The dust has settled, and contrary to the shit-storm stirred up by some pundits and equally shrill voices from the art blogosphere over the debut of “Skin Fruit,” the New Museum, though slightly chastised, is still standing. I won’t waste this space to recap what’s already been covered extensively in these pages, but perhaps a brief critique of “Institutional Critique” might prove enlightening. One of the attractions of art is its ability to present truth, and speak it to the face of power. Likewise, the pill who points out that the emperor has no clothes wins kudos from classmates, but now that we’re out of school, cultural institutions and the art market are our classrooms. And what better way to gain the attention of the cool kids who perpetually ignore us than to rake them over the coals, exposing their foibles to the world.
I, like many, took a dim view of the NuMu’s decision to exhibit a selection of works from the collection of its board member Dakis Joannou, and the equally dubious choice of Jeff Koons as curator. But, after seeing the show, I realize there are practical questions worth considering before we storm the barricades and burn the place to the ground. First, this is only a temporary show, and after three months of bellyaching and snarky reviews, these “treasures” get packed up and sent back to Greece. We move on, hopefully learning something in the process.
Second, yeah there are ethical questions, but there are also financial considerations that are biting hard in the “new normal” of our ongoing recession. In the over 30 years the NuMu has existed, a host of curators, archivists, art handlers, installers, administrators, and guards have come to rely on the museum for their livelihoods, health care, and pensions, not to mention future career opportunities. Should we throw them under the art handlers’ truck?
Third, and perhaps the squirreliest and most problematic, are the ethical versus aesthetic issues raised in the “institutional critique” that constitutes much of this discourse. By publicly commenting on “Skin Fruit,” one can’t help but become involved in the show, a player, however peripheral, on the stage provided by the NuMu. Does an artist like the Rail’s own William Powhida, who has converted his November cover drawing, “How the New Museum Committed Suicide with Banality,” into a limited edition print, become part of the “commercial institution” by hitching his critique to an entrepreneurial project? Does this make him an “insider,” and if so, would his critique still be seen as brutally honest, or as muck-raking shtick, akin to being roasted by the likes of Don Rickles? As Andrea Fraser stated in “From the Critique of Institutions to an Institution of Critique” in the September 2005 Artforum, “Today the argument goes, there no longer is an outside...when we need it most, institutional critique is dead, a victim of its success or failure, swallowed up by the institution it stood against.” Whether you buy the notion that we all have “skin in the game” or not, this question is at the core of the real “insider” vs. “outsider” dialectic that has always confronted major constituencies within the advanced oppositional art community.
The art world is a place where, through the mere act of surviving, an artist can become, in a sense, an “individual institution” qualifying for an investment of trust, recognition, or even money. To achieve such state, a concession must usually be struck between being a true “outsider,” someone who is still capable of disinterested commentary, or becoming part of the establishment and therefore invested, however covertly, in maintaining its status quo. What we’re left with then is something akin to professional wrestling for aesthetes, a good show that gets butts in the seats but comes with an unspoken guarantee that no one gets really hurt (because that might stop the show and take away the punch bowl), a cozy arrangement that puts off the real, hard decisions until the next crisis.
Recently, a young mother mentioned that she’d just bought a new puppy for her children because she said it would be a great way for them to learn about life. Given that the average dog lives 10 to 12 years, the kids would witness the different phases of life while they’re still young. I’ve taken to thinking of Williamsburg as the puppy of the art world. Things move so fast here that one year equals seven in the real world.
I’d seen the “for rent” sign in the front window for a month or so. Seeing the lights on and the door open, I stuck my head in and asked if they were the “new management.” They assured me they were. “Is this going to remain an art gallery?” They said “a furniture gallery.” I wished them luck. Jack the Pelican has officially joined the expanding ranks of former galleries. Peddling down Driggs a week later I spied a strolling Don Carroll out for a leisurely smoke. I pulled out my pad and did my Jimmy Olsen routine.
James Kalm (Rail): When did you open Jack the Pelican, Don?
Don Carroll: It was spring of 2002, so we were in business about eight years.
Rail: What happened?
