I hadn't seen the unnamed art writer and sometime curator in a while. I hadn't seen him since Mark Kostabi's opening, in fact. We were accidentally meeting fairly often for a bit there, but then I stopped bumping into him. Certainly part of the problem is I haven't been going to openings very much. I didn't go to a single opening in April, for example; and it took me until the 24th of May (Victoria Day!) until I finally escaped my house. I didn't even plan it very well. I just glanced over the night's art openings, picked up the car from the mechanic, and drove into Manhattan. (I say that like I didn't spend an hour in Lincoln Tunnel traffic sitting and singing along with Abbey Road.)
I did finally arrive at the show the unnamed writer curated with Becky Smith of Bellwether, In Defense of Ardor. Alas, the show is jaw-droppingly terrible, titanically worthless, colossally bad. Setting the mood is Julieta Aranda's contribution; it's the most obvious when you walk in. I have lost confidence with everybody in the country at the moment consists of a large piece of paper with the title written across it in pink spraypaint.
I skimmed past the initial items and ducked into a video room. The video was just starting, and against my usual inclination I sat down. I was treated to claymation of such incompetence it made Basket Case look like The Nightmare Before Christmas. I feel certain Nick Park is digging himself a grave to roll over in as I type.
When that was over, I escaped to nearly step on what looked like a steel-wire tumbleweed set on a doormat. Then I weaved through the room around a pair of stereo speakers standing aimlessly, avoided looking too closely at a couple of horribly gloppy paintings, and scampered out again, nearly tearing off the wall what appeared to be three paper napkins hung up on string. Seriously: You could curate a better show by emptying out a dumpster from behind Wal-Mart.
I was so overwhelmed by this show's dreadfulness I actually wanted to shake the unnamed curator by his narrow lapels and scream at him "IS THIS SOME KIND OF JOKE?"
It wasn't until I was driving home when an idea came to me so forcefully, I almost turned the car around to go back and actually shake the unnamed curator by his narrow lapels. If I wanted -- my train of thought went -- if I wanted to put together a show making fun of how bad the art in Chelsea is right now, what I might do is put together a really bad show. But it couldn't be obviously awful -- like sad clowns or dogs playing poker. Oh no. If it was obviously awful, the joke would be too easy. No no no. The show would have to be plausibly awful. It'd have to be played absolutely straight, too. Stonefaced. No winking or nudging at all. No sir: It'd have to be completely irredeemable, beyond the pale of badness -- but it'd have to be serious. In fact, I might even go so far as to put in a piece of fake fur dipped in paint suspended over Tupperware and slap a price tag of $25,000 on it. Yeah. That'd be one hell of a joke.
Usually when I start thinking in this devious way, it turns out I'm much more devious than even the most devious of devious people, and actually the motives are much more straightforward and sincere. But then this is that unnamed curator, and I'd honestly rather think this is some kind of elaborate joke -- maybe Becky's in on it, maybe not -- than think he actually meant for this to be what it is, which is the absolutely worst art show I've ever seen.
If it is some kind of joke, though, it seems that the other galleries with openings that night were going along with it.
That's not entirely fair. Jack Shainman was showing Shibu Natesan's Each One Teach One and it wasn't totally bad. Shibu's work is kind of surrealist in that realism-with-a-twist style, which is okay, except he doesn't have the technique to really pull it off entirely. In fact the reason I moved away from painting this kind of thing is I was afraid I'd only ever be about as good as Shibu is, which isn't really good enough. His realism is flat and strained, his colors too simple, his eye for detail negligible. Whether it's a zebra or satin boxing shorts, blue jeans or grass, the texture conjured up by Shibu's brushwork is that of dull Plasticine.
Nevertheless Shibu's canvases are large and energetic and mildly intriguing. I wanted to like them more. I tried to like them more. But it didn't work.
Shainman was also showing work and an installation by Radcliffe Bailey, whose show is one of those you just walk through, past, and out from without spending more than ten seconds looking at it. And hearing and smelling it. Because the small installation consists of, among other things, a metronome, a plate of dried herbs, and a big pile of piano keys. When people think of the pointlessness and general what-the-fuck-ness of the art world, Radcliffe's show is exactly the kind they're thinking of.
