The artist and critic Jesse Murry described “a breath that makes possible another breath.” How can our movements allow for other movements? As artists, how can our practices extend space for others as much as it asks for space; and give language and poetry to others as much as it asks for those things. I’ve been told I wear many hats, and I want to address the why of it for the first time, while also bringing together a small vibrancy of others who share in strange navigations and similar obligations with me.
The kitbash is a form of customization, of stepping off the path. It’s when you take parts from multiple models and glue and screw them together into strange chimeras. It is the impulse of superstructures, of bodies without organs, but also of Gundams and Warhammer 40k models, or modifying your harddrive and installing neon and graphic cards so that it has the feel of something that exists beyond the edges of the midwest. I now know it by its more ancient name—the sogni dei pittori, the space of dreams within the grotto that painters had when they drew grotesques and exchanged them with each other outside of their commissions for their patrons. These dreams are of what could exist beyond the schematic limits of the body, a curiosity with origins connecting back to the Everywhen, to the connectedness of the community as it existed in illo tempore. The kitbash then is a vestigial skeuomorph, a word borrowed from anthropology, that means the parts are still recognizable and distinct within the new clump or combination. It is a revival of the grotesque, a reclamation of the uncanniness we feel from the sublime integrations of platform capitalism. It is both memory ware and dream projection.
In recognizing that the artist/gallerist/writer has dangerously become its own kind of strategy for professionalization, I want to articulate it as a poetics of space and process. I remember as a grad student having a chance to attend the Painting Beyond Itself: Painting in the Postmedium Condition conference at Harvard. During one of the panel discussions, R.H Quaytman and Amy Sillman responded to one of the lecturers that they didn’t know any good artists. I believe it was Quaytman, who pointed out that the seminar was only speaking about artists that broke auction records, and didn’t seem to know or know how to talk about the artists that artists talk about. They used that moment to remind the seminar organizers that ultimately it is artists that keep the names of other artists alive long enough for history and critics to get it right; that artists are the reason we know Paul Thek and Louise Bourgeois and really artists are the ones that recover and remember. It changed my life. I left feeling a responsibility to oral histories, to showing up, to saying the names of people that aren’t being said, to finding out where the scene was still flickering and to try to give it breath and attention. Curation and criticism for me is much closer to that image of Mike Kelley picking up a mop, or Robert De Niro’s Harry Tuttle in Terry Gilliam’s Brazil, crawling into the guts of the machine to fix the heater.
As a gallery, Below Grand recently made it to its five-year anniversary this month and I can promise you now that it’ll somehow make it to ten. It won’t end. I still have too many friends who can’t find a place to show their work. And I won’t stop writing, as it can initiate and assemble new ways of seeing while extending attention to what needs it. The best gift we can be given is when someone sees something in us before we can even see it in ourselves. It’s a form of magic—a rare moment to step into a new silhouette and have the chance to initiate what Deleuze would call a becoming or Badiou would refer to as an event. It’s a gift that the Rail has given me and it can’t be returned, it can only be passed on to others. It’s that or you become the entropy within the system. There is a pay off. When everyone is standing out on the sidewalk on Orchard Street, late on a cold night, just to be there for the artists, just to see and be with each other again and check in, that’s where I see a spark of something that we mostly only know through its fading. That’s where I feel and see the heartbreak quieted in me and others for a moment.
But I also recognize that kitbashing is a form of the trickster. The trickster as an archetype refuses definition, choosing instead to shift allegiances to form unpredictable intimacies and take pleasure in the strange shapes of each new shadow they cast. This illegibility forms strange attractions and repulsions from others. There are those who get what artists like Adrian Piper, Donald Judd, David Salle, Mary Kelly, Mira Schor, Chris Martin, Mike Kelley and many others have done and are doing in trying to contribute to a discourse through writing, or what artist-run spaces like Orchard Gallery, Trial Balloon, Regina Rex, Sideshow Gallery, Honey Ramka, and Signal Gallery were trying to do; what Reena Spaulings, 47 Canal, Participant, Gordon Robicheaux, Soloway, Mrs. Gallery, Ortega y Gassett, Marvin Gardens, Catbox Contemporary, Cathouse Proper, and International Waters are still working towards; and then there are those who distrust their multiple valences. The market has learned how to use words like “authenticity” and “sincerity” to pressure artists into condensing their practices into modes of repeatable and easily saleable styles. I choose to see complication as an increasingly necessary rock in the shoe of this momentum, an off-balance praxis of non-imperial relationality that is more and more necessary; able to form new social worldings through its speed and occlusions.
