Divine Excess on Avenue C
At 8:30 p.m. last Thursday evening, only half an hour after its opening, the queue to enter “Le Patriote”, an unclassifiable and frankly disturbed collective exhibition at the gallery O’Flaherty’s at 55 Avenue C had stretched to the corner of East 4th Street and flirted with Avenue B. By the time the New York Police Department arrived, with at least a dozen officers and several cars on patrol, rough estimates put the crowd somewhere near 1,000, and it was entirely conceivable that many of them were waiting to see their own work.
About four weeks ago, the gallery launched a democratic open call: no work of less than one square meter was refused. It was answered with exuberance. At last count, the exhibition features 820 works of art crammed into the gallery’s modest frontage, most hanging lounge style with impressive little leeway, but also crawling across the ceiling, splaying across the floor and colonizing the bathroom.
In the New York art world, the summer group show is traditionally a polite, low-impact affair of loosely bound works under an undemanding vanity. It’s a placeholder, really, until the Collector’s Class returns from Amagansett – “the most disappointing sight for an artist,” as the show’s printed statement correctly states.
“The Patriot” is not polite. In his rabid excess, he pushes the summer collective show to its absurd breaking point. It is by turns hysterical, profane, unhealthy, odious and vaguely disturbing. It’s also a lot of fun. Given the volume, it’s not all good, as you’d expect, and some are actively repulsive (“I mean, like what’s that?” the painter asked. Jamian Juliano Villani, who runs the Gallery with artist Billy Grant and musician Ruby Zarsky, pointing to what appeared to be a rotting herring fillet in a plastic sandwich bag nailed to a door).
Seemingly every media imaginable and inconceivable is represented: paint of course, but also synthetic wigs, popped hockey sticks, foam insulation, upholstery, hubcaps, pub menus. An accurately scaled sheep fashioned from aluminum foil and left on a cart – a good gag for the sight – roams around the ground floor. Any kind of compelling curatorial principle is out of place, which is trying to do something interesting, rather than just moving the product.
Without context does not mean without pretension. “The Patriot” becomes its own kind of concept art piece. “Everyone thinks they have an original idea, but there are 10,000 of the same board,” Juliano-Villani said. Certainly, themes emerge: overworked muddy oil paintings; ready made sex toys; post-ironic celebrity obsession (a drawing of the famous paparazzi image of Jake Gyllenhaal sullenly feeding The Kirsten Dunst soup stands out).
If the overall effect is that of a Cooper Union thesis show on psilocybin, it exposes, probably inadvertently, the deep and abounding longing of city artists who are clamoring for exposure and desperate for recognition, and the difficulty in obtaining orders and representation. The show is a microcosm of the art scene in all its frustrated expression: art school dropouts, newbies, artists who have long suffered in obscurity, the most famous. It presents a sort of alternative Whitney Biennale (most of the work was submitted by local artists, but some from as far away as Virginia and Vermont). As for delving into the depraved heart of American artistic production, it is in many ways more effective.
While the thrill felt by a struggling artist for his first group exhibition must surely be real – and alongside established artists like Josh Smithno less, who has already fulfilled commissions for Louis Vuitton, and who here contributes a Rauschenbergian cigar box with razor blades set in chewing gum – that won’t figure as anyone’s big break or shine a resume If the show uses them as props, none of them they don’t seem to care.
When I came back the day after the opening, the scene was much more civilized. A handful of people were walking around, sharing what looked like the same stunned expression of sensory overload. An artist was tending to a kinetic sculpture on the ground, an intricate network of silicone skin pumping and recycling what looked like blood from two gallon-sized jars. A gallery assistant asked about the likelihood of it exploding. It wasn’t out of the question.
It was impossible to determine whether a plastic shopping bag left in the middle of the ground floor was or was not a true work of art, but it might as well have been (it was recovered earlier late by a visitor, but a similar bag could be found hanging in the office, where a series of flashing videos run on tiny screens flash like a miniature Shinjuku neighborhood). Sometimes the whole gallery groans, signaling that a visitor has set off the vibrating floor in a side room housing a display case filled with what is billed as Abraham Lincoln’s mortuary pillow on loan from the Morgan Library and Museum. (Juliano-Villani: “Billy used to date someone there who owed him a favor”; a Morgan spokeswoman, of course, said the object was never part of his collection and that the museum had not lent any objects to the exhibition.)
In fact, the number of established artists who have chosen to get involved may be surprising. You can try to locate, for example, the works of Jonas Wood, Terence Koh, Jordan Wolfson, Rob Pruitt and Sarah Morris. Cecily Brown offered a halftone canvas (mounted near a jar of Eurocrem, Serbia’s answer to Nutella). The lipstick marks on the underside of the toilet seat cover in the bathroom are attributed to Dan Colen. A shadow sculpture by the British duo Tim Noble and Sue Webster sits on a plinth and probably looked best when it opened, when the gallery lights were turned off and visitors were given caving flashlights in the dark. For better or worse, there are no aesthetic judgments, which Juliano-Villani says is “the perfect way to annihilate any kind of art scene”.
There’s a dizzying embrace of the chaos that used to define the downtown scene, but has been mostly absent lately, zapped by taste-conscious assessments and smoothed out by the uniform brilliance of social media and the expansionism. In all its dripping humanity, “The Patriot” is the complete opposite of a sterile concrete sales floor. Yet, like everything that works or doesn’t work in New York, “The Patriot” has a real estate component. On view until August 10, this is the gallery’s last exhibition in this space. The gallery owners say their landlord, less enamored of their anarchic spirit, pushes them away, and the exhibit is something of a parting gift in the form of nearly 1,000 holes in the walls, a final punk gesture worthy of their surroundings. .
Avenue C remained mostly oblivious to the slick that invaded other parts of the city. It’s only a few minutes in any direction from the art shopping districts of West Chelsea or TriBeCa, but psychically it might as well be over the moon. When O’Flaherty’s opened last year, Juliano-Villani, who felt hemmed in by market demands, described her desire “to show art that is not afraid of itself”. In the window, a putrid green neon sign asks “What’s wrong?” – a question that teases the events inside, but also could reasonably be asked of the rest of the art world as a whole, and probably should.
Until August 10, O’Flaherty’s, 55 Avenue C, Manhattan, oflahertysnyc.com.