The Dallas Contemporary announced on its Facebook page that it will install a giant, 40-foot tall neon Playboy bunny sign, recently removed from the West Texas by order of the Texas Department of Transportation, at the Design District museum in April. The sign was designed by artist Richard Phillips at the behest of Playboy and installed in the desert outside Marfa. Precedent for the erection of a branded art monument was established by the artists Elmgreen and Dragset, who installed their Prada Marfa sculpture, a replica of a Prada boutique plopped on a desolate patch of West Texas highway, in 2005. Signs and advertisements are not permitted on the highway by Texas state law, but both pieces laid claim a bit of a Duchampian sorcery, asserting that the installations were art, not advertising, thus not subject to the anti-sign law.
As with the Richard Prince’s haggling this past summer over copyright laws, the two pieces threw the question of the definition of art into the churning logic of the legal system. Eventually Texas ruled that the pieces couldn’t stay, and they have been ordered removed. The fate of Prada Marfa is still unsure, but we now know what will happen, at least temporarily, to Phillips’ Playboy sculpture: it will be moved to the Dallas Contemporary where it will be exhibited as part of Phillips’ first U.S. museum exhibition this spring.
When I first heard the news my knee jerk reaction was to see this as merely an opportunistic swipe at a sensational bit of art controversy. The Dallas Contemporary, after all, has shown an appetite for a semi-sincere embracing Dallas’ superficiality that panders to and satirizes this city’s character in the same breath. There is something frivolous and frustrating about Phillips’ piece. If you take a step back from the dry intellectual pat-a-cakes over the nature of the work of art, you see it as merely a trite, depressingly idiotic piece of consumer kitsch, a muscle car on a tilted pedestal facing a neon bunny. At best the piece is itself an example of art-parody, a self-effacing admittance of art’s own branded triviality, pandering consumer cool with a nihilistic swagger. It’s a conversation piece, but a dreadful and depressing work of art. And its brazen tastelessness has put a superior work of art, Prada Marfa, in jeopardy.
That said, a Richard Phillips exhibition in Texas would feel amiss without reference to the controversial Playboy piece. It’s inclusion now positions the Contemporary as a setting for conversation around the object and its implication not only for Marfa, but for the continuing dialogue about drawing those ever-ephemeral lines around the definition of a work of art. It will also allow an opportunity for further discussion on why Prada Marfa has a more legitimate claim to its location. And in the end, the Dallas Contemporary is a better location for the Playboy sculpture than the pristine and sublime West Texas desert.