” “The art,” he explains, “is a prop for this invention that’s much greater than the work of art speaking for itself in a conventional sense.”
Fellow practitioners include New Yorker Lenore Malen, who exhibits photographs and documents related to an invented Utopian retreat called the New Society for Universal Harmony, and Canadian Richard Purdy, who’s concocted an entire South Pacific civilization right down to the ceremonial garments and potsherds. Lyons is the inventor and custodian of the Hokes Archives, a folk-art repository “collected” by Everitt Ormsby Hokes, a fictional Victorian scholar.
The discipline requires not only artist talent and the broad, coherent vision of a novelist but also a passion for working in obsolete styles and antique technologies—something Bedford first expressed by taking a job as a conservator at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in 1980.
Working there left him with the inescapable sense that some contemporary art is, as he puts it, “flimflam”—and that the stuff is ripe for parody. “I think conservation is a little bit like a parody,” he says. “It’s a parallel reality which in a way makes comment on the original. It isn’t the original but sort of looks like the original. So it’s something posing as the original. It’s a game.”
For Bedford, that game expanded to include fictive art about 20 years ago, when he made a painting “of a Mondrian stuck up in a tree.” His intention at the time was less antic than his oeuvre might suggest. “It was about how Mondrian was anti-nature,” he remembers. He took a black-and-white photograph of the painting, printed it, and then wrote a brief story situating the work in the great abstractionist’s development as an artist.
“There are real objects and then fake objects,” Bedford says, “and then you start making objects to fill in the gaps.”
Bedford credits his father with kindling his interest in art: He taught him to paint with watercolors and, more crucially, the necessity of making a scene. One night, Bedford’s family was waiting to be seated in a restaurant in Cos Cob, Conn., when his father furtively tossed a piece of plastic vomit on the carpet. “No one had ever seen one before,” Bedford remembers. The staff scrambled to find a mop to clean it up; his father astounded both the restaurant’s employees and the 7- or 8-year-old Bedford by bending down and picking it up.
Though Bedford’s father, grandfather, and great-grandfather were all senior executives at Standard Oil, he doesn’t seem to have much of a head for business. He was represented by D.C.’s respected Hemphill Fine Arts for several years, but that relationship ended in 2000—at least in part, Bedford suggests, because his work “undercuts the way you sell art.” The artist also remembers once writing a “kiss-ass letter” to a gallery owner in Philadelphia. “I got the nicest response,” he says, “and I just hated it.”
In keeping with his anti-careerism, Bedford got into conservation almost by accident. In 1970, the Brooklyn, N.Y., native moved to Manhattan, fresh from the fine-arts program at Williams College. Back then, he painted in a realist mode—“like everyone with a meat-and-potatoes fine-arts background,” he says—and “planned on not being a museum guard.” He tried his hand at advertising, designing rugs, and a few other lines of work before moving to Boston, where, sure enough, he found work as a security guard at the Gardner Museum.
A friend eventually gave Bedford a brochure for the Cooperstown Graduate Program in the Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works. The training gave him both a new career and a new name: On paper, he was Alfred Clark Bedford III, but he’d always gone by Chuck. When he showed up to register, he was asked if he preferred Alfred or Clark. “So on the spot I changed my name to Clarke,” he says. “I sort of reinvented myself.”
The idea of biography, he would later discover, is one of the central concerns of fictive art. The genre’s overarching critique of art appreciation and scholarship is that an interesting backstory will always trump aesthetic achievement. “It’s the cult of personality. It’s what we used to mock the Communist Chinese for,” jokes Bedford, who suggests that contemporary art galleries are as much in the market for human pathologies as they are for skilled and inventive artists. His own art, he says, intentionally “excludes the work of the critic and curator.” And why not? Making art history is easy when you, well, make art history.
Bedford’s first ambitious project in this vein was 1992’s Frederick Draper Kalley, Prince of the American Renaissance, the entire life of a fictional fin de siècle collector encapsulated in photomontage. Kalley’s summer house is pictured as a shingle-covered cottage situated precariously at the precipice of a waterfall, in homage to Frank Lloyd Wright. Kalley’s artifacts include a statue of a three-legged ballerina by Degas that the collector “reproduced as a lamp base” for his novelty-manufacturing concern.
