"Lummox" may be the most existential art project ever to showcase glittering crystal codpieces. It chronicles the making of a band that never was — called Lummox — during the lead-up to its first and only "performance," at Art Basel Miami Beach in 2005. In the process, it asks a question favored by many string theorists, armchair philosophers, and Wachowski siblings: What is reality?
British digital artist Millree Hughes developed the concept of Lummox in the early to mid-aughts, conceiving of a fictitious glam-rock band forever locked in the meretricious 1970s, like mosquitoes preserved in amber. His buddy and fellow Brit Peter Boyd McLean, a television director partly responsible for MARRS' "Pump Up the Volume" music video, filmed Hughes' attempt to turn his glam-band art project into an actual glam band, complete with ridiculous apparel, period wigs, and sexual bravado — musical talent optional.
The resulting 41-minute "mockumentary," Lummox, screens in its entirety on a small TV at the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood as part of a multimedia exhibition about the project. To go along with the whole "What is reality, what is music, what is art?" theme, the movie itself is elusive and deceptive, taking the form of a documentary even if everything contained inside may very well be staged and prepared. McLean follows Hughes around New York as the artist discusses his interest in reinvigorating his own abstract digital landscapes — "horse shit on a hard drive," as he calls them — with actual humanity; to be, in effect, a figure in his own landscape. The Lummox idea springs from this premise, with Hughes becoming one of the "musicians" in his ersatz trio.
McLean, meanwhile, prefers to subvert his role of objective chronicler of a performance-art piece, frequently showing himself on camera, becoming an active participant in rehearsals, investing the proceedings with pretentious narration, and even pretending to be Hughes in one strange sequence featuring artist and television host Mark Kostabi.
Are the resulting clashes of ego between McLean and Hughes real, or are they the manufactured conflicts of "reality" television? Does the small crowd of people who watched Lummox perform at a karaoke bar (apropos, for a project built on deception and fakery) in December 2005 think they're seeing an actual band, or are they in on the joke too? It is a joke, right?
These questions are up to the spectators to answer, and it helps bolster the appeal of this unique exhibition, which continues on the gallery walls on either side of the television screen. With Sharpies and scrap paper, Hughes created a seemingly endless series of drawings dated from 2004 on through 2012 — 700 of which are exhibited at the Art and Culture Center — that relate in some way to the "band" and to the semiotics of glam rock. There are sheets of comic song lyrics ("The seals are dying/even cheese is bad"), images that express written dualities ("sub culture versus consumer culture"), and plenty of recurring visions: big gaudy haircuts, figures smoking in profile, severed hands clutching blades, characters blending into their atmospheres and vice versa.
The drawings are practically living things — storyboards layered on top or inside one another in trippy little bouquets, shifting and coagulating into schizophrenic art spasms. Some are so jumbled they become abstract, and others resemble trick drawings: Train your eyes to stare at them in different ways and you'll see different things. Plenty of Hughes' pieces show two-faced figures signifying the melding of disparate beings, the pliability of identity, the ease and allure of fiction over reality — much like the creation of a band that isn't really a band.
The commentary that seems to underlie everything is that glam music and rock 'n' roll have as much in common with each other as art and box-office returns. Glam is all about the image; at one point in the movie, as Hughes is being fitted with his long-haired Lummox wig, he says, "People don't think about their hair, and yet they claim to be artists? I don't understand it." What's even funnier is when one of his "band mates" is complaining about the lack of preparation of the actual music, with most of the attention diverted to the aesthetics of the production. "We have an agenda, and that is to rock," he says, and it's all the more hilarious because it's delivered with a seeming lack of irony.
Then there's the presentation of Hughes' drawings. If there was anything truly rock 'n' roll about Lummox, these 700 scraps of paper would be strewn across the wall in an anarchic monsoon of art, like newspaper clippings plastered throughout the hovel of some psychotic stalker. Instead, the pieces are presented nicely and orderly, in chronological order, in clearly delineated vertical rows with an equal amount of space between each, like first-graders' drawings pinned to a classroom wall by a proud teacher.
This is what rock looks like when it conforms. Or is it?