Bones’ Beat: A Journey Through the Underbelly of the Art World, 9/11/2008


Bones’ Beat is a weekly walk around the grounds of the New York art scene. This week, Bones visits the fall opening ceremonies in the commercial art village of Chelsea’s west end. There sure are a lot of people here…

The New York art world has long operated on an invented calendar that reflects the rhythms of its gods and guardians, the wealthy. Thus, in galleryland, August traditionally wears a shuttered expression in respectful deference to St. Barts and the Hamptons, and the beginning of September hollers ‘tanned, rested and ready’ with enough indelicate oomph to ring the bell for a new season’s trading and investing.

At dusk last Thursday I sat on a filthy loading dock at the corner of 26th Street and 11th Avenue, watching the overture of Chelsea’s September re-openings from a safe distance. A 12-seater GMC Caravan carrying animated young men in suits crawled into the heart of things. A man zipped up his girl’s dress, a vacation-specific aqua number with frilly sort of algae trills, as the first waves of a meltdown lapped forth: he should have paid attention when she asked if she looked alright. A tot in a sateen Power Rangers costume, complete with plastic mask, ran adrift from his parents. A geriatric couple in pressed clothes ambled east, gamely, holding hands. I had been waiting about an hour for a garrulous 26-year-old with unfakeable Cockney charm’n’manners named Charlie Woolley. He had chaperoned two of his works across the Atlantic for his first Chelsea outing, a group show at Roebling Hall entitled “All Cut Up” and curated by Rita de Alencar Pinto, an energetic lady in high heels and nice hair. I was sitting outside their party.

Charlie Woolley: “Art lets me do whatever I want.”

Latent paranoia is a large part of every mass opening ceremony here, and it’s particularly pervasive at the start of Chelsea’s fiscal year. Dealers are anxious that the reputations of their enterprise rise and register on the new collectors’ radars; artists are eagle-eyed for recent grads and international interlopers who are being primed to pinch their spotlight. People in the business of art are constantly nervous here, constantly aware of the lopsided mathematics of these jamborees. Once the hundreds of people who are there to booze for free, show off, or be noticed by potential sex partners are cancelled out, and the rich have become lost in each other, talking of the fab things they’ve up to, the reputationless artist will have a hard time finding nourishment or real support in all these strangers.

I was particularly keen to catch up with Charlie, who I’d met at the art world’s annual trade fair and weeklong summer fête in Basel a few years back. Woolley, reputationless in New York, had seemed entirely immune to young-artist fears in environments in Switzerland: I needed for September sanity’s sake to see if his strength could hold here. “Everything that has happened to me as an artist, still, is thanks to one person,” he told me, speaking of David Risley, his London dealer. “I left school when I was 15 and spent five years reading and learning at work in a bookshop. I met David on top of a mountain in Greece on holiday. We talked and drank for 3 days, and he told me he wanted to represent me when we got back to London. I said ‘represent me as what?'” All stories ended on a note of gratitude and optimism. “All I’m trying to do now is travel, communicate ideas through images, and have a ball.” The idea of art as deliverance and art as peace arose time and again. “I do panic about a lot of things, but never,” he emphasized, “about art. Art lets me do whatever I want.”

The walk home took me through the hysterical core of the neighborhood party, where all the folk I’d seen alone before were now folded together with their doppelgangers. Anonymity reigned. I wondered how many young artists on the wall that night had been given the chance to develop actual relationships with their dealers, or their collectors, or even their fans. In an environment as crazily competitive as this, one-to-one communication is widely skipped in favor of bland mass transmissions in every direction, geared to quickly propel an artist’s id to the top of a collective consciousness. The role of guardian, and guardian angel, a figure to which every professional is entitled, has become an increasingly cold inconvenience in the business of contemporary art. “People ask me all the time how to get gallery representation,” said Charlie, “and I tell them to climb to the top of a mountain in Greece and make a friend.” -Bones

Charlie Woolley features in ‘All Cut Up‘ at Roebling Hall Gallery (606 West 26th Street) until October 4th.

Next week, Bones roams the MoMA: A newly appointed curator and new hangs at the behemoth on 53rd Street; what does a 31-year-old named Lucy McKenzie tell us about the state of the institution as it grows into its new, hated, space?

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