Saturday, April 08, 2006

The Art of New York

Our second visit to NYC in 6 months and the first thing I enjoyed was the cabride from JFK into Manhattan; a journey I've decided will always remind me of 'Two Divided by Zero' off the Pet Shop Boys 'Please'.

It was great to see the Chelsea again. Different room... same ramshackle deal, things not working, shabby, but bags of atmosphere and we're rather in love with the place. It’s perfectly clean but most definitely NOT to everyone’s taste... It occurred to me as I was trying to undo the curtain tie-backs (held on to loose screws by worn holes and strings of damaged thread hanging off said tie-backs), kick the air-con into life and unglue the rickety shutters, how shocked some people would be paying over $200 a night for such bedraggled bohemia… but then you are slap bang in the heart of Chelsea and you can walk everywhere. I like the corridors best… endless art-filled passageways, brown and dark, smelling either of joss-sticks or weed, or just plain musty and old. Every door is different… painted signs and marks. People have personalized the place over decades and it does feel like an apartment block rather than a hotel and that was the original intention. It is currently 50% residential I believe. The owners describe it as ‘a rest-stop for rare individuals’… How marvellous! That’ll be us then.

This visit turned into a mammoth art-trip… We kicked off on our first morning with Edvard Munch 'The Modern Life of the Soul' at MoMa and although the premise of the show was different it did rather piss on the last year’s ‘Munch by Himself' or whatever it was at the RA.

I was looking forward to Robert Rauschenberg's combines at the Met and wasn’t disappointed. My artistic practice is changing at the moment, and I’m hungry for object–based work that invades the room. It’s a massive show and it’s thrilling. G hated it, and it’s true the work is scruffy and patchy, using as it does appropriated junk and detritus, but he really shouldn’t have burst out laughing at the stuffed goat through a tyre on a wooden pallet. SO embarassing...

The Rauschenberg catalogue is great, and as the work is so heavily collaged the flat photographic details of clumpy paint / silkscreen / newspaper work really well, and could almost be works in their own right. The work is completely different in print. The detail photography also reminded me how unarbitary the work is… it’s an opportunity to see the work closely and it’s not as chancey as it looks, the content pays off on closer inspection and if you take notice of what’s actually on a sheet on crumpled newspaper he’s included it becomes a signpost to the broader meaning.

We decided to give the majority of the major commercial spaces a miss, i.e. Mary Boone, Gagosian and the like (but not before popping in at Sonnabend who were showing Rona Pondick's unsettling half-beast half human, chrome and fur sculptures) as we wanted to visit the smaller Chelsea galleries that we knew were clustered around 20/21st 22nd streets but weren't quite prepared for how many... several buildings are 9 or 10 floors of galleries so we spent a morning and half an afternoon dashing up and down stairwells.

Feigen Contemporary (535 W 20 St) are showing 'Blessed are the Merciful', a group show including the immortal Annie Sprinkle. The premise of the show is 'blessed are those who are sensitive to the misery and misfortune of others'. We loved her '40 Reasons Why Whores Are My Heros' ranging from 'Whores have the ability to share their most intimate body parts with total strangers' (No.1) to 'Whores are rebelling against the absurd, patriarchal, sex-negative laws against their profession and are fighting for the legal rights to receive financial compensation' (No.40)... and quite right too.

Other highlights of the Chelsea forage included Phil Collins' video installation 'Dunya Dinlemiyor' at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery (521 W 221 St). I'd not come across Collins before. His work is largely photo/ film based and originates in areas of conflict and political difficulty. The gallery info sets out that 'Collins' installation and live performances appropriate the documentary tradition and elements of popular culture to establish an immediate and humorous connection with the participant and the viewer'... I'll say. We LOVED 'Dunya Dinlemiyor'; it was shot in Istanbul in 2005 for the Istanbul Biennal and features various 'disaffected youths' singing karaoke Smiths songs. Some are clearly fans, like the camp young shirtless teen with plastic roses (in lieu of gladioli) sticking out of his back pocket who flounced his way through 'Ask' (and was actually rather good). Some however have almost certainly never heard a Smith tune in their lives (like the two girls who stumbled through 'Panic')… At first sight it's deeply, rivetingly hilarious, but a few songs in and the lyrics and vulnerability of the singers come together to make a deeply touching piece.

The New Museum of Contemporary Art Chelsea (556 W 22 St) has quite possibly the best art bookshop I've ever come across. The standard stock but more fanzine material than you can shake a stick at. This place is a hub, and I look forward to seeing it again when it moves to the Bowery in 2007. The new building looks set to dominate the Bowery district... however for the moment Southern Californian artist Andrea Zittel's show 'Critical Space' left me feeling frustrated. It comprises so much over fabricated sheer stuff in blond wood that it's very hard to move round. There are 'Survival Pods' (irresistibly 'Spy who Loved Me'), screens with painted graphs recording her daily functioning (15% computer time, 40% sleep etc), and wooden house-like shells and shelters all crammed in with barely a couple of feet of space between. There's too much of it, but I like the idea of work questioning how individuals function in society, and perhaps the intention is to pack in so much sheer structure that the viewer feels as though they are moving through a mini metropolis. I wanted to climb into the pods and dens but with 16 security staff there was little hope of even poking a head through a den aperture to see inside. They were all completely bored off their heads waiting for you to get just a tad too close to said blond treehouses. They don't quite pull out guns but I’m sure they'd like to. I got barked at for attempting a photo. Ms Zittel, have a word. My first thoughts on entering the show was that it looked like an explosion in an Ikea factory but having spent time in there (and had 'high- level discussions' with Crazy G who loved it) I actually ended up liking it.

