The Fall Chelsea Gallery Exhibits

- - From The Field

Jonathan Blaustein reports on a visit to the Chelsea art galleries during his trip to NYC.

Raise your hand if you feel comfortable going to art galleries in New York? Ok, how many of you is that? I don’t know about you, but I love the experience of engaging with art. Photographs, films, paintings, sculptures, videos, music, these are the ultimate forms of encoded information. Art communicates meaning, and we are meaning craving creatures. So I love to look at art. It’s how our history is recorded.

But I don’t love the experience of looking at art in most commercial galleries, and I know many, many people who agree with me. Why is it that such primal human desire has been co-opted by such an alienating system? I mean, the crusty pretentious person at the front desk is a cliché for a reason. All the spaces are more or less the same, no real variation on the experience. Big white space, uncomfortable silence, gallery workers who ignore you, or scowl, or give you a condescending little smile. Could this happen in any other capitalist industry? (I suppose you’ll tell me in the comment section…maybe the Bentley dealership?)

Anyway, I do wonder why such a humanistic enterprise as art making got into bed with such an elitist, de-humanizing business partner. Oh wait, no I don’t. Galleries represent the allure of a connection to money. Dealers are the middlemen between starving artists and wealthy patrons. And they offer wall space as well, which so many artists need.

Regardless, I went to Chelsea when I was in New York earlier this month with the intention of checking the pulse of the Neighborhood. I was accompanied by my colleague and friend Elizabeth Fleming, whose many witty bon mots were predominantly off the record. Unfortunately, we chose a day when many spaces were turning over shows, so we didn’t get a chance to see quite as many exhibits as we would have liked. But given that it was my last afternoon in the city, I probably couldn’t have handled much more anyway.

We began on a construction-laden part of 28th Street, West of 10th. I’m sure many people outside the art world would be surprised to know that there is anything that far West. Elizabeth and I met up outside the joint space for Foley Gallery and Sasha Wolf Gallery. The two dealers joined forces to share a rent for their galleries, but also formed an interesting multi-use venture called Exhibition Lab. Ms. Wolf was kind enough to chat us up about the Lab, which combines an photo/art curiculum with critiquing classes and lectures. Sounds like a good resource for the NYC photo community.

BartMichielsFoley Gallery was showing the work of Bart Michiels, a Belgian artist working with the landscape. The large scale color photos were bleak, wintry scenes of an empty forest and a field type place. There were burnt things here and there, and the overall sensibility tended towards the nihilistic. The project, which referenced “the Valley of the Shadow of Death”, was very reminiscent of Elger Esser. Very. Given all the great work out in the world right now, I admit I was a bit curious as to why Mr. Foley chose to show this. Ms. Wolf was showing black and white, documentary images by Paul McDonough taken in New York in the 70’s. (Which were subsequently published on the NY Times LENS blog.) The photographs shared a lot of stylistic and humor conventions with Garry Winogrand, but they did a great job of evoking Time and Place. And as a child of Jersey from the 70’s, it was a fun temporal space to revisit.

From there, Elizabeth and I peeked into Aperture, as it was in the same building. Call me crazy, which many people probably will, but I didn’t connect to the Paul Strand images from Mexico. A little to banal for my liking. But I’m sure I’m in the minority on this one. We also saw some Jock Sturges photos of nude, sexualized tween girls, literally tucked into an alcove, partially hidden from sight. Elizabeth is the mother of two young girls, and I have a young son. We both agreed that even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo, and were little more than criminality masquerading as art.

We exited the building on 27th Street, and cruised through the Robert Mann gallery on 11th Avenue on our way to 26th. Again, it was vintage, beautiful, black and white photography, and not particularly original. I’m a fan of the gallery’s program, and believe they’ve put on many, many important shows over the years. But this wasn’t one of them.

michalChelbinSo on to 26th Street, where we stopped into the Andrea Meislin Gallery to see the work of Michal Chelbin. Both Elizabeth and I had seen her earlier work, and were impressed by here odd but not off-putting sensibility. Here, Ms. Chelbin was showing photographs of tween wrestlers from Russia and the Ukraine. The prints were fairly large, color, and square. They were c-prints, which we learned by spying the thin black negative border in each image. Frankly, it was distracting. As was the fact that Ms. Chelbin did not spot tone her prints properly. The dust specks drew Elizabeth’s on-the-record-ire, as she pointed out that any professional who wants to charge high prices ought to know better. Certainly, in a Photoshop world, it reminded me how easy it is to make it right in the computer.

