Ladies and gentlemen readers of The Art Life,please welcome to these pages our very first guest blogger Margaret Mayhew . An artist, writer, academic and radio personality Ms. Mayhew – also known as Mayhem – has been running the highly personal, always funny and often inspirational blog Art & Mayhem for god know’s how long [since June 2005 actually]. Although currently ‘away’ in New York, we are extremely pleased to present her postcard from New York…
DEDICATED TO the down and outs, the never was its, and also the also rans
Mayhem is fully honoured to do a guest blog for the art life. I’ve been in new york for 3 months so this is a bit of a remote rant about spaces far away. I don’t want to come across as some kind of wannabee Robert Hughes – acting like the oracle reporting back to my far flung provincial home on the wonders and delights of the great postmodern playground of contemporary art.
Besides I’m not sure if I’m all that qualified to declare that I’ve got my finger on the pulse of what’s hip and happening anyway. Actually I’ve felt so comfortable in NYC – that I’ve send stupid amounts of time hanging out in my room – or in friends kitchens or in supermarkets and libraries. So—err – well of course I’ve seen a lot of art – but I couldn’t bear to go to the ARMORY SHOW last weekend – probably for the same reason that avoid the Sydney Art Fair, and don’t sing advance Australia fair either. Went I want fair – I fly north for the winter and keep my pallour pallid, but apart from that I reckon all fairs can fairk off.
Well, not quite. Now I know this is odd coming from a true beige Aussie – but I’ve found the colour thing in New York REALLY WEIRD. On the subways in New York and in the streets- even in midtown Manhattan – you can see a lot of multicoloured flesh on people’s faces. But then at the doors to museums, galleries and big buildings – 90 percent of the faces and hands doing the bag checks, door openings, coat checks, ticket checks etc. are black or dark brown. (the other 10 per cent are pale brown) – and ditto for garbage collectors, cleaners, toilet attendants etc. From a multicoloured street, one passes through this weird wall of coloured humanity – into a zone of white faces and arms (I ain’t seen a lot of leg coz it’s winter).
One of the highlights had to be sitting in the auditorium at the feminist future symposium at MOMA on Australia Day. Within the auditorium, as in most of the museums and the library, I was surrounded by well kept, pale skinned, earnest bookish women (except a small number of famous representatives of the nonbeige) which felt like a relief from the ubiquitous lashings of fake tan in Sydney – but also felt completely unreal. The weirdest bit of course involved some earnest idealistic honky standing up and declaring in that gorgeous guilty ridden American way that “We should all promise ourselves to bring at least one black person here.” – conveniently ignoring the fact that there are black people everywhere in MOMA – they just happen to doing blue collar jobs instead of the disembodied labours of the pallid creative classes… I keep thinking that maybe the decades of segregation is what allows most North Americans to be comfortable with the spatial splits between coloured flesh. Different races are everywhere – but there are these weird invisible (social and cultural) barriers passing between us.
You may wonder what this has to do with art. But mayhem reckons it’s an appropriate lead in to the weirdness of Williamsburg – which is the scene of all that is funky new and hip in the big apple art world. Chelsea is where the big money galleries, artists and buyers are, and Williamsburg is like Chelsea’s little brother – I guess you’d call it entry level art market – where and newly minted MFA’s have their shows and there are lots of new galleries all with reasonably affordable art (from $10 to $1000).
Williamsburg is on the northern end of Brooklyn – and reached from Manhattan on the L-train. Like most of the subway, the L-train is full of people of different ages and different races. Exiting Bedford or Lorimer Street stops though, I found myself what I reckon could have been a scene from that star trek episode about that planet where all the adults have died. My trekky friend mentioned this to me today, as we wandered in our thirty something angst feeling bloody geriatric amongst streets and streets of white cool kids in their twenties. In a suburb of families of Africans, African-Americans, Orthodox Hassidic Jews and Latinos it feels pretty freaky to wander into streets where everyone has white skin, black clothes, and no wrinkles, paunches or double chins. It’s as if the COFA undergrads took over a suburb – which is kind of cool, and kind of uncanny. I mention all of this to preface my own discomfort with the official centre of extreme art kool. W’burg is full of rich art college graduates, feeding into a booming art market – increasingly eager to stake big bucks on latest baby art star. What is a little depressing is how so many of the new stars, or new acolytes are from such a small sector of society – ie from an expensive art faculty. They’re young, they’re white, they’re privileged. Rich people want to get richer speculating on their art, so I wonder why the hell I’m meant to be interested in it.