Don Carroll: Well, we lost our momentum and it just got too expensive to operate. We had a monthly outlay of $7,000; that meant we had to sell $14,000 worth of art, and that was before salaries. We’d been hanging on by our teeth for quite a while. Between the recession, bad L train service, and the advent of the New Lower East Side, our sales were off 90% this last year. That forced us out of the art fairs, which have also changed the dynamics of the market. Since the Bowery neighborhood took off we haven’t gotten any of the media support that was so important when we started. It’s been years since the reviewers from the New York Times have come by. Right now we’re looking at opening something in Manhattan.
At that I decided to let Don finish his smoke in peace and peddled on.
Sad as Jack’s departure is, other old dogs remain. Both Randall Harris’ Figureworks, and Alun Williams’s Parker’s Box will be celebrating their ten-year anniversaries this season with massive shows featuring dozens of the artists they’ve spotlighted over the years. Heading out east, another pup that’s getting some age on is English Kills. This down-and-dirty venue is marking its third birthday, and in that short time it’s shown some of the most provocative painting, sculpture, and installation this side of the East River. With their annual Maximum Perception Performance Festivals and collaborations with Grace Exhibition Space a few blocks away on Broadway, they have become the hub of an energetic new group of performative artists challenging Downtown’s established hegemony and decorum.
Just around the corner on Wilson Avenue, another pup has popped with Storefront, a partnership between Jason Andrew, local art activist and the director of Norte Maar, and painter Debra Brown. Brown’s The Bushwick Paintings, which were on display the day I passed by, are atmospheric views of the local industrial skyline. Coils of razor wire on top of barbwire fences traverse these unromantic scenes with an Art Nouveau-like lyricism. Delicate glazes and lush melds of color put me in mind of Loren MacIver, a sensitive artist who also sought out the sublime in the dusty and decrepit mundane.
Still further east, what might be the runt of the current litter, space-wise, makes up for it with a wagging tail and a truly eccentric program. Famous Accountants, in the basement of 1673 Gates Avenue, is another collaborative space founded by Kevin Regan and Ellen Letcher. Proudly proclaiming their hope to carry on the pioneering spirit of community involvement established by Austin Thomas’s recently closed Pocket Utopia, this off-the-beaten-path gallery is worth the trek for those serious followers of the art world’s grass roots.
Even I, who spent nearly every Sunday afternoon for the past decade and a half dogging around and sniffing out the ‘burg, still can’t hit all the newly opened art spaces. But I did make it to the conveniently named 106 Green Gallery for a Sunday opening. With Spring Fever, curated by Ridley Howard and Nicole Russo (gallery director at Leo Koenig), this “not for sale” gallery has put together a charming display with some familiar faces. A video, “Fever Dream with Rabbit” by Laurel Nakadate, presents a kissy blue episode between the silhouetted figures of a female model and a rabbit that, after a while, makes dog fighting seem humane. “Flavors” by David Humphrey pairs a colorfully truncated ice cream cone with fat, deadpan gray brush strokes, evoking a comparison between taste by tongue or eye. In a large paint-slathered James Herbert piece titled “Two Swans,” a giant, horny adolescent looms over a couple of clinging females nudes.
Janet Kurnatowski stands out like the “Lady” among the “Tramps,” and with this season her gallery hits the five-year milestone. Her current exhibition, Love’s Uncomprehending Smile is a two-person show by fellow Brooklyn Rail contributors Ben La Rocco and Craig Olson. While it is against Rail policy to review works by its artist-writers, both of whom I consider friends and cohorts, I’d love to drive as many feet and eyeballs to this show as possible.
During a brief chat with Marisa Sage, the current president of the Williamsburg Art Gallery Association I asked about the prevailing climate. “It’s been tough,” she responded, “but ironically this has been our best year ever” (Sage operates Like The Spice Gallery). “Some galleries have closed but there are several new spaces, like Charlie Horse, who are totally excited to be working with us.” I guess you have to be an eternal optimist to be in the arts, and from the standpoint of someone who’s seen the cycle repeated several times now, it gives me faith that though some may fall and others get off the train, there’s always a fresh batch of innocent newbies full of energy and grand ideals, and with whose help the tribe will carry on, doggone it.
JAMES KALM has written extensively on the Brooklyn art scene. In 2006 he began posting video reviews of local art exhibitions at his two YouTube channels that have generated over six million views.