The photographs were entirely of boys, save one. The subject matter brought Collier Schorr to mind, as she’s worked with similar ideas. Wrong as this will sound, I noticed that the boys “packages” were rather prominent in their singlets, and hard to ignore. Having seen Sturges’ work just minutes earlier, it wasn’t hard to make the comparison. Here, a female photographer was sexualizing male children, but of course keeping the clothes on. It made me uncomfortable, as I’m sure it was meant to. But I did wonder why she felt compelled to stare.

From there, we cruised to 25th Street, but had little luck. Yossi Milo and Clampart were both closed for installation, so we had to move on to 24th Street. Gagosian was closed, soon to show Anselm Kiefer’s work. (On view now…) He’s a favorite of mine, so I was a bit disappointed. I mean, any German who can make great, subtle, profound art, not propaganda, out of the Holocaust is a giant in my book.

But my disappointment proved fleeting. Right next door, Mary Boone Gallery gave me an immediate reminder of when and why galleries can be relevant. Unlike photography, which is reproducible and shows well on the web, painting, sculpture, film and their hybrid, installation, need room to breathe. And high production costs can necessitate both a well funded collector base, and big rent for a warehouse space. But I digress…

Ms. Boone was showing “Squeeze,” the work of an artist I didn’t know, Mika Rottenberg. As great and perplexing as this exhibit was, allow me to take you through our experiences step by step. You walk through the alcove into the main gallery. It’s huge. In front of you is a self contained room/sculpture in the middle of the space. It has an window-type air conditioner sticking out the back, with a plant on top. As you walk around towards the opening, you see one sheet of 8.5″x11″ paper taped to the wall on your left, but you pay it no mind. There’s a big photograph of a stewardess type lady on the wall, holding some garbagy-god-knows-what, but you keep going because the room has an opening, which is kind of like a tunnel. The ceiling is made of cheap, dirty, industrial ceiling tile that looks like it was taken from some generic, schlubby New York office in Murray Hill that’s been there since 1941.

Rottenberg-installationThe hallway led to a video installation room. And I rarely have the patience for video art in such circumstances. Almost never. So often it’s esoteric and obnoxious. But not this time. Immediately, Elizabeth and I were sucked into this strange, loud, colorful and surreal world. There were people, somewhere far away from New York, cutting into trees in a misty forest. They appeared to be South Asian. The trees released liquid into drip spouts, which we realized was rubber. The video had jumpcuts to spare, but slowly we pieced together that there was a production process going on, with the rubber being turned into some product. But it was an assembly line as imagined by Terry Gilliam, crazy and nonsensical, with mouths spitting liquid through open wooden holes, and 4naked moist butts showing up occasionally as well.

We took a breather from the video as people streamed into the room, and after agreeing that it was totally awesome, we went back in to watch some more. In all my years looking at art, I don’t think I’ve ever done that before. On return viewing, we pieced together that there was some sort of a trash cube sculpture being fashioned out of the process. After we left the video house, we again saw the large photograph on the wall. It was clear that the woman in the photo was holding the aforementioned cube, which appeared to lock some refuse in rubber and maybe resin. She was smiling. I was even more curious.

From there, the obvious path was to go look at the piece of paper taped to the wall. So we did. It was a bill from a storage company. On the inventory list, we saw the components of the cube, deconstructed. The bill stated that the item would be kept in storage at this facility: in perpetuity. FOREVER. Strange.

