Positively 24th Street

A Block of Spectacles in Chelsea

West 24th Street never fails to entertain. Even when a streak of bleak shows makes a day feel like a week, what you come across on that block's procession of grandiose, outsized galleries and mini-museums gives you, at the very least, telling juxtapositions and signs of the times.

Twenty-fourth Street isn't better or worse than the rest of Chelsea, but it is definitely more. After all, the seven enormous spaces that line the north side of the block, from Mary Boone to Barbara Gladstone, tally up to over 43,000 square feet of space. That's not counting Larry Gagosian at the street's northwest corner, perhaps the mother of all art galleries and our own private kunsthalle. This adds another 30,000 square feet. The total is more than two Whitneys—or more space than probably existed in all New York galleries between the years 1900 and 1960, and very likely more gallery footage than currently exists in Amsterdam, Copenhagen, and Milan put together.

Right now the street is a study in contrasts. In four galleries alone—Gagosian, Boone, Luhring Augustine, and Metro Pictures—there are two painters and two video-installation artists who represent three countries, two generations, and widely varying degrees of success and failure.

Thinking big: Julian Schnabel's Ahab (2002), foreground, and Anno Domini (1990) at Gagosian
photo: Robin Holland
Thinking big: Julian Schnabel's Ahab (2002), foreground, and Anno Domini (1990) at Gagosian

Moving from west to east, at Gagosian, and weighing in at the highest tonnage, is that T. rexof American painting, Julian Schnabel, the 51-year-old who all but defined the early '80s in New York (555 West 24th Street, through April 20). Schnabel is now known as much for being a filmmaker as a painter (Al Pacino and Ben Gazzara were spotted at his opening), and his movies—which are as incomplete and messy, but often as breathtaking, as his paintings—have simply provided this hungry artist with a much bigger canvas to work on. His show is, true to form, a big one with seven enormous paintings and a single hideous sculpture.

Next door, Schnabel's former dealer Mary Boone—whom New Yorkmagazine dubbed "Queen of the Art Scene" 20 years ago, but whose stable now serves as an outpost for latter-day Photo Realists like Will Cotton and Damian Loeb—is giving another realist, Marcus Harvey, his American debut (541 West 24th Street, through April 27). This Brit caused the biggest brouhaha at "Sensation" 's London kickoff, with his portrait of Myra Hindley, an infamous British child murderer. A few doors down, the walk-in, miniaturized movie theater of Janet Cardiff, a 44-year-old Canadian, subject of a recent survey at P.S.1, and winner of the 2001 Venice Biennale's Special Jury Prize, occupies Luhring Augustine, a gallery that, of late, has shown a tendency toward over-the-top festival-like productions (531 West 24th Street, through April 27). Meanwhile, Metro Pictures, one of the more rigorous galleries of the 1980s, is showing T.J. Wilcox, one of the more poetic artists to emerge in the 1990s, whose private, Super-8 films have here turned slicker (519 West 24th Street, through April 13).

Looking at these four artists through the lens of spectacle yields interesting comparisons. Schnabel loves big productions. For years his elegant, if elephantine, touch and exquisite sense of decorativeness have been underestimated, eclipsed by what comes off as pomposity and machismo, not to mention a fair share of dreck. The four paintings of female heads that fill one gallery at Gagosian aren't up to previous efforts, but are moderately hypnotic, nonetheless. Visually cartoon-like and resembling circus posters and Indian movie billboards by way of thrift-store paintings and Mount Rushmore, these gigantic heads have something Fellini-esque about them. But Schnabel can't help historicizing his art, or acting out around it, which keeps it shallow (in a catalog photo, he even poses wearing only shorts, as if to evoke Picasso). With the "Big Girl Paintings," as these works are collectively called, the color is garish and the surfaces expressionistic, in ways that feel dated. But an even larger painting from 1990 that looks like an abstract battle scene could hold a wall in a Venetian palazzo and shows how brilliantly decorous Schnabel can be.

For his part, Harvey, 39, paints large Photo Realist canvases that would be at home in galleries like O.K. Harris and Louis Meisel. At Boone, we see four near panoramic images of dressers littered with dildos, handcuffs, and other sexual paraphernalia. These are less like pictures of a woman's private life, however, than a man's fantasy of one. Other than their eye-catching subject matter, impressive size, and sheer diligence, these paintings have little going for them except desperation—which can be an endearing, even energizing artistic force. Witness Damien Hirst's last New York exhibition, which was nothing if not majestic in its need to please and willingness to sacrifice all to that cause. Unfortunately, Harvey's work is raffish but not the real deal.

Cardiff is the art world's Garrison Keillor crossed with Otto Preminger. She's a good-hearted storyteller with liberal values, a great voice, and an angsty, existential sense of narrative. Her work is sensitive, surreal, and loaded with noirish melodrama. Here, in the piece that won the Venice prize, The Paradise Institute (made in collaboration with her husband, George Bures Miller), we sit in a shrunken replica of an old theater, watching a nicely convoluted story that includes scenes of a nurse kissing a patient, a menacing man at a train station, and a house ablaze. Meanwhile, furtive voices whisper in our ears, via headphones. The effect is freakish and fun, with everything tightly scripted and controlled. Cardiff takes you to unexpected interior places, but the overall product feels pat, and it wears thin on repeated viewings. For now, I'm going to admire her scrupulousness and wit, and hope for more next time.

Many carp about the bigness of Chelsea galleries. Metro is a nicely scaled three-room space, but it's still considerably bigger than anything T.J. Wilcox has filled in New York. With this new show he expands the tenets of his art, but at a cost. Previously, this 37-year-old seduced with smallish, fragile films. Wilcox's was the allure of a great interior decorator, his mystery that of a music box or unusual curio. His 2000 show at Gavin Brown consisted of two mini-theaters and old projectors. The films he showed there were as much about what you were seeing on the screen—which was often a deftly spliced-together sequence of borrowed, altered, and new footage, featuring some movie star or historical figure—as how you were seeing them. The apparatus of both the gallery and the film were called into question and gently tweaked.

Which is what's missing here. Wilcox has changed the syntax of his art from private to public; his touch has gone from ephemeral to unsure, his medium from film to video. In one gallery, we sit in a darkened room, gazing at a monitor where two theatrical women answer questions about men, love, and clothes. What might have been enticing turns blandly documentary—a genre Wilcox has little feel for.

Midnite Movie, projected in the largest space, gives us the clearest idea of what Wilcox is up to, and of his moody gifts. Shot over the last year at participatory screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show throughout Europe and the U.S., the video depicts people who make spectacles of themselves within the tightly spelled-out confines of a cult. We see self-appointed actors from Paris, Paramus, and Providence going through the exact same motions. The combination of repressiveness and flamboyance is absorbing. It might have been more so if it hadn't been undercut by echoing sound and the anonymity of the room. The entry gallery, filled with framed images from these two videos, not only seems unnecessary, but also creates the disturbing impression that Wilcox just didn't know what to do with all this space.

Carping about Chelsea, or 24th Street, is pointless. Some artists succumb to the allure of so much space at the expense of their work; others use it to further their ambitions. As always, what's on view shows us a little bit of both.

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