People who don’t like to party say that the contemporary art world is both a party and about parties. The grouch’s eye cannot help but stack the soirée scene with abundantly apparent signs of privilege, shallowness, and hedonism, and see those signs as whizz-bang fuel for art as a business. With time on his hands–no one good to talk to–the grouch connects the dots and finds hollowness, grotesquerie, a closed circuit of self-congratulatory perpetual motion. Parties generate sales, sales generate parties, the world turns, and change is cosmetic only. New soundtracks, new faces, new venues and new outfits are just enough to make it feel like the first time, enough to ensure the room is properly packed. All told, the grouch’s position is less than constructive, dopily simplified, and mega-paranoid, but it holds firm from season to season thanks to a single elegant truth: the contemporary art world actually is both a party and about parties.
Parties weigh heavy on my mind this week thanks to Are You With Me?, an exhibition at Small A Projects, a well-regarded young gallery now located, after its recent move from Portland, OR, in a delightfully quaint Manhattan village that’s not quite Chinatown and not quite the Lower East Side. This single-proprietor operation is tasteful and well considered in atmosphere, both white-cube pro and bohemian cozy, with the sort of literate PR that respects passionate readers. Its open-call and public video library is a helpful means of handling the still-thorny proposition of teaching and reproducing time-based media. It’s a smart place.
Are You With Me?, halfway through its run, is a three-person show explicitly about getting together, having a good time, and making something. Jessica Jackson Hutchins’s contribution is an array of eccentric, irregular ceramic vessels spread across a dining table: goblets and dishes and bowls and a few knifey and spoony things. Jesse Willenbring offers three messy and immediate semi-abstract paintings on tablecloths, a combination of media that’s, oddly, infectiously popular at present, and best practiced by German artist/provocateurs (and husband and wife) Michael Krebber and Cosima Von Bonin. Jennifer West’s Skinnydipping Carbon Beach Malibu Film – In Front of David Geffen’s House is a psychedelic 16mm loop of nocturnal California cavorting whose stock is heavily mutilated–perhaps dubbed is the best word, considering its close kinship to Lee Perry’s pioneering physical tape manipulations–by Bloody Marys, ash from the Malibu fires, and seawater, among other unguents. The works rub shoulders like cozy dinner companions. It is an exhibition about partying that is itself a kind of party.
A private dinner ritual for 50 or so con-conspirators took place shortly after the exhibition’s opening. Galleries have dinners after every single opening, but this one did more than mark the end of one 6-week gallery cycle and the start of another. Food was blessed by, then drained from, Hutchins’ awkward dips and divots. Stains of evidence were undoubtedly created in subliminal or celebratory echo of the muck on Willenbring’s framed covers. Casual, spontaneous festive behavior, in the spirit of the nude cartwheel caught between pickle stains at West’s filmed bacchanal, was most likely flamed into being by the Exploding Plastic Inevitable-style flickering wallpaper. This was an event that multitasked as wall text, proof, thank-you dinner, office party, blessing, sacrifice, team huddle, and depression-busting potluck.
Conviviality resonated from the work when I visited and, loath as I am to look anybody on the art world’s inside in the eye, I fell into easy conversation with Small A’s owner Laurel Gitlen. She spoke, with the requisite dealer’s eloquence and enthusiasm, of osmosis, enchantment, and reciprocity–robust rehearsed arguments for the work’s existence wherein their use, and worth, is defined by further human participation. The idea here was that art and viewer are constantly informing, then transforming, each other. It’s an expansion of Duchamp’s Creative Act rhetoric, where the viewer completes the work, except bigger, here, with an optimistic appetite for how much this symbiosis might do.
Are You With Me? is a good question. Do you declare yourself a participant and raise your glass at the appropriate time, or is there–at any party with no real point to make–no need? I came up with this much: if art need not always be life and death it can sometimes be exactly as simple as having a good time in a nurturing environment where discoveries and connections can be made. From there the only way is up, to more meaningful connections and less boring discoveries. Contemporary art is inherently an indulgence, now more than ever, but at least if we treat it as such we have a reason to party with it.-Bones
Are You With Me? is up until February 8th at Small A Projects, 261 Broome Street. The neighborhood is a revelation, filled with choice and free from crowds. Around the corner on Division Street lives Project No. 8, perhaps the kindest, most careful boutique for European clothing in the city, and a Chinese storefront that only sells a vast selection of paper objects to be burned after a loved one’s death.
Bones will take a break from contemporary art and the Beat next week, returning on February 6th.