So as we began to piece things together, the artist made a video about the production of an object that seemed to contain the waste of consumer culture, and required the extraction of natural resources from the Third World. Said object was then photographed, and locked away from society forever. WOW. Talk about embedding ideas in objects. Not only that, but the piece-it-together-yourself nature of the exhibit forced us to think, and engaged us in a participatory way, thereby referencing ubiquitous Cyberspace.

I had the gumption to approach the bespoke suited man behind the imposing desk, who handed me a price list. Edition of six. What? I asked him about it, and he said that the photo and dvd were editioned, but the cube was too. I mentioned that it seemed that the sculpture was locked away forever, and he concurred. The artist sold a proportional share of an object that people could never possess. Sound familiar? Complex financial instruments, anyone? Brilliant.

Finally, we left the gallery, after 15 minutes or so. What a trip. That’s what galleries can offer, the chance to open a door to a unique experience. To show art that enlightens, and bring the new to a jaded audience. So while the photography galleries left me flat all day, Mary Boone did not.

wolfbuildingWe finished our day on 24th Street, looking at the Michael Wolf show at Silverstein, and Abelardo Morrell at Wolkowitz. It was hard to get juiced up after my mind was blown, but I gave it a solid effort. Mr. Wolf was showing three interrelated bodies of work, all of which reference surveillance and the lack of privacy in public space. I’d seen his city-scape images on the Internet before, but here the large prints taken of office buildings from office buildings were more poignant than on a computer screen. Scale really helped. Bigger was better.

wolfsubwayBut in another room, Mr. Wolf’s images of Japanese subway goers crushed up against the train window, taken from the platform, had the opposite effect. They were candid, visceral, and yet slightly noble. They were small prints, and the size communicated an immediacy. They were, without a doubt, the best prints I saw all day. Across the room, there was one large print from the same project, and I felt the magic was lost. Bigger was not better. (I noticed the same phenomenon with Sugimoto’s “Architecture” series at Sonnabend several years ago.) Mr. Wolf’s final group of pictures were shot from Google Street View, and were not that interesting. Just because a phenomenon is important to culture, that doesn’t mean that art about said phenomenon is important. The photos were kind of boring.

wolkowitzSo on we went to finish the day with Abelardo Morrell’s large scale, color camera obscura photographs. They were very beautiful, taken in New York and Italy. Some appeared to be made on gravel streets, which were kind of strange. But mostly they showed Mr. Morrell’s now famous process of bringing images of light inside spaces. They were well crafted, lovely to look at. But they did not engage my mind in a serious way.

So Eastward we headed, out of the Gallery Ghetto. We went not three steps when I looked down and saw the most interesting broken sidewalk, strewn-refuse street scene. I looked around to see if there was any signage about, because it looked as much like an art installation as what it really was; some garbage on the street. I know that certain galleries in the past have transformed their spaces in such ways, for real. And I’d seen a Jeff Wall photograph at the Metropolitan Museum earlier in the day that was a döppelganger for what was right in front of me. But Elizabeth and I laughed, and I decided to coin the idea as a new game. Garbage, or art installation? Try it next time you’re in the Neighborhood.

There Are 22 Comments On This Article.

  1. Jonathan, You really are an amazing writer – natural and seemingly effortless (although I’m sure it’s not.)

    Although I haven’t seen the exhibitions you’ve written about – so don’t know if I would concur or not – I very much appreciate your willingness (and courage) to share your honest opinions about them.

  2. Jonathon-
    You should be a regular critical contributor. You are honest but not vindictive and while I may not agree with each of your specific critiques I would enjoy and respect your point of view.
    As you stated it is unfortunate that there is such a pervasive insecurity portrayed by many gallerists which can be translated into rudeness. Conversely I have found the confident gallerists to be open, polite and welcoming as I am sure you also discovered.
    Not unlike the advertising and commercial photography industry, individuals in the art world are exposed to the psychological damage of rejection and worse, failure. A big ego goes a long way to fend off the contact that can result in this damage. This is why both industries contain some individuals wrapped in overstuffed egos like pigs in a blanket.

