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Art in Chelsea

by Charlie Finch
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My Venice is on the Hudson and it is called New York, so when the art world parties across the pond, I hit the hot pavement of 11th Avenue, especially dangerous these days for an old fella, because the Seventh Avenue Subway extension project at 25th Street forces you to walk into oncoming traffic on the east side of the avenue, the city stupidly not providing a temporary walkway.

But the Seventh Avenue Subway construction is also a template for the primary structures of Chelsea: one notices the affinity between the circular roof parking garage on 25th Street and the majestic model of Vladimir Tatlin's never-constructed Monument to the Third International, commissioned by curator Pontus Hulten in 1968 and now on view at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Tatlin's legendary gesture serves as a gateway to an extraordinary show of 95 Russian Constructivist posters from some unnamed collection (presumably they are for sale).

These works are crisp in color and severe in execution, like the society which produced them. The best pieces here, surprisingly perhaps, depict the heroes of American silent cinema, Douglas Fairbanks, Harold Lloyd, Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin, and the gallery is also screening films by Eisenstein and Vertov on flat screen televisions in their entirety. An overwhelming treat that is a must-see for serious estheticians of the left.

My constructivist reverie continued at Salomon Contemporary with the juxtaposition of two extraordinary sculptures, Butterfly by E.V. Day and Twist of Fate by Alice Aycock, which interchange frozen motion in the service of complimentary themes. Day's piece, first exhibited at Lincoln Center in 2010, in which the artist employed retired costumes from the New York City Opera, pins Cio-Cio San's suicidal wedding kimono from Puccini's Madame Butterfly in midair, as if catching the doomed heroine in a flight to a better world.

Alice Aycock's piece, mirroring Tatlin, is a complex aluminum wall machine, referencing physicist Richard Feynman's theory of the infinite alternation of subatomic particles on a kind of two-way rollercoaster (which Aycock's work elegantly resembles) with the character of the evil Madame LaFarge, who sat knitting as the tumbrels drifted by to the guillotine in Dickens' Tale of Two Cities.

Two accomplished artists using feats of complex engineering to resurrect cold beauty from classic tales of death and doom is a trope Tatlin would have well understood. Art is at its best when it intersects with our ever serious world, leaving the fluff of partyland behind.

"Revolutionary Film Posters: Aesthetic Experiments of Russian Constructivism, 1920-33," and "Vladimir Tatlin: Monument to the Third International," May 6-July 30, 2011, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 544 West 26th Street, new York, N.Y. 10001.

"Alice Aycock / E.V. Day," May 13-June 25, 2011, at Salomon Contemporary, 526 West 26th Street, New York, N.Y. 10001.

CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).