Sunday, February 22, 2009

afternoons in Chelsea (NY)


When I moved to NYC in 1981 the majority of contemporary art galleries were in SoHo. At that time it felt rather bourgeois - large industrial spaces had been stripped - brick walls, new blank walls of drywall, white walls & polished wood floors. High ceilings. Victorian accents (moldings, etc.), tall windows. The not-so-past epoch of an artists district seemed long-gone. I must confess that my 2 earliest artistic encounters in SoHo were 1) going to an opening of faux Pre-Raphaelite paintings (mostly self-portraits I believe) by Norris Church, i.e. Mrs. Norman Mailer, which was high society but not necessarily high art by any means, on West Broadway, & 2) being taken by a friend from Ann Arbor, who had come to NYC the year before, to a loft presided over by (although this meant nothing at the time) Hannah Wilke. All I recall is we had to chew gum & give it back & my friend Deborah later laughed, "she thinks all women are goddesses!" which may or may not have much of anything to it. I thought the paintings of Norris Church rather tacky & I had no sense of Hannah Wilke as a great radical artist. In terms of the latter: my loss!

I bring this up, for if anything, SoHo in 1981 looked remarkably store-bought & fancy & it had the highest concentration of contemporary art galleries in NYC at the time, distinct from the more staid galleries of 57th St., or the Upper East Side (perhaps most vivid fictionally in the film of Portrait of Jenny - an elegant walk-up presided over by Ethel Barrymore - if only it were really like that) - large, flashy, carved out of an industrial past. If anything, my sense of this in terms of scale has nothing to do w/ the excesses of mercantilism which were to follow.

Chelsea followed, like any urban sprawl, further out & bigger, better. Huge galleries became bigger. Some of the area was quite abject & the development of the area included the closure of the 2 leather bars in the city - The Spike & The Eagle, otherwise louche destinations facing the West Side Highway & the Hudson river. One could be edified rather than hit on. The distance from the subway & the distance from most other things are both a hindrance in terms of getting there conveniently & a mark of exclusivity.

W/ a few day off this past week I went to a few shows in Chelsea. The most interesting one was the Thomas Hirschhorn installation "Universal Gym" at the Barbara Gladstone gallery on 21st st. In his customary use of mass-produced generic materials, corrugated cardbord & packing tape, Hirschhorn made the gallery a sick simulacrum of a gym - mirrors, weights, machines - a factory of bodies, fitness, health, sociability. This is quite dark & critical. I also admire Hirschhorn for using thoroughly temporal materials - this is a conservator's nightmare yet o so vivid. I can't help but make a correlation between Hirschhorn's materials & the Wanda Jackson song "The Box It Came Home In" which will be "all satin-lined" - this is about death in life, a pre-purchased lot of nothingness, mass-produced. Existence as nullification.

At Andrew Kreps, a group photo show, w/ a lousy premise/statement, nevertheless had 2 bodies of work which stood out. 1) a print by Liz Deschenes - Liz is one of the great artists working today & her photographs, which confront photographic technologies & visual culture, have so much to say about our interactions with images & the experiences, both physical & historical, & how that occurs. Somewhere I recall reading a statement by Susan Sontag to the effect that the essence of thinking is the word "but" - which is what I think of when I see Liz's photographs. To describe her images does not address their visceral quality - their presence.

The other curious body of work in the show is by Annette Kelm, a triptych of Herbert Tobias album covers. This brings to mind an essay by the late Herve Guibert about record album covers, their tactility & resonance as sensuous objects & their primacy as aethetic experiences. Herbert Tobias was a great German gay photographer in the 1950s & 1960s. His commercial work for Deutsche Grammophon is both kitsch & trendy & meant to be ephemeral, a kind of post-WWII modernism - the subjective photography of Otto Steinert, applied in a commercial field. Kelm's use of the images invokes a historical recovery in seemingly trivial work to reveal a worldview of myth, culture & longing.

1 comment:

Deirdre Donohue said...

I would like to counter the final Norris Church comment. Whatever you think of her paintings, or did think, she is a beautiful Pre-Raphaelite angel in her own right, and, actually, I believe substantive beyond her image as a former model. I met her at the NYPL, and was was touched by her wistfulness and intelligence to a surprising degree. I think the great Mailer chose well.