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New York
Jonah Freeman & Justin Lowe
Ace Hotel
20 W 29TH STREET, New York, New York 10001
January 5, 2015 - January 11, 2015

Vacant Vice: Freeman & Lowe's Ace Hotel Installation
by Charlie Schultz

The basement of the Ace Hotel is filling up with leggy females and men with manicured facial hair. It’s not a big room, but the black lights on the dimpled white walls make it seem expansive. The DJ is spinning something that seems like the sonic equivalent to the end of an acid trip as the fog machines get fired up and the bar opens for business. 

I’ve been to a few immersive installations created by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe. None have ever been as grand and glorious as the first one, Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, which was truly eruptive. Back then you had to sign a waiver before entering. It felt dangerous because it was dangerous. This feels like city-sanctioned graffiti. It might be cool, but it’s losing its edge.

And the props are becoming familiar. Picasso grade turpentine sits on a shelf with made-up books like "Entertainment Rehabilitation" by the Cambridge Ritualist, Arthur B. Cook. There's a hardcore lesbian sex scene, done in airbrush on a t-shirt, displayed on a lady manikin in the closet. Over by the bar a periodical rack that has a bunch of issues of Artichoke Underground magazine, the artists' invented fanzine, and if you pick one up you’ll be firmly asked to put it back down.

This is all part of a PR blitz for Paul Thomas Anderson’s film adaptation of Thomas Pynchon’s beach-read crime-comedy, Inherent Vice. When that book came out I sat in my apartment on Canal Street and read it cover to cover. I went through an eighth of weed and enough Adderall to spin the eyes on a donkey that day. I remember chuckling a lot, because Pynchon cracks some silly jokes, but there is little in this art installation that aspires to Pynchon’s cartoony humor, though there is plenty of sub cultural name bending. 

“There is some really clever lighting,” I say to a woman beside me, “the bookshelf in particular is spectacularly lit.” She nods, sips her drink. I continue, “It reminds me of something James Turrell or Doug Wheeler might try.” She looks into her beverage and fingers one of her large rings. I ask, “Have you read Inherent Vice?” She then says something in French and I realize she doesn’t understand a word coming out of my mouth.

A little over an hour into this event the Psychic Ills turn on their instruments and start building a soundscape with droning guitars. The keyboard player and the drummer create a little pocket of rhythm that the bass player soon slides into and suddenly the whole band is careening forward, propelled by their own energy as the crowd starts to sway and bob like a bunch of underwater plants.

Somehow the warbling guitar