May 10 – August 1, 2014 | Mana Contemporary
On May 10, Mana Contemporary inaugurated a new gallery with an exhibition curated by the artist Ray Smith. The title of the show, All the Best Artists Are My Friends, suggests a comic self-assuredness in the face of art world nepotism. Smith has been a prominent figure in the New York art world for many decades. His selection of artists spans a broad range of ages and demonstrates a stuffed Rolodex of “friends.”
All the Best Artists traces a zigzagging line through the New York art world from the 1980s to today. Smith gives us Minimalism, Photorealism, Surrealism, and Pop, with no obvious preferences. There’s a sort of anarchic generosity to the exhibition, unified only by the dispersed, avuncular presence of Ray Smith, whose face and name appear in portraits and on tags throughout.
From a critical standpoint, the exhibition poses questions about the descendants of 1980s neo-expressionism and realism, and brings to mind the legacy of Andy Warhol, who crowned Julian Schnabel and Basquiat as his successors. There is no clear link between Warhol’s aesthetic and much of the work on display, but the show tackles the complicated relation Warhol established between artists, art, and the art market. Smith’s argument seems to be: art is art; it comes in many guises, and proceeds not according to the critic or the market, but by the logic, or whim, of the artistic community. Smith’s title hints at the paradoxical fact that the art world determines who is an artist, but the artist determines the character of the art world. In Smith’s presentation, this community is not an elitist machine but a kind of feral democracy. Good taste in art, he suggests, is much like good taste in people: there should be no immutable criteria.
In the main room Smith has given the largest open spaces to Julian Schnabel and Jeff Koons. There are three pieces by Schnabel, two from the 1980s and one from the last decade. The most impressive is a sculpture like something from a portentous, surreal dream: a chair attached to the cross beam of a structure like a gallows. Next to Schnabel are a few works by Ai Wei Wei, including his famous “Colored Vases” (2006/8), a set of Neolithic vases Ai dipped in industrial paint. Given that only Ai and Schnabel have work from the 1980s exhibited, the prominence of these pieces indicates their centrality to Smith’s curatorial narrative.
One of the pleasures of walking the main gallery space is comparing Smith’s famous friends with his lesser-known, younger friends and protégés: G.T. Pellizi, the Bruce High Quality Foundation, Maxwell Snow. The relation between the younger generation and the older can be most palpably felt in the small, secondary room of the gallery, which is set up almost like a kid’s table. In it is (Brooklyn Rail publisher) Phong Bui’s “Social Environment #2” (2014), a microcosmic exhibition within the exhibition, enclosed by three walls that are decorated with two dozen of Bui’s pencil portraits and selections of unattributed works from his own collection.
In the corner of the smaller room the massive, monstrous “Pied Piper” (2014), by Z Behl, sits on its knees playing a flute. Made out of two-by-fours fixed jaggedly together, it is covered with swatches of cloth and outfitted with spare parts (car headlights for eyes). This is the only piece whose size genuinely fits the cavernous gallery. In the Piper’s back a plexi-glass window reveals a small room inside the sculpture where two or three children were at play for the opening, blowing on their own pipes and stamping around, presumably following the Piper, or trapped in its trail.
“Disco Ball” (2009), by Rhys Gaetano, hangs in the center of the smaller room. It is equally huge and monstrous, a hulking misshapen thing that looks like something Clause Oldenburg would be selling in his Store if it were still open today. Finally, below the ball lies a quarter pipe built by Matt Reilly, of Japanther, which was painted during the opening by a skateboarder riding on it with paint-covered wheels. The environment in the room is fun, unrefined but savvy. There’s almost a story being told, as the Pied Piper cajoles the children through the party room toward the grandeur of the larger spaces.
This is also one of the visions of Mana Contemporary, and Smith’s show serves to establish its legitimacy as a supporter of all artists, and also to announce Mana as a powerful player in the future of the New York art scene. Mana Contemporary, the two million square foot arts complex inhabiting industrial buildings in Jersey City, which opened in 2011, offers studios to over a hundred artists, and operates five galleries. All the Best Artists Are My Friends is the first of a new series of large scale shows called Mana Expositions, which will be housed in the massive new space designed by Richard Meier. Mana is owned by Moishe Mana, of the successful Moishe’s moving company, who is credited for transforming the Meat Packing district in the 1980s into the wealthy artists’ neighborhood it’s known as today. He plans to do the same in Jersey City; he has waved off concerns about gentrification and made clear he hopes the town will someday be referred to as Tribeca West.
This side of the art world, its indifferent collusion with real estate moguls, and dependence on astronomical wealth, is not, of course, touched on in Smith’s good-natured curation. But from the perspective of the artists, the space is a welcome injection of opportunity, and Smith’s show provides an optimistic picture of artistic camaraderie.