Having said that, I’m still interested in it… because it’s ART – and coz I want to find some transcendent redemption in the universe of cool, fun, funky style that’s all over this place. Hell! – it’ paradise really. There’s a free monthly mag listing the openings 3 nights a week within a 5 minute stroll of each other – at the 30 or so galleries in the area.
Art School Undergraduates is a good metaphor for the show at Jack the Pelican. The front room show, called Tropical Punch was like the drunken euphoric opening night frenzy of a final year show at art school. Only it wasn’t opening night and we weren’t drunk. There was a small screen monitor on the floor, showing two guys emiting monosyllabic screams at each other(called shouting match) and another incredibly prescient 2-channel video installation which I’m sure was done by someone who’d just done a PhD (Robert Ladislas Derr). It consisted of a suspended bit of chipboard panel with one side showing a guy belting his head into a wall of similar chipboard. The other side, pithily sowed his head emerging as he smashed through it. It was called Intellectual Economy. The thuds and human roars complemented the closeness of the other objects – big suspended assemblages, of beer bottles, bikes, soap etc. Mad carvings, and madder sculptures – of penguins and teeth. And then some guys great bong art – a 2 person waterpipe symphony that consisted of cylinders screening across the room filled with blue liquid – and… it was the absolute antimatter of Defiance Gallery and very very mad and very very beautiful. Around the corner – past the tooth cast embedded in an alabaster egg – was the most divinely nutty thing I’ve ever seen.
Terra Giannini usually does exquisitely transcendent sculptures from objects of everyday kitsch – not entirely unlike Petra Coyne (but in polychrome) – this installation was like a temple to 2 stuffed ferrets kissing – surrounded by lots of plastic beads – other small samples of taxidermy and lots of glistening gawdy things. I hope I don’t sound like a reactionary in insisting on the importance of art history – but the big apple has lashings of vintage and new of every shade imaginable. While doing my circuit of the vintage at the Frick I realised something wonderful which was that Boucher works a lot better installed a fully rococoed room – where his cherubs get framed in curlicues that spread across them all and enclose other funny little allegories, and subject, allegory, and ornament all fuse into a divine play between form, representation and the imaginative delirium of matter. And Ciannini has taken this rococo spirit into the plastic age and well beyond. Strange familiar strangeness took root and sprawled across a corner, and made me very very happy.
I dragged my friends up to JACK The PELICAN – because they’d advertised a hot-tub installation called Brilliant: Swimsuits recommended and I was too scared to go alone. Fortunately the artists weren’t there – and the red plastic lined hot tub sat, empty and still in a dark blue painted room , festooned with other red latexed objects; undies, a towel, a Barbie campervan, barbies, bike pumps and a ladder. I got chatting with the gallery manger who explained the whole performance thing with the hot tub. He said that Zac and Aaron had sat in the tub, drinking (Miller Lite) beer and smoking ciggies and heckling the spectators. He said Zac performs a frat boy character – which in that weirdly scholastic ‘too kool 4 skool’ crowd would have been interesting to witness. He also said there were hundred of people at the opening, all getting really pissed and someone broke one the sculptures (Like actually went and wrenched it apart), so actually I reckon the whole scene is better off in my imagination than my memory -(what’s worse than unadulterated frat boy parties? Adulterated college educated hipsters tyring to be ironic about frat boy parties while having one… It’s a fine and scary line).
Apparently the hot tub performance installation was meant to be a protest against the crass consumerist banality of west coast hedonism – as typified by the hot tub. which was meant to be some sort of charged and ironic gathering forum for undressing, indulging, exposing and engaging. (Maybe a kind of sodden resurrection of the Hellenic gymnasium – nude dudes doing discourse?). I’m a bit queasy thinking about the role of the female gender in this.
However, I reckon a bit of interactive heckling of cool performance art audience could have been funny – and maybe Scragg could have picked up a few pointers for her next manifestation. Also since the opening, the hot tub has inspired punters to wander in and avail themselves on chilly afternoons of minus 10 (of which there have been many) – so I reckon the whole thing has a rikrit touch that is quite nice… I like it when art galleries can become spaces for people to do more than stand and gawk and ponder. I like sculptures that make us move around, I like big chairs and bum space or all types, and I like toilets.
Having made use of one, I felt ready to stride up to Brooklyn Fireproof where they were promising “an exploration of drawing as a revisionist practice”. Having been scarred by the stodgy transcriptions of Merlin James on dark and dirty canvases of at the NYSS I was a little apprehensive. Having been even more scarred by my own inept transcriptions done in dark and depressing evenings at the Met – I was eager to see someone get it right. And I was in luck.