Upstairs however I instantly fell for Belgian artist Didier Mahieu's 'A Day Elsewhere'. Painting, sound and installation that aims to throw the viewer in a complete alternative environment. There are groups of discarded studio sketches, a table of tablets of plaster or clay with miniature photographs attached, a huge house structure in the centre of the gallery, indistinct projections, small coloured paintings like snapshots of the chemical life of our interior bodies and brains. G thought the piles and piles of seemingly discarded studio sketches and ephemera meant that we'd stumbled in on a hang, but I got the idea. The studio sketches were charcoal traces of portraits; it was as though a cyclonic wind had drilled through a suburban life-drawing class and this was the rescued wreckage. They reminded me of bodies and lives, crowds of experience. But this was only one component of a multi-faceted exploration.

We also saw a HUGE installation of thousands and thousands of paper cups arranged like a gigantic slab of undulating landmass by Tara Donovan at Pace Wildenstein... The gallery's info goes on a bit, lots of 'primordial mystery wrapped in ritualistic assemblages' and the like (God, I really can't be doing with all that)... the installation is just great FUN. It's FANTASTIC!.. it makes you think about landscape and the world, your place in the great grand scheme. It reminded me of looking out of a plane window going over Las Vegas and the desert on the way to LA and feeling tiny, or the wonder of weather-maps.

Other shows we enjoyed were 'Rat and Bear' at Matthew Marks Gallery or rather G did. He only really likes things that involve animals or mobiles... Two loomingly huge statues motionless in black glass boxes of, well a Rat and a Bear, both about 8' high. The gallery is almost completely dark, the only light coming from a strange film projected in a far corner of two men, dressed as the Rat and the Bear, chasing each other across a rocky featureless landscape. I got the feeling that the Rat and Bear statues might suddenly burst from their perspex and I was reminded of the terror that I used to get as a child at the Doctor Who Exhibition in Blackpool, that the stuffed monsters would break free and that I would be chased along the golden mile by Abominable Snowmen.

The streets in this district are unforgivingly industrial. The galleries are generally hidden away, single glass doors with tiny lettraset signs give way to large white-walled spaces. Many of them make White Cube look small.

Other galleries we visited included R. Duane Reed, Hasted Hunt, Denise Bibo, Kim Foster, Kravats/Wenby, Jack Shainman, ATM, Josee Bienvenu and probably about 15 others. We also saw a new show of Nan Goldin, but I can't remember where it was. It’s a great area… but imagine our more familiar Shoreditch explosion of recent years x100… and it’s a similar story. The artists got there first because it was cheap, the gallerists followed (like ‘lice on their backs’… who was it who said that?)… then Alexander McQueen and Stella McCartney opened shop (no joke). Needless to say the artists have gone... and on our next trip we'll seek out the artist-run spaces: my guess is we’ll be beyond Brooklyn.

I was interested to see so much lively new work en masse, and given that my focus is currently shifting from painting there was an accord with much of what I saw.

Foodwise, we had a blast. Sharaku is my favourite restaurant ever (see earlier NY blog for location), the sea vegetable salad is actually quite astonishing. We showed willing with enormous steak frenzy at Franks (not as good as the Old Homestead), diners for breakfast were Moonstruck (10th Ave and 23 St) and New Venus (9th Ave and 23 St) – there is of course no restaurant in the Chelsea, not that we’d probably wish to stay and eat in the hotel if there was … anyway, you’re lucky if your fridge works got knows what the restaurant would be like…

We had Gay Burgers at ‘Better Burger’ (on 9th Ave somewhere near about 20th St), a sort of upmarket organically healthy Macdonalds, mildly cruisey (lots of passing trade) with ‘air fries’ which I think are baked. They were soggy but the burger was excellent. Americans do some things very well and food is generally one of them. As is Museums… And bookshops. Ah…!!!! The bookshops… as previously discussed on here: Strand books is my idea of heaven, and Shakespear & Co., but I didn’t come away with a tonnage of tomes this time, just a few Truman Capote’s and ‘Popism: The Warhol Sixties’ and ‘From A to B and Back Again: The Philosophy of Andy Warhol’… which amazingly, having been a fan since my early teens, I’ve never read before.

What better place to buy Warholian material than in his own backyard! Popism is in Warhol’s own voice but heavily transcribed and edited (of course) by Pat Hackett, his friend and confidant who also edited the diaries. It’s interesting on many levels and works as a portrait of that dreamlike decade when everything seemed possible. It is also the first hand account of Warhol’s rise to fame and it’s interesting to read how difficult it was for him in the beginning… he was shunned by virtually all the dealers in New York City but then he was already famous as a designer and illustrator.

I read it in one sitting on the plane home. Interesting to read about so many now familiar places. It also occurred to me that although the personalities are different much of the Chelsea has probably barely changed and I like that sense of continuity.