I’ve invited a group of kitbashers, skeuomorphs, and tricksters to contribute something for this issue—artists that wear multiple hats and resist being overdetermined or simplified. Each of them has picked up the mop or gone into the machine in their own way, to take a breath that makes possible another breath for others. I choose, and invite others to choose, the persistent multivalent sensibility of Mr. Oscar in the back of the limousine of Holy Motors, being open to the intimacies that are formed from abstract collisions and encounters, to see what can be produced from remaining elusive, to collide with others as an ever-changing series of orientations and personas. Each indeterminate cause we insist on remaining unnameable, each ideology we shed in pursuit of mystery, puts us in the path of new people and their ideas, each time forming its own little fix of heartbreak through new emmanations and profusions of community. Each tiny wordless sublime of ourselves channels alienation into a shattering force, sparks pulses of individuation triggered by each collapse of our sense of self. Each time we step out of the limousine as someone else, we choose to be the coral reef.
This ended up producing in its reflection a love letter to the indeterminacy of the Lower East Side, that is still chasing after the idea of the avant-garde through its insistence on remaining an aesthetic counter culture. The Lower East Side remains an important grotto, a neighborhood that gives presence to outliers, a surging coral reef, a matrix that, as defined by Houston Baker Jr., means “a point of ceaseless input and output, a web of intersecting, criss-crossing impulses always in productive transit.” It’s become a hold-out, where the dealer-as-philosopher and the gallery-as-idea still engineers itself. It cultivates absence into a kind of cultural technology, and in that space of feeling under-considered and being able to so clearly envision a better art world, there is the potential for the oracular murmur within the Romantic disappointment. It sprawls out, a steganography of a community that is hidden underground and reached for on rooftops, and found within backrooms. The spiritual moment requires a search, the shamanic vision requires wandering in the desert. It can be difficult to know where everything is and there’s always something new that has just started or something now gone that you now miss. You’re always having to admit to what you don’t know there. It is a smooth space of gallery-as-gesture and poem-over-monument that can shift to become a dance floor, a publishing house, a philosopher’s Invisible College, or a bar. It forms and un-forms itself in the language of whispers—a fading right place, right time that offers that chance to catch something before it’s undone and replaced.
We have to allow ourselves to be re-oriented and dispossessed, to refuse style, to remain shimmering confusions, to form kinship by continually changing course, to form a tiny heartbroken sublime of ourselves and choose the kitbash and the trickster in all of their strange uncertainties and undefined abstraction. We’re teaching the next generation all the wrong things about how to move through space, and they are learning professionalization over meaning and texture. We have to be stranger and more unknowable. We owe that to ourselves but also to each other. We have to work harder to grow old and strange together and refuse each collapse and dismissal along the way. A flickering connectedness we remember from the time before time is out there. I’ve seen it. We all have, at imprecise moments; and it wouldn’t mean anything if it wasn’t fading and fugitive.
These people that I’ve invited to be a part of this conversation, who channel the fleeting and mutable force of the coral reef, are all points of light to me. Some are old friends and mentors and some are new, but they each carry a collective hope to keep moving through spaces at challenging speeds and definitions. There are many others that are integral to the community that I don’t want to leave out, like Jae Cho at Spencer Brownstone, Rebekah Chozick at Rachel Uffner Gallery, Peter Harkawik, Eleanor Rines of 56 Henry, William Leung of ATM Gallery, Mike Tan of Island 93, Alec Petty of King’s Leap, Jared Linge of High Noon, Andy Guzzonatto of Ashes/Ashes, Sydney Fishman and Eden Deering of Duplex, Casey Cleghorn of No Gallery, and William Chan of Home Gallery. This issue collectively bears witness to the persistence of counterculture from different proximities and relations, and builds the elusive idea of it up from the personal intensities of the contributors put into adjacency with each other. Their contributions are proof that we didn’t show up to a party that’s already over. It’s important to feel strong and permanent when you can. We need each other to keep going.