  3. d david young

    Jonathan wrote:
    “uncomfortable silence, gallery workers who ignore you”:
    Remove “gallery” workers and this is what local residents feel when we go to Waikiki in Honolulu and sometimes Ala Moana shopping center and into the “high End” (pricey” stores)…and when the economy dives as in now and the early ’90s they have deals for us locals…wonder how many locals actually take these ignorers who watch for foreign speaking customers…aloha
    ps my first post here, it hit a nerve i guess

  4. I think you are spot on with your gallery personnel observations…but the funny thing is, once you get past the veneer, it’s very possible to connect (even at Mary Boone). Most front desk people are young and feel the need to perpetuate the stereotype either because they just don’t know shit about the art and want to remain aloof or they just don’t have the right role model.

    On that level, and many others, our business remains a paradox.

    • @Michael Foley,
      Thank you for sharing your perspective. It’s very gracious of you. I imagine it must be difficult to have one’s workspace be public space. Best wishes, jb.

  5. I’ve never been to NYC to appreciate the full spectrum of possible gallery atmospheres, but from where I’m sitting it doesn’t seem bizarre at all that most would be rather stuffy. I think the crusty snobbery and quiet serves several intentional purposes, not limited to:

    – building a physical and emotional distance from the masses outside the doors;
    – creating a sense of rarity, scarcity, and reverance;
    – all of which are ultimately in place to boost and reinforce the ostensible value of the artist and the price the prospective client is willing to pay.

    I can’t name a single purveyor of luxury (it’s ‘fine’ art after all, for a reason, right?) that employs a laid-back down-to-earth sales pitch. Not that it wouldn’t be refreshing to see this change, but I don’t think it’s crazy as-is.

  6. “We also saw some Jock Sturges photos of nude, sexualized tween girls, literally tucked into an alcove, partially hidden from sight. Elizabeth is the mother of two young girls, and I have a young son. We both agreed that even in a world of moral relativity, these images transgressed some basic taboo, and were little more than criminality masquerading as art.”

    Sturges’ work is certainly not for everyone, but I think Blaustein and his friend badly misunderstood his work. I never knew much about Sturges, but last year I attended a Ockenfels III workshop at the Palm Springs Festival and he was a lecturer one night. He also dropped by our workshop one day. I was very impressed with his intelligence, sensitivity, and respect for his subjects.

    I would urge anyone who has any interest in his work (positive or negative) to hear him talk about it, preferably in person (or there are online interviews you can search for), and to hear his subjects talk about being photographed by him, before making judgments about him.

    If folks are uncomfortable with his work, or don’t like it, I respect that. But I’m taken aback to hear it called “criminality.”

    What’s criminal about it?

    How are the subjects “sexualized,” and by whom?

    I don’t understand why nudity is often seen as indecent.

    Here’s a video interview. Around 9:00 he discusses dignity, pornography, shame, and family values.

  7. I recently saw squeeze–your description is spot on, another interesting layer to the work is the photograph–the woman holding the cube is mary boone.

  8. “As was the fact that Ms. Chelbin did not spot tone her prints properly. The dust specks drew Elizabeth’s on-the-record-ire, as she pointed out that any professional who wants to charge high prices ought to know better. Certainly, in a Photoshop world, it reminded me how easy it is to make it right in the computer.”

    Thank you! I often wonder if people who now leave dust specks on prints would have done the same in the days of manual spot-toning, when it was so much more difficult and time consuming. Such a pet peeve of mine.

  9. Go to the Garage Antique Market at 25th & 6th Ave where you’ll find art, photography, antiques, and collectibles. You could spend $2.00 on a vernacular snapshot or more than a thousand on a piece of art. You might uncover a gem and in the process enjoy the hunt as you chat with a couple of hundred dealers, and hear eccentric stories about their discoverers.


  10. After spending a bit of time looking into each of these galleries it was interesting to see that many, more than 50%, offer portfolio reviews. Seems to tie into the previous post about paying to play. Curious to see if paid portfolio reviews at galleries will become the means for exhibiting in a gallery.
    Thanks for the fantastic insight on your trip through the galleries.