THE GOLF WAR
Thirty years have passed since the Lower East Side Hispanic ghetto was transformed into the short-lived East Village art scene, but plenty of traces remain. On Avenue B, past Tompkins Square Park, once occupied by a massive and anarchic homeless encampment, stands the imposing Christadora House, which drew protests against a plan to convert the towering brick building into residential condos. A bit further down East 9th Street sits the stately former public school that was home to the Charas Community Center, now empty and boarded up for more than a decade by the mercenary developer whose plan to turn a quick profit was stymied by a public-use requirement.
The neighborhood is no longer the gallery center that it once was, though it has its share of artists and dealers. Across from Charas are three small storefronts, one housing a home-grown boutique and another the studio-gallery of the estimable body artist Theresa Byrnes (who deserves attention for her own sake). The third, our subject here, is The Phatory, an art gallery. Identifiable by its quaintly suburban screen door, the gallery was founded almost nine years ago as a labor of love by Sally Lelong, whose art enterprise is underwritten by her jobs as a financial aid director for Alvin Ailey and Circle in the Square School.
On view there since spring is "Trapped," a collection of new wall sculptures by Charles McGill (b. 1964), an artist whose first and last obsession seems to be golf. Golf viewed through the prism, that is, of race. McGill has teed up watermelons on 125th Street in Harlem (1997), exhibited a pair of pitch black golf balls in the manner of Jasper Johns beer cans (titled My Two Black Balls, 1999) and produced a life-sized self-portrait statue in plus fours and argyle with the doppelganger name of Arthur Negro (2007).
It is perhaps not a coincidence that the opening of “Trapped” coincided with the 2012 Masters Tournament, one of the big four golf events, held at the notorious Augusta National Golf Club, a symbol of the easy tolerance that can accompany institutional racism and sexism. For his new work, McGill turned to the classic golf bag, whose stylized construction of heavy leather in deep colors, ornamented with brass zippers and other hardware, is already a fetish object for the golfing fraternity.
McGill has literally deconstructed the bags and reassembled their parts into anthropomorphizing figural totems. His preferred configuration for the large works involves three intertwined bags, a sort of ménage a trois. He converts the bag rain hoods into Ku Klux Klan headgear, and the straps, snaps, studded rubber bases and other bag parts into accoutrements of what must be a fraternity of bondage enthusiasts. Golf is an exacting, masochistic art, after all.
“At first I thought these things were about racism,” said Lelong. “Then I realized that they were also an S&M chorus line.” Lelong went on to say that McGill’s work was “like John Chamberlain, Philip Guston and Claes Oldenburg all got their beams muddled in the transport.” To that porridge of references can be added the anthropomorphism of Jeff Koons’ vacuum cleaner sculptures, and the butch primitivism of artists like Nancy Grossman and Jean-Michel Basquiat. And their strange kinship with African art is self-evident.
But as simple objects, McGill’s constructions are like superheroes -- mysterious, tightly garbed, exciting. They are exemplars of what the art dealer Lucy Mitchell-Innes recently referred to as “Stud Art,” not altogether fondly, I’m afraid. But it is what it is -- sometimes an artist just has to pull out the wood, step up to the tee and hit the ball. That’s the macho truth about the perverse correlations between art, golf and sex.
Larger, three-bag works are $24,000, and smaller ones are $12,000. Watermelon Patch (Harlem), a C-print from a 2001 performance titled Playing Through, is $2,400.
WALTER ROBINSON is editor of Artnet Magazine.