Unless the phrases "open bar" or "free food" are involved, I rarely venture above 14th Street. Sadly most of the trendiest galleries are now in Chelsea, a neighborhood that is not only above 14th Street, but also so far west that it’s almost in New Jersey. Plus there are no bathrooms in Chelsea. At least when galleries were in SoHo, you could use the facilities at nearby bars. These days, visiting galleries means not drinking any fluids beforehand, making the experience extremely stressful. And too often, the art proves unworthy of the hassle of traveling outside of my "pee radius."
But now that I’m writing for Artnet Magazine, it’s imperative that I feign an interest in artists other than myself. At least according to my editor, who roused me from my philistine stupor and asked me to review some shows.
I could just go to some of the hot new galleries on the Lower East Side where I live, I thought. But that would be cheating. The idea was to take a field trip. I invited friends along but everyone either had to work, sleep or wait for Verizon.
Studying the art listings in Time Out New York, I was filled with ennui. Little piqued my interest. Collages? Ho-hum. Narrative paintings? No. Mixed media? Phooey. I fretted that I had become too numb to enjoy art. Finally something caught my eye -- nude male figures. Apparently, the only thing I care about is looking at naked men.
Hopping on the train, I headed for I-20 gallery, where the aforementioned nude male figures, painted by Sylvia Sleigh, are on view. Time Out describes them as "libidinous"! I figured I’d get my fill of eye candy and then pop into some other galleries.
Exiting the train, I noticed a man with a rainbow-hued beard modeling a flower-covered hat and ball gown in the middle of 6th Avenue. He waved to oncoming cars like a pageant queen atop a float.
"What’s your name?" I asked him.
"Miss Columbia," he answered, never slowing his wave.
When I asked the festive ambassador what he was doing, he told me he was "celebrating spring" in "his spring outfit." Though I imagined few things could be more fascinating than Miss Columbia, I resisted the urge to question him further and continued on my way.
Upon entering I-20, I was greeted by a portrait of a couple clothed in groovy polyester threads, Arakawa & Madeline Gins (1971). Hardly libidinous. Looking past it, I noticed the much racier Annunciation (1975), featuring a man sporting an Afro, muttonchops, a unibrow and a chest hair formation resembling van Gogh’s Starry Night. He stands in a garden, hands on hips, his short shorts barely covering his package. He kind of looks like Larry from Three’s Company.
The same man appears again in Imperial Nude: Paul Rosano (1977), stretching out languidly, a reclining Venus in an era before body waxing and hair straightening. Pubic hair had yet to disappear from the planet. In Felicity Rainnie Reclining (1972) the subject not only has a full bush, she has tan lines. People still sunbathed, smoked and had sex back then. Too bad I was only a tyke.
Concert Chempêtre from 1976 is based on Titian’s similarly titled painting, only instead of featuring two troubadours and two naked women, the figures in Sylvia Sleigh’s version appear to be none other than the people from The Joy of Sex book my parents kept poorly hidden in their closet throughout the 1970s. The quartet of hippies looks grim, like they might be singing a protest song.
No one is smiling in these portraits. Despite all the sunbathing and smoking, were people unhappy in the ‘70s? Maybe her subjects look so grim because they have had to sit still for hundreds of hours while she painted every detail of their bodies, from the littlest hair to the pinkest frenulum. The end result of all this extreme detail is frankness. There are no Greek Gods here -- just some dudes hanging out, literally.
I’ve always thought that the general absence of male nudity is due to the fact that men don’t want us women to see what they really look like naked -- flaccid, hairy, clumsy and uncool. In other words, human -- which is how Sylvia Sleigh paints them.
Satisfied that I’d just borne witness to the last portraits of men before they all became metrosexuals, I left I-20, in search of more visual stimuli.
At D’Amelio Terras, I found a group show of works on paper. The largest piece in the show, World Downfall, by the French artist Damien Deroubaix, depictsa headless dead cow, a bondage-mask-clad amputee on a stick, a bare light-bulb, multiple spooky skeletons and a radioactive dog, among other things. It looks like a poster you might find hanging in the underground den of your local anarchist group. But I can’t tell you much more about this exhibition because my attention deficit directed my gaze toward the front room.
There on view is "Felicity and Caprice," a series of drawings by Delia Brown. According to the press release, the drawings are "loosely based on the plot of Claude Chabrol’s 1968 film, Les Biches." Though I have never seen this film (it’s now at the top of my Netflix queue), I suspect it’s about a young female art star’s seduction at the hands of an older heiress who is reminiscent of Joan Collins circa Dynasty. (The models for the drawings are actually Delia Brown playing the heiress Caprice, and Hollis Witherspoon playing the artist Felicity.)
The series provides a glimpse into the fictional couple’s affair -- Felicity daintily paints at an easel while Caprice looks on lasciviously. Caprice treats Felicity to a hot dog. Felicity hands Caprice a cup of coffee. Caprice installs Felicity’s painting. The two drink wine together. I couldn’t help but think how emotionally and financially rewarding it would be to have a sugar mama.
But things take a turn for the worse when we find Felicity struggling with a drugged Caprice (so that’s what was in the coffee) in a scene worthy of Catfight magazine and (sorry for the spoiler) Caprice drowned in a bathtub. I guess there’s no such thing as a free lunch.
Leaving D’Amelio Terras, I wandered into a ton of other galleries, which were all showing abstract paintings. I thought I should take some pictures to prove I’d gone to Chelsea. Since I was alone and also happen to be the world’s worst photographer, it wasn’t easy. I bent my head down next to the Mary Boone Gallery plaque and photographed myself, feeling like the biggest loser on earth.
Wandering inside Boone, I became confused because I didn’t see any art on the walls. I’d seen so many drawings and paintings that I forgot that installation art still existed. I figured they must be deinstalling.
Noticing no one was at the front desk, I took the opportunity to lounge on Mary Boone’s very comfortable leather couch, a rare treat since I have no couch of my own. I kept thinking she would walk in and I would get in trouble for using her couch. Opening my crumpled copy of Time Out, I looked at the listings for Mary Boone and realized I’d been looking at a show the whole time -- Pierre Bismuth’s "One Size Fits All." The show is comprised of enormous advertisements for the show itself, a show that is a show of these very enormous advertisements! At first glance I thought the giant ads were just moveable walls sitting in the middle of the gallery during deinstallation. Now I felt like Alice in Wonderland talking to the hookah-smoking caterpillar -- totally confused.
My puzzlement could have been the result of exhaustion. With the exception of my brief respite on the couch, I’d been looking at art for four hours straight. I saw that there was also a Pierre Bismuth show at Mary Boone’s Fifth Avenue space, and was tempted to go. But unless a shuttle bus pulled up to take me there, the possibility of my traveling even further uptown was nil. Chelsea is far enough for this art star.
REVEREND JEN is an art star, urban elf, troll museum founder and up-and-coming celebrity personality. She is the author of Reverend Jen’s Really Cool Neighborhood and Sex Symbol for the Insane.