The Kalley project expanded in 1997, when Bedford first exhibited Mettez une chaussette là-dedans! (or “Put a Sock in It!”) at Hemphill. The exhibition, which putatively documents both Kalley’s collecting habits and the history of the argyle sock in art, begins with the Scribble of Tighnabruach, a sort of Neolithic protoargyle etched into stone. It then moves into sendups of classic artworks. The Four Musical Socks pokes fun at Picasso’s Three Musicians. Other pieces take on Kandinsky, Dali, Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns, and even contemporary empty-space sculptor Rachel Whiteread. The show’s “Whiteread,” The Space Inside My Fabric Softener Bottle, is credited to Coleslaw Baklava, one of Bedford’s long-running fictional artists.
Baklava, who’s also responsible for a photographic series about reserved parking spaces and a performance-art piece that seems suspiciously similar to cabbage farming, is the ultimate parody of the contemporary artist as con man. But he might be better understood as Bedford’s guilty alter ego: Bedford points out that they share the same initials, and that Baklava’s work represents “the side of my art that’s superficial and glib.” At his most confessional, Bedford even admits that he and Baklava both have a penchant for the “clever, educated, and arcane…the fashionable, shallow, [and] pseudophilosophical.”
Lyons points out that Bedford’s style of parody is “kind of a loving form of critique, because you have to re-create or re-enact something that’s the subject of your critique. You are admitting its power.” Of course, that hasn’t prevented some of those who’ve seen Bedford’s fictive slide shows from walking out.
“There is an incredible kind of snobbery” among contemporary artists, scholars, and critics, Bedford says. “And it is based on nothing. They either don’t get the jokes or they get them and don’t like them.” If you make fun of their world, he complains, they say, “‘Well, you just don’t get it’ or ‘Why do you hate art?’”
Perhaps the funniest thing about Bedford’s work is that even as he takes pains to skewer other artists, he’s also skewering himself. He’s full of semimocking but believable self-reproach about not being the draftsman that Klee was or the painter that Duchamp was. By comparison, he says, he’s a “dilettante artist.”
It’s hard not to suspect that Bedford’s fictive approach might be a defense—a way of hiding his dilettantism from all those critics and curators. “I have done it so close to reality,” he says of his work, “that most people think it’s real.” For some critics and curators, that’s enough. A 1997 Art in America review of a Hemphill show called Bedford “brilliantly serious and also vibrantly funny.” Bedford’s participation in a group exhibition currently at the University of Maryland, College Park, drew a favorable review in last Friday’s Washington Post. His work, it asserted, “handily steals the small show.”
Such notices haven’t softened Bedford, He notes that a less contrarian personality might assemble these clips and “shove them down the throat of every gallery owner” he could find. But the artist has been lately straying away from art-world satire—what he calls “the PDQ Bach thing”—and into out-and-out farce.
In 2001, he first presented William Tecumseh Sherman: The Suburban Years, a performance delivered in Civil War drag complete with an authentic Union Army coat. Bedford also stars as Sherman in an accompanying photocollage, paired with the Venus of Willendorf, a roughly 25,000-year-old statue reproduced here in styrofoam, kitty litter, and paint. “He’s the classic man of action, and [she’s] a woman in the arts,” Bedford says of the unlikely couple. “She’s a fertility symbol, and he’s desperately trying to find meaning outside of death and destruction.”
A more recent work is a Pietà crafted of found objects and set against a backdrop of a U.S. map with all the blue states cut out. Standing in for the suffering Christ is a partly melted doll meant to represent Terri Schiavo, held in place by a ski-boot clip. An antique magnifying lens is trained on the doll’s face.
Called Vegetative States, the rather slapdash piece is unlikely to make the pages of Art in America—not that the artist cares. After all, he isn’t making make any great claims for the work, either. “It’s a conservative thing to say, but I think you can make a case that there’s been nothing new since 1920,” he says.
“Once you get to the point where you have an all-white painting like Malevich and you have a found object like Duchamp, really, what else is there? More found objects? More paintings that aren’t anything?”
Not for A. Clarke Bedford. He says he’s more apt to “go and start bolting old Buick parts to my Saab. It’s just what I do.”CP