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"I liked the idea of disassociating my writing or art-making self from the bookstore and day-to-day stuff mostly because I don't like to talk about what I make in that context," he says. "Of course, my friends and family know what I'm doing, but in general, I don't like to link the two — mainly because if someone knows you as one thing, they don't take the other thing seriously."
In the early 1990s, Cowdin also studied geology at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. In a lab there, he met Don Wilkison, a fellow geology student. Wilkison didn't know about Bitterman until he visited a book sale at his daughter's middle school.
"As I was walking though the parking lot, I saw a Jeep Grand Cherokee with this weird-ass painting on it that said, 'Is this a burning flag or a penis?'" Wilkison says. "I thought to myself, I don't know who owns that but I need to meet this person."
Their resulting friendship, he explains, owes much to their willingness to be brutally honest with each other. "It's the kind of brother relationship where you have this parry back and forth," Wilkison says. "It's well-intentioned, but we're not afraid to say to each other, 'You're full of shit.' "
Wilkison makes art under his own assumed persona, "Minister of Information." Last year, he surreptitiously planted a tree in the shadow of "Ferment," Roxy Paine's metal-tree sculpture on the lawn of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. He called the work "Tree for Roxy Paine." Eventually the museum yanked it out.
In a March 2012 issue of the San Francisco-based art publication Art Practical, which was devoted to Kansas City, Bitterman submitted an essay about his friend's tree. He withdrew it at the last minute, though, because he believed that the publication's editing had changed the voice and meaning of the piece.
That, Wilkison says, was just Bitterman standing his ground.
"He's willing to put himself on the line when he really believes something. If you look at his work and spend some time with him, you'll understand that.
"Some people say he's difficult to work with," Wilkison adds. "I don't necessarily agree with that. Pete can be an asshole, sure. I can be an asshole. We can all be assholes."
There's also history between the Nelson-Atkins and Bitterman. For the 2010 work "Wal-Mart: A. Bitterman vs. Stephen Holl," Bitterman constructed a Masonite-and-foam replica of a Wal-Mart sign, then rounded up volunteers to gather on the museum lawn on a Sunday morning to hold the Wal-Mart sign up against the Bloch Building as Blumb snapped pictures.
Cowdin says people saw the project as a criticism of the museum, but that wasn't his intention. It was merely an impulse he wanted to fulfill.
"Wal-Mart is so loaded," he says. "It's a million things, and it's heavy. It's infused with layers of hatred and love. The museum, too, is completely loaded. It's a Stephen Holl building — it's precious."
The artist mailed photographic prints of the happening to the museum.
Jan Schall, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Nelson-Atkins, describes the photographs as "well seen and well made." The prints remain in the museum archives; unsolicited artworks, Schall explains, can't become part of the collection.
In Indianapolis, Cowdin is adjusting to working with a museum staff rather than installing his work guerrilla-style, during off hours. Two weeks into his residency, though, he has encountered a classic jungle-fighter problem. The fictional Bitterman is covered with a real poison-ivy rash.
He's unfazed (though he's not sleeping on the island — the IMA provides air-conditioned quarters with a real bed).