Future Tension: Dystopia in Our Time at the Bowery’s LOMEX Gallery

LOMEX gallerist Alexander Shulan
LOMEX gallerist Alexander Shulan
Winnie Au

In her show "Ubu Noir" at the newly opened LOMEX Gallery, Valerie Keane presents five hanging sculptures. The objects are vertical and two-dimensional; rendered in Perspex, they have the sharp edges and long curves of flames and blades. Hung precariously on metal and rubber cords, the sculptures are pierced throughout with bolts, hooks, and gauges. The sculptures seem like machined shards from the future: 2050 as imagined in 2016.

Then again, these fictions are less speculative than they appear. Keane's materials echo those used in the luxury condominiums that have defined post–9-11 New York City architecture — the glass and metal of their façades; the colored plastic featured on balconies and in windows to project exuberance, to "add character." From certain angles, Keane's sculptures look like decorations in a Williamsburg condo lobby or a meatpacking district mega-club. Instead they're found in a third-floor walk-up gallery on the Bowery, an artery that once sustained New York's underbelly, now an increasingly sanitized canyon of glass and brushed steel. Here, lit by red and green LED bulbs, they look more like warnings.

William Gibson, the author of Neuromancer and godfather of the cyberpunk genre that bore The Matrix, once said that science fiction is not about the future, but rather a treatment of the present. In fact, well into his career, Gibson switched from writing speculative fiction to authoring books set within familiar sociopolitical conditions — wars over the extraction of oil, environmental degradation, the proliferation of computers, and global corporations. As his most famous aphorism has it, "the future is already here — it's just not evenly distributed."

LOMEX, which opened three months ago, seems to organize its programming around that idea — that dystopia is not some remote possibility but the daughter of present conditions. Gallery director Alexander Shulan (the project was a group endeavor cooked up with artist-collaborators like Keane, Robert Bittenbender, and Bradley Kronz) struggled to find a name for the space until he decided on LOMEX, the unbuilt Lower Manhattan Expressway first proposed in 1929 by Robert Moses. The expressway would have leveled much of Soho and Little Italy, including the site of the gallery. Moses, along with much of the city's bureaucracy and the construction industry, believed the highway would bring about Utopia (they even pitched it as crucial to the national defense).

LOMEX was anything but utopian for the poor, black, and Chinese communities it would have displaced, who revolted so strongly against the proposed expressway that Moses's career never recovered. But by the time the plan was killed, in 1969, other highways had carved up Brooklyn, Queens, and the South Bronx, all of which are still forced to cope with the dispossession and pollution those roadways created.

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The idea for LOMEX was born of a real need for economic sustainability, on the part of both Shulan and the group of artists he will represent. Shulan worked as an independent curator and writer before starting LOMEX and spent more than three years in New York mounting exhibitions with friends and collaborators — but that wasn't enough to give him or his peers the support they needed to continue working in such an expensive city. "The same kind of person who was historically working in this neighborhood," Shulan says, "now has to concern themselves with a whole host of economic issues that change what it means to make art here." By his own account, Shulan is interested in work that deals directly with, or comes out of, this precariousness.

Though LOMEX is a commercial gallery, the interior of the space is decidedly unlike the white-walled, fluorescent-lit laboratory galleries that have proliferated across Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Keane made the choice to black out the gallery's windows, so that the only light in the space comes from the LEDs affixed to the sculptures (neon red and green), a few dim bulbs on the ceiling, and a large slideshow in the middle of the space, contributed by the artist Oto Gillen. The slideshow moved through photos of the New York skyline at night, particularly images of large buildings in the process of being built. The dark, oddly shaped gallery feels apart from the street below, but the monoliths of the new city glow at the center of the space. Keane's installation distills the hyper-accelerated development, the relentless demolition and displacement of the city over the past two decades.

Keane's objects are too violent to be completely commercial. Their vocabulary of incisions and bindings evokes subcultures of psychosexual self-harm: the erotic practice of people piercing themselves and hanging from hooks; the high-grade ropes and ties manufactured for bondage. These accessories — part of a vast market for mass-produced kink paraphernalia — alter the way we experience our own bodies and intensify our relationship to pain, pleasure, and their intersection. So the future also comes to bear in Keane's exhibition. From a distance, the routine hanging of bodies from rafters, aided by hygienic titanium hooks and flexible plastic ropes, reads like a practice imported from a time when the distinction between warfare and sexuality has vanished.

Keane's show is just one part of LOMEX's new vocabulary of ruin. The gallery's previous show, by Kronz, raised equally psychosexual questions by turning the venue into an eerie space reminiscent of an empty high school locker room, a common symbol for sexual repression, harassment, and exploration. The next exhibition will feature work by Bittenbender, whose elaborate sculptural objects, often fixed to the wall like paintings, are built from trash he gathers in the streets of Long Island City, an industrial neighborhood long made desolate by the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

At 2 p.m. in Keane's artificially lit show, her objects exert a pull that obscures both time and place. Outside, however, the Bowery grows increasingly like the Gotham skyline of Gillen's images. Just up the street, the Bowery Mission is in the process of being converted into an Ace Hotel. The New Museum towers above like a stack of high-speed computers. The paradox of art right now in New York is that the conditions that have made living as an artist so difficult are incarnated by the institutions that aim to foster the arts. At LOMEX, at least, this problem is part of the project.

Still from Oto Gillen’s slideshowEXPAND
Still from Oto Gillen’s slideshow
Oto Gillen/Courtesy The LOMEX Gallery

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