“Demonclownmonkey,” the funky, lively group show at Artists Space, is to the art world as MTV’s deranged goth-u-mentary, The Osbournes, is to television: an aberration and a reminder of how weird art, life, and creativity are. This exhibition doesn’t mark the end of the art world’s dalliance with professionalism, but—in addition to having a cool, if Nauman-esque, title—it is a break in the business-as-usual action that surrounds us, and proof that “underground” energy is where you find it. Uneven and speculative, “Demonclownmonkey” does what a good group show should do: make work you mightn’t have liked come alive, make known artists look new and new ones seem compelling, and mix everything together into a subtly assaultive, eye-opening whole.
Guest curator Matthew Ritchie, himself one of the smartest artists around, forgoes the title of curator (“too professional”) for producer, which sounds just as professional to me, but which Ritchie defines as “being something closer to a pit boss.” Whatever. He dispenses with wall labels and installs his show in a ramshackle six-room apartment structure complete with makeshift doors. This rattletrap funhouse is a welcome respite from the sameness of seeing art in so many refined white cubes. Strains of opera and John Denver emanate from within. The hands-on, low-tech quality saves it from “festivalism,” while the general level of preposterousness in much of the work steers us to deeper psychic waters.
Ritchie brings together eight artists: five unknowns (including three recent Columbia graduates, all of whom I met while working as a visiting critic there), two underknowns, and Chris Heenan, a musician from Los Angeles whose body-noise soundtrack on the outside of the installation makes this antechamber into something like the waiting room to the afterlife in Beetlejuice. Adding to this outer-office oddness is Paul Wagner’s graphic wall painting.
Once inside the plywood door, you’re greeted by Michael Byron’s painted papier-mâché sculpture, One of the Ugliest Objects in America, a klutzy-looking thingamajig in the shape of a biomorphic propeller. A mirror that reflects the piece’s backside is self-conscious and lessens some of the fabulous flat-footedness of the object. But no matter. In an adjacent room, Carl Scholz’s Perfect Carl consists of two disembodied brown arms and legs posed in a runner’s starting crouch. The title, plus Scholz’s first name, the skin color, some ribbon, and the allusion to running, all conjure the spirit of Olympic gold medalist Carl Lewis—and almost offset the Dalí and Kienholz influences.
Since every show has to have at least one dark room with a large video projection, this show has Redshift, a time-lapse landscape by London-based Emily Richardson. Clouds rush by, the aurora borealis shoots across the night sky, and ships whiz past. A mysterious track of clicks and whirs helps make this looping, para-scientific spectacle fairly absorbing.
Next come my three favorite artists in the show. First, in the only white room, are the conservative but awry figure paintings of Scott Grodesky, 34, whose work has been shown in New York for almost 10 years and deserves to be better known. In the largest and best canvas, a couple cuddles in bed. In two other quirky works, an enlarged eyeball stares at us. In another, an apartment complex is pictured from above or below, or both simultaneously. It’s hard to tell, because everything has been subjected to a bizarre “reverse perspective.” Space is unmoored and visual logic turned back on itself. With his illustrative illusionism and cheery color, Grodesky comes off as an edgier, more rigorous David Hockney.
With the last two artists we arrive at the fringe of what Gilbert & George call “the randy outside.” Karen Leo’s 24-minute video, Himrod Forever, features the artist wearing—of all things—a knitted, head-to-toe Bruce Willis costume. This character works out, shouts at ice cream trucks, roams around an apartment, and finally sprouts a sock puppet from its forehead. Himrod is Taxi Driver by way of Sesame Street. The fiendishly perverse music track includes tunes by Cher, Willie Nelson, and Glen Campbell. Batty and beguiling, Leo’s art is about fandom, aspiration, and doppelgängers. The abjectness of the narrative and the materials connects Leo to Mike Kelley—someone she may not care about, but who is surely an influence on her and a number of younger artists.
That influence echoes in David Altmejd’s brilliantly titled, super-strange, room-sized sculpture, Young Men With Revolution on Their Mind. This eccentric whatever-it-is looks like a platform or a stage, and features mirrored compartments in the base, werewolf heads sprouting crystals, and strands of jewelry adorning abstract Plexiglas shapes that have been placed here and there. Young Men conjures Kelley as seen through a David Cronenberg-Larry Bell-Brothers Grimm looking glass. Wade Guyton’s obdurate displays come to mind, as do Ritchie’s intrepid myth- and story-generating installations. Altmejd is only 27, but his art eludes language and meaning in ways that are sophisticated and visionary.
“Demonclownmonkey” does two things especially well. It reflects how artists are attempting to merge conceptual practices with more visual means. And it helps us grasp that artists aren’t scientists, politicians, priests, or professionals. They’re something else. And that something else is what it’s all about.