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by Elisabeth Kley
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“My mother died last night,” said Paper Magazine editor Carlo McCormick. “I would never have come out, but I knew this would make me feel better.”  We were standing at the entrance to The Hole’s clean new space at 312 Bowery, above Houston Street and two doors up from the Bowery Poetry Club, where had just opened a super-cute show by FriendsWithYou, the always cheerful Miami art collective --  Sam Borkson and Arturo Sandoval -- who also have that new installation over by the High Line.

Appropriately enough, the show is titled with the emoticon :) and the idea of death certainly seemed distant.

FriendsWithYou, which launched in 2002, is really good at taking childlike wonder and turning it into hip contemporary art. It’s the wide-eyed esthetic of a toddler and new toys. Compared to FriendsWithYou, high-class schlockmeisters like Jeff Koons and Takashi Murakami seem to be as refined as James McNeill Whistler.

The relentlessly cheerful installation at The Hole includes 22 artworks, most of them made of Lasercut MDF, car paint and acrylic. The smiley face is a prominent motif. Some works have googly eyes that swivel back and forth, and others are yellow rolling balls with rudimentary features. The overall feeling is the gallery-as-playroom, purposely devoid of any visual nuance. The most exciting piece was a giant octopus-like inflatable sculpture that loomed in its own dim room.

FriendsWithYou is one of those new, 21st-century artist enterprises that manage online stores selling clothes, toys and prints, and get involved with licensing and consulting with corporations who want to connect with bohemian youth culture. FriendsWithYou has two brands, Malfi Club and Wish Come True, and has helped Coca-Cola, Red Bull and Target with image development.

But for FriendsWithYou, business is supposedly subsumed to happiness and art. Their installations “are meant to trigger the buried, neglected urges and yearnings that a seasoned art viewer may not expect to have activated: playfulness, laughter and inquisitiveness.” The artists have even trademarked “Magic, Luck and Friendship" to describe their stuff.

As for The Hole -- the name reflects the gallery’s plan to fill “a hole in the downtown community” -- it was founded a year ago by Kathy Grayson and Meghan Coleman, both former directors of Deitch Projects. Hitting the ground running, the pair opened with a show of hipsters from Kansas City, presented an art vending machine, helped sponsor Kenny Scharf’s new mural on Houston and Grand, and organized a version of the huge "New York Minute" group show for Moscow.

The Hole’s June 9 opening was visited by fantastically dressed downtown characters like Kembra Pfahler, Terence Koh and Fab 5 Freddy -- who was having his own exhibition opening up the block at Gallery 151, about which more in a future edition. Many appeared to have done a bit of shopping at the nearby Patricia Field shop, which now too can be found on the Bowery. The statuesque Grayson was resplendent in a complicated black ribbon outfit, holding a large bouquet of roses and posing for photographs. Visitors to the vernissage were lining up for drinks and the free plastic sneakers being given away by co-presenter Native Shoes.

ARTnews executive editor Robin Cembalest was in attendance, along with members of her Los Galeristas Adolescentes Gallery Club, which organizes visits to art studios, galleries, and museums for ghetto kids. I asked one of them, Mark Gonsalves, what he thought of the show. “I love it,” he replied, “it’s so subtle.”

Prices for the works in the gallery range from $6,500 to $45,000, but prints are available in their internet store for as little as $35. The show is up until Aug. 6.

ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.