Magazine Home  |  News  |  Features  |  Reviews  |  Books  |  People  |  Horoscope  

"Room Service"
by Spencer Finch
(left) and Paul
Ramirez Jonas,
at Postmasters

A big guy by
Takashi Murakani
at Emmanuel Perrotin

Polly Apfelbaum's
bed-covering at

Italian maestro
Luigi Ontani at
Sperone Westwater

David McDermott
playing the piano

Nam June Paik's
bathtub at
Holly Solomon

Susan Etkin's
medicine chest
at Holly Solomon,
and Holly herself

Fat magazine

Tom Sachs at
work painting
nails at
Morris Healy

Toland Grinnell's
"Boat Room"
at Basilico

hot tin roof for
the anxious cat:
a report from
the gramercy park
art fair 

by Robert Mahoney

The Gramercy Art Fair is great for New
Yorkers who lead the "art life" on a
budget. You know, lunches, studio visits,
openings--and waiting for paychecks. With
the Gramercy, you get to go to an art fair
by subway and hobnob with Gen-X dealers
from across oceans and continents. You can
get wrapped up in the eternal twenty-
something glamour of the international art
circuit. And you get a scene, replete with
pretty girls and boys friends and enemies,
as well as huckstering vanity artists and
aging art stars wandering around in bewildered
condemnation of it all.
The pleasures of the "scene" aside, the
Gramercy Art Fair is an art idea, of a
sort, anyway, embodied by the setting:
here, the hotel room. A charged zone in
contemporary life, the hotel room
exemplifies travel, the excitement of being
in a strange city, the happy exhaustion of
a pit stop, the delirium of a honeymoon sex
marathon and the sense of utter freedom of
anonymous and temporary residency. And, of
course, there is room service.
And there are bad feelings: you miss being
back home. There's the too-thin over-
laundered sheets, the not-quite-right
plumbing, the thin walls, the blank views
out the windows, the jumping-out-of-one's-
skin what-should-I-do-now restlessness:
hotel rooms can become the worst sort of
hot tin roof for the anxious cat in all
contemporary souls.
This year, the Gramercy fair housed a good
number of dealers who did indeed understand
about hotel rooms, and put together shows
that resonated with extra meaning, and
provided the service of offering you a
different way of seeing art normally shown
in galleries.
One gallery especially provided a
performance that dealt with the happy side
of hotel life: Postmasters (room 318).
Artists Paul Ramirez Jonas and Spencer
Finch played uniformed Laurel and Hardy
bellboys standing in front of a table set
up in the room. Visitors were offered
either an orange or an apple, a esoteric
selection based on whether a spectrum
reflected onto the table came up orange or
red. By mimicking an idea of the
supercilious bellboy etiquette of another
era, this performance gently poked fun at
the way we all act like movie stars in a
luxury hotel suite. The fact that the
performance took place in a room crowded
with computer terminals from the gallery's
"Can You Digit" exhibition of the previous
month gave the performance an absurd edge.
Kenji Yanobe at Emmanuel Perrotin's suite
(room 501) also caught some of the
inflated, too-fun energy of hotel room
life. He blew up a gigantic happy face
balloon in the bedroom, filling the room,
making everyone else back off.
Galleries of a formalist bent, settled in
nicely, covering the pea-green shabby decor
with art. At Boesky/Callery (room 517),
Polly Apfelbaum's Fine Flowers in the
Valley was a standout among the new genre--
bedspread art--that the Gramercy has
generated. Apfelbaum's characteristic
staining method adorned the bed with red,
blue, yellow and green spots. The effect
was to place the bed off-limits, to
objectify it as a container of art, a vase
for this burst of visual flowers. Graham
Durward's video played the part of the
unwatched TV for a hotel room zombie in
this ensemble. Melissa McGill's blue rubber
statuettes, cracked free from the interior
spaces of porcelain figurines, had the
perfect energy: eggshell-breaking a given
decorative tschotschke mode and birthing a
newer, creepier form. Spread all over the
bureaus and dressers, they made one right
at home.
Nicole Klagsbrun also had an ensemble which
spoke gently and with amusement of the
camping-out instinct of hotel rooms. Jimmie
Durham's Shirts broke the common
proscription against in-room laundering,
while Elena Herzog's shower curtain, poised
halfway between washed-out laundry draped
on the rod and an actual frilly shower
curtain itself. Guy Limone's Colors of
Marseilles replaced the TV, creating a
serene corner. Finally, once again,
crockery symbolized how the self holds
itself together in the jittery hotel room.
Joan Bankemper's crockery was the thing
that made this ensemble work.
Max Protech (room 408), again a formalist
gallery unwinding a bit, also engaged in
ensemble strategies, but with a darker
tone. Oliver Herring provided the bedspread
art here. However, Herring's throws (not
unlike works recently exhibited at Protech
and at Mary Boone) had an actual physical
edge that allowed of the thought of
removal. Since much of Herring's work is
about the busywork in grief, the multicolor
dreamcoat aspect of the throw also evoked
themes of release and redemption, at the
same time that they suggested an elaborate
lay of flowers at a wake. The darker side
of this ensemble was provided by Gregory
Green, who placed pipe bombs hidden in
plain sight in opened, cut-into antique
