Monkey business

Technically, Operation Groucho was over more than a month ago. But only last week, after a whimsical making-of documentary surfaced on the local humor site BadMouth (, could the happening find its proper audience. “BadMouth has been getting thousands of hits a day, which hasn’t happened for a while because the site’s been a little dormant,” said John Marcotte, the Groucho and BadMouth mastermind, in a weekend phone call. Marcotte had been diverted from his usual high jinks by the arrival of a new daughter, but as he explained, “Operation Groucho was my I’m-back-in-a-big-way type of thing.”

It concerned the evidently contentious aesthetic scheme of the intersection between Folsom Boulevard and 65th Street, which juxtaposes a large LED display reading “F65” with Davis artist Stephen Kaltenbach’s Greek-ruin-esque sculpture, an oversized, severed head called “Matter Contemplates Spirit.”

“We always thought it was an odd place for that statue. I’m not sure it matches the environment,” Marcotte went on, echoing, if more politely, what Robert Berry lamented in these pages last year as “a mixture of Salvador Dali and RadioShack” (SN&R Arts&Culture; December 29, 2005). Less politely, perhaps, Marcotte also took action. Harkening back to Marcel Duchamp’s mustachioed “Mona Lisa” of nearly a century ago, he temporarily appended Kaltenbach’s sculpture with a set of custom-made Groucho Marx glasses, complete with bulbous nose, bushy black mustache and eyebrows.

“Nothing is visual shorthand for comedy like a pair of Groucho glasses,” Marcotte said. Indeed. You don’t even need to remember the man to know about the frivolous anarchy he stood for. And, as it happens, the novelty disguise was ideal for Marcotte’s implicitly dadaist creative agenda, which burlesques arts-council pieties of urban revitalization by restoring real playfulness to public art. Even if all that lasts of the Groucho riff is its will to caricature, that’s enough.

Visitors to BadMouth have supported the revelry, with e-mailed cries of “totally awesome!” and “absolutely, friggin’ brilliant!” One wrote, “John, you have too much time on your hands!! I loved it!” More than one suggested that the Statue of Liberty deserves the Groucho treatment, too.

“I’m sorry I missed it,” said Kaltenbach. “I thought it showed quite a bit of respect to the piece. Art is supposed to interact with people in different ways. Groucho is one of my favorites, too.”

The mask stayed up for most of one weekend, until a property manager took it down. But the event lives on in cyberspace. “I would like to have gotten the glasses back,” Marcotte said, wistfully. “I assume that he just chucked it in the Dumpster. If I could’ve found it, I’d have put it on a wall. Or maybe sold it on eBay to help support my site.”