Can you imagine if Tom Of Finland met Francois Boucher? There is a universe where such a thing can happen, and it’s an exquisitely beautiful space. Ain Cocke’s pencil drawings depicting marines posed as romantic couples, entwined in exquisite garlands of flowers were, literally transcendent. By that I mean – that they took me into an imaginative space that transcended anything that I can easily articulate. Cute homo boys, pretty flowers, US military,impeccable drawing – deep and complex and engaging ambiguity. Some stuff is made for the old stand and stare and ponder and this was it. All were sold out too.
Haegeen Kim and Jennifer Dudley had more overtly ‘citational’ work – again displaying their pomo youf art cred as part of the ‘new drawing wave’. They drew well. Kim’s references were to kiddie bears beavers TV mythology, while dudley’s were to 19th century novels, Jane Austen, small dainty figures in a room. All nice middle class boy and girl territory. But boring.
Ami Tallman took this somewhere else in an installation that I can only describe as Wilfred Owens goes psychedelic. She’s just finished her MFA at cal arts – so don’t think she’s plagiarised textaqueen – but she wields the markers to similar effect – lines, colours and words merging across bits of paper. I like how textas make colour into a linear medium and how Tallmans fluoro colours belie a desperate fury that is also life affirming. Imagine fluoro drawn Edwardian parlours, and lots of portraits of military types, which she described as “rump fed lords”. There was lots of parlance in what the French call ‘rosbif’ (a slang term for the English that dates from the Waterloo days) – and such vibrant vivid savagery. Having spent a morbid solitary night stalking the bowels of the met – gawking in stupefied disgust at riches and mawkish portraits of slave driving early American aristocrats, this was a timely breathe of fresh air. I loved the colours, the savage irony, the attention to detail and the text. Parlours, military men, lords, dead trappings of necrophiliac tradition all belie her own desperate hatred for war and war mongering. This was historical revisionism in the truly delightful Walter Benjamin sense – as a tiger’s leap between historical points, a slap in the face, and a wake up call to stylised static posturing. I fell in love with her in an instant.
Finally – and there was an oblique tribute to Jean Baudrillard in Molly Springfield’s graphite drawings. One large piece played out a reverse homage to the precession of simulacra by impeccable replicas of heat printed receipts (those ones on fax paper that fade in 6 months) in a medium that will last for hundreds of years. And then there was the copying out of page 140-141 of Hal Foster’s The Return of the Real – a chapter responding to Jean Baudrillard’s proclamations of the end of “the real”. Springfield recreated it infinitely slowly with an impeccably sharp pencil, creating a perfect graphite replica of a photocopy. I have spent so many hours copying out texts by hand in graphite – that this piece, with this fine obsessive crafting, was such a perfect evocation of the tradition of scholarship, of scriptoria, or pencil sharpening of the reverence for the text, for posterity, for time. I was really tempted to max out my credit card, but then I remembered that my stipend runs out in 6 months and thought better of it.
I think interesting art comes from people indulging in their obsessions, but incredible art comes from obsessions that are erudite, interesting and courageous. Once I get over the colour class queasiness I enjoy all the art here – just because it’s art – and even if its bad art it’s better than cricket (see why I have to leave Australia in the summer?) Jake the Pelican was one of the most alive and interesting spaces I’ve seen and I could happily spend days there – looking at all of the mishmash of sculpture, painting, drawing, installation, video, assemblage, or just chatting to the nice people.(Actually I’ve generally found gallery owners and staff in New York – really friendly and much less snooty than Paddington or Melbourne…). The guy at Jake the Pelican showed me this great comic from 1921 – made by some crazy fucked up artist who fell on hard times and despaired during the Prohibition, and he dedicated it to: the down and outs, the never was its, and also the also rans.
What makes NY exciting isn’t the latest stars at Chelsea – or even the next stars from Williamsburg – but the sheer amount of art – good and bad that’s being created and exhibited. The other really nice thing is having a substantial amount of art reviews – in street press and online as well as the mainstream press. Like anywhere there are a minority of miraculous works – but the rich hummus of ambition and pretension and play keeps an economic and social infrastructure alive and this is what allows artists to keep working. It’s all precarious and changing of course. Much of Brooklyn is being converted to condominiums occupied by weird hummer-driving anti-graffitti vigilantes who go out on beige anti-tagging raids at night (I kid you not). Artists’ studios are moving further out to more affordeable areas, like Long Island and Queens. It’s a familiar story to Sydneysiders but one of the paradoxes of The Art Life: If we are successful, artists jeopardise the very conditions that allow making and exhibiting art possible.