bibles all over the room: on the bed-tables
and dressers. In this context, Green scared
up the stereotype fear of a crazy assassin
or terrorist holed up in a hotel room,
making bombs. The Protech bathroom ensemble
was also curious. Marilyn Minter's lipstick
painting seemed strange, suspended from the
shower curtain: shouldn't it have blocked
the bathroom mirror? And a Scott Burton
tripod was set on the only friendly
surface, porcelain, and its formality and
style in a sense displaced and rendered out
of order all the functional aspects of the
bathroom usually associated with such
shaped structures in the porcelain zone.
One also saw more thorough renovations.
Luigi Ontani's complete redraping of all
the furniture in Sperone Westwater's
gallery room (room 405) harked back to
aesthete models and even stereotypes of
sensitive souls who cannot bear the vile
ordinariness of life, and therefore dress
and drape it. This mode of renovation goes
back at least to Blanche du Bois veiling
of Stanley Kowalski's world in Streetcar
Named Desire and more recently to To Wong
Foo. Ontani's derivation goes back into
European aesthete culture of the turn of
the century. His orientalist photos, his
purple drapery over couch and bed, the
statuary in the bureau and a complex mask
set like a totem displacing a fear of death
in the center of the bed, as if at a wake,
was over the top. There was something
creepy about this attempt to be so
Also a bit out of step were McDermott and
McGough in Bruno Bischofberger's Emerald
Room (room 301). McD and McG had pushed
easels, paintings (mostly antiquated
silhouetted portraits), and other
paraphernalia to the center of the room,
under a draped chandelier. The room was
otherwise dark. McDermott played ragtime
music on the piano. It was perhaps too
charming. With swan-song glamour, and a
wistful tone, these two quintessential `80s
artists reemerged in a mid-1990s context,
to say yet another farewell. Odd.
Lombard Fried (room 406) gave its room over
to Maciej Topowicz, who was promoting a
line of perfume featured in his upcoming
exhibition. With dresser photos, a video
and other merchandising efforts, the room
edged toward the idea of a Mary Kay-style
enterprise, and began to comment ironically
on the Fair itself. In the closet Chrysanne
Stathacos set some antique pornographic
pictures up on the shelf and dropped rose
petals on the floor, creating a nice
retreat within a closet, a spatial in-
turning that began to pull on the
steadiness of the room.
The next step is pushing aside the
furniture and camping out in the gallery-
cum-bedroom, a displacement adopted by
several dealers. In Kenny Schachter's
ensemble (also room 406), the bed was
pushed aside to make way for a portrait-
painting marathon, not an original idea.
Other works were displayed in a fairly
conventional insurance-salesman manner,
though Robert Chambers's small spheres of
hair gel and fake eyelashes set on the
floor beneath a lamp camper out) were
effective in evoking a bit more nervous
mood. Schachter also penetrated closet and
bathroom. Schachter told me that when he
turned up the bed out dropped a stash of
pornographic magazines and tokens to
peepshows on 42nd street. He also included
a bowl for business cards, not quite
parodying the notion of an appointment made
in a hotel room with an art salesman.
Schachter then, with bed turned up and to
wall, found a spidery stance, synthesizing
the freedom of camping out, the angst of a
crash pad, and the ironic gesture about the
fair and its idea itself.
Galerie Philippe Rizzo (room 418) had a
joyous ensemble, pretty much a straight
art-gallery selection, but filled with
individual pieces bespeaking the camping
out instinct. Nina Childress's altered bug-
eyed photos of fashion models, poised in
the opened drawers of the bedroom dresser,
captured the Gatsbyian shirt-tossing
euphoria and sexual high (comically
debunked) of the setting. Michael Minelli's
drawings also made wry comments on the
proceedings, including one drawing
featuring John Lennon and Yoko Ono in an
archetypal hotel-room experience, a love-in
in which they camped out in bed for a week,
with commentary, "Ain't no sunshine when
she's gone." Indeed. With other neo-cartoon
paintings and some strange cartoony
sculpture Rizzo had an ensemble that hummed
with the unconscious energy of the hotel
Finally, in this mode, when the dealer at
Il Ponte Contemporanea (room 410) asked me
to step into the bathroom and turn out the
lights, I naturally wondered what was up.
In fact, it was down: on the floor the
painter Raimondo Gaeleano had specially
painted the mat with phosphorescent paint.
I think the image was of a classical
statue, though my concern at being in a
dark bathroom occluded a clear view.
Several galleries gloried in the idea of
sex as evoked by the hotel room. Galleria
Juana di Aizpura (room 416) literally had
spacesuits dancing on the ceiling, a la
Fred Astaire, introducing a sprawl of large
photos of genderbenders of all kind, all
happy and content. Mariko Mori shined with
her blue hair and ethereal eyes out of a
closet at Art and Public (room 502).
Characteristic of this formal, slicker
photography, more invested in technology
and the world, were perhaps Jonathan Monk's
fine photographs at Nicolai Wallner (room
514). In Waiting for Famous People Monk
stands at airports like a hired car service
driver waiting for MARCEL DUCHAMP and
JACKSON POLLOCK to get off the plane. It's
a wonderful suite of work, perfectly
capturing the absurdity as well as mock
conventionality of the have-art-will-travel
state of mind. By the way, Nicolai Wallner
or his attendant sat politely and
graciously on the edge of his bed,
answering questions, also waiting for
famous people.
When it came to sex, the biggest surprise
was at Holly Solomon. Nam June Paik's
bathtub installation of two enormous TV
monitors sharing the Solomonian-decisioned
halves of a beautiful model gently turning
on her back and buttocks, in model poses,
was the masterpiece of bathtub art and
almost the best work of the Fair. The
Solomon gallery room (room 402) was
brimming with ideas. Y.Z. Kami's portraits,
recently exhibited at Solomon's space
downtown, looked great. Rob Wynne's two
bedspreads, one with printed snakes and the
other with butterflies, offered a choice
that summed up the yin-yang flux of
sexuality in hotel rooms. Hanging on the
bathroom door was a suit, also by Wynne,
which epitomized the sad-sweetness of all
things hung out to dry in lonely places: it
read "I'm not the ravaged emotional freak I
used to be." When I complimented Holly on
the Nam June Paik she wondered if I had
opened the medicine cabinet and took me
back in to see. She opened it up, to reveal
a Suzan Etkin. In the light as it was, I
could not make it out. "What is the image?"
In her classic amused you-oaf voice Holly
demurred from explaining that it was a
glass-cut image of a couple copulating (not
making love, not even having sex, but
copulating). The room was also up on its
video entertainment, showing some original
William Wegmans. All in all, both sides of
the sexual charge of the hotel room, was
suspended in a wonderful tone of
redemption, on the one hand, and being-
young-again energy on the other.
From this point on, many of the more Gen-X
galleries drifted to the dark side of
camping out, which is crashing. What were
those boys doing with film projector and
film in the backroom at American Fine Arts?
I don't even feel like calling the gallery
to find out. At Morris Healy, Tom Sachs set
up a manicure and fingernail painting
salon, with Rhoda Lieberman dispensing
information. They also had a French maid
girded in her garter belt. In the backroom,
something was going on with--mail bags. My
attention was diverted from the sour sex-
ironic fair-ironic energy of the Sachs
installation by Cynthia, a gorgeous young
woman wearing a bright orange knitted
miniskirt selling copies of the magazine
FAT. She was so naive but fun, so being
used and not knowing it, that she
intercepted, by happenstance, the too-
knowing tone of whatever the Sachs
installation was about. Pat Hearn's video
was also a bit indecipherable, and there
was furniture thrown aside and piled up, to
little effect, at Peter Kilchman (room 516)
as well. Sometimes crash art does speak,
and Larry Krone's window display at Rupert
Goldsworthy (room 506) used of word-
drawings with hair to spell out "My long
hair cant cover up my red neck." Right next
door at Casey Kaplan was Michael Jenkins's
delightful blackface watermelon, which
epitomizes the strange self-deprecations
and captured the jump-out-the-window energy
created by the rampant insomnia-creating
self-laceration which blank spaces like
hotel rooms can engender.
Perhaps the great piece of the fair, the
only piece to be truly remembered, was
Toland Grinnell's Gateway to Eternity, at
Basilico Fine Arts (room 505). On the
spectrum of emotionality, conflating gender
and identity issues, which I have sketched
out, Grinnell's piece was way past the dark
side. Here was by no means a happy camper,
not even a grunge crasher of reasonable
expectation. If Grinnell had merely broken
furniture and trashed the place perhaps
management would be happy. But instead,
measuring the nth degree of alienation, he
pushed all the furniture to the side of a
second room, then built a separate chamber
within the first. The main chamber was a
claustrophobic structure of vinyl and
Styrofoam paneling. To the left in a pink
alcove, a boat was being built. The space
for this Noah's ark construction
(expressive of an end-of-the-world, before-
the-deluge dread) curved off in an Alice-
in-Wonderland manner that was wonderful. In
the other room you stepped into a suspended
plastic tunnel that allowed you to view the
ancient remains of a hotel room, circa late
twentieth century, pushed into the corner.
Completely displaced from space and time,
this installation in truth perhaps
projected itself to a state of dread and
angst that the hotel room itself cannot
contain or explain. First impression wowed
and the talk of the Fair remained impressed
but on second thought such constructive
destructive emotionality was beyond the
spirit of the Gramercy Park Art Fair and
may indeed predict a crack in the routine.
And then, finally, this degree of anxiety
also turned out to be not in tune with
1996. This year grunge angst was, if only
slightly, overridden by the "fun" camping
out feeling of older cohorts taking a
chance at a new love for the contemporary
art scene, by trying out the fair. If you
want my opinion about which piece summed up
the zeitgeist at the 1996 Gramercy Park Art
Fair I'd have to say it was Nam June Paik
at Holly Solomon. Now, there's a surprise.
Robert Mahoney is a New York critic.