It's probably also unfair to lump Peter Hoffer's Stigmata, at Kathryn Markel, with the jokesters. Peter's fantasy landscapes are, at first glance, quite well done. Each panel has been covered with a glossy coat of resin -- probably EnviroTex Lite -- which gives Peter's otherwise realistic scenes the feeling of dusty Victoriana under glass. When you get closer, though, each landscape falls apart into brushy paint marks, almost looking like the panels fell over into random spills which happened to look kind of landscapey. There's an air of studious carelessness around these.
And it's a carelessness that rapidly wears out its welcome. One or two paintings like this might be neat, but a whole show brings out the worst in each: They're invented landscapes lacking entirely in imagination. They don't evoke loneliness or awe or much of anything beyond that feeling that someone practiced very hard to be as messy as this. In a doctor's waiting room you might find one of Peter's paintings diverting for a few minutes, but as an exhibition you can get all you need by standing in the doorway.
I also saw Hester Simpson's Related Paintings at Ricco/Maresca. At first these were striking: Arrays of color with subtle shifts and gradations, geometric forms, all painted in matte acrylics, layered to give them a suffused glow. After my initial interest, though, I came to realize that the whole show really looked like a sample catalog for 1960s-flavored upholstery. All it needs is James Lileks to write the introduction.
Meanwhile at 511 Gallery Mark Cooper is keeping the spirit of Robert Rauschenberg and Jackson Pollock alive by gluing photos down on canvas and pouring paint on top of them. I tried to think critically about these, I really did. I walked around and peered at them and stood back from them. No matter what I did, though, I simply couldn't get anything out of the darned things. The photos are mostly blurry and indeterminate, slurring off into background noise. The paint on top barely seems to have been poured with any regard to the images below -- it neither enhances nor obscures, it doesn't comment or interpret. It looks, in fact, like two works, one Rauschenberg collage and one Pollock action painting, squished together for obscure or obtuse reasons. Mark has some sculpture littering the room, also, all of which basically looks like the paintings wrapped around plaster molds for no good reason.
Disconsolate, I wandered up to 25th Street to see if, by some chance, Lyons Wier Ortt or McKenzie Fine Art were open. They weren't. I got a pretty good look through the big glass door of Lyons Wier Ortt at the painting duo Asgar - Gabriel's Sweet Safari or How We Desire the Wild and what I thought immediately was that here were big, slick fashion magazine illustrations. Technically they looked so accomplished they were actually too perfect, like the cover of some Fabio romance novel.
In between those two galleries is Jeff Bailey Gallery, which has never once shown anything I wanted to see, but I stopped in just the same, since it was having an opening. True to form, the show -- Mark Shetabi's The Ambassadors -- was about as uninteresting as it gets. Mark's paintings have all the joy and liveliness of architectural renderings and his strict use of a pale palette -- almost but not quite sepia-toned -- doesn't help. Imagine a modern Edward Hopper on a high dose of lithium and you've pretty much got the idea.
I finally went back to my car, but then I saw there was an opening right across the street, and it was one of the ones that struck me as potentially interesting when I was skimming the listings. The show was Macha Suzuki's Makebelief at Kravets/Wehby. Macha is, at least, inventive and childlike, two qualities hopelessly missing from the art scene in Chelsea these days. Macha's sculptures include glitter, colored glass stones, plastic flowers, and little bits and pieces from miniature building kits. On a small plinth sits a white bird on its back; its belly has been slit open and from it a pastel rainbow of thick yarn spills onto the floor. A stump has an inviting opening, peering into which reveals shiny eggs nestled in fake flowers.
I was nearly charmed by the show but felt it went over into the Land of Twee. I applaud Macha for taking the risk, for going out and making sincere, open work; but cuteness can overwhelm substance, and that's what I think happened here.
So it seems sincerity is alive and well in Chelsea, if you mean sincerely bad. Or it's all a joke and it's so subtle I'm not quite getting it. Or I am getting it but I wish I could get rid of it. I can't tell. I also don't much care.