Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman Meth Around at Deitch Projects


Black Acid Co-op, a collaborative project by artists Justin Lowe and Jonah Freeman, transforms the Deitch Projects space on Wooster Street into a freaky, trilevel series of interconnected room-size installations that resemble a snaking squat from hell. Grasping at art-historical precedents, one might call the piece an immersive environment, but it’s more like art-as-intestine, in which the visitor plays the food.

According to a handout, the Co-op of the title refers to an imaginary, urban counter-cultural enclave, where each of the nine or so rooms is set up to explore some aspect of “alchemy in a modern context.” There are mystical symbols, astrological charts, crystals, animal skulls, feathers, and other ritual artifacts throughout. It feels a bit like a stage set for Dungeons & Dragons, as conceived in an amphetamine psychosis—which seems appropriate, given that three of the installation’s rooms are imitation meth labs.

Traditionally, alchemy concerned the transmutation of lesser elements, such as lead, into gold. Meth labs process chemicals into a false panacea. But it’s unclear why we need three labs in Black Acid Co-op: Ripped from an episode of Cops, their details—ratty couch, blacked-out windows, old “Wanted” posters, discarded boxes of pseudoephedrine, and flasks and bottles of muriatic acid connected by tubing—seem interchangeable, except that one lab has been torched like a campfire marshmallow. Still, as the connecting tubes form the key visual signature of the labs, in the Co-op as a whole, the links and transitions between rooms seem crucial. One of the first things you notice is that, instead of using doors, you often move between rooms by passing through holes broken out of the walls.

Some of the transitions are genuinely transporting. From the disheveled and dimly lit library, dominated by a long shelf stacked with books from which the covers have been torn and new titles—Lazier Than a Toad, How Stupid—scrawled on the spines, you can duck through a hole into a clean, buttoned-up gallery with immaculate red carpeting and white walls replete with moldings. Here, glass cases display scrappy sculptures made from architectural oddments, such as a section of wall with fiberglass insulation on one side and Walkmans embedded into the other; hung around the perimeter, black-and-white photographs depict some strange upper-class rite. Like meth labs, galleries—the space suggests—also concoct false panaceas.

You mount stairs to access another space that promises a sort of transformative elixir—in this case, New Age mysticism. Under a ceiling composed of triangular swaths of fabric, resembling a geodesic dome, slabs of mica jostle with joss sticks and feather totems on the floor, while large specimen jars—containing not body parts, but photos and arcane texts—line heavy wooden shelving.

But too many of the notions embodied in Black Acid Co-op have become trite hipster mannerisms. Surveillance monitors, as in the tatty tiers off the library, have become a cliché of art. The open refrigerator door revealing a passage to a hidden chamber reminds us that this entire installation is always only one trapdoor away from becoming just a carnival funhouse.

Black Acid Co-op does take you on a trip, but because its ingredients seem imperfectly mixed, it probably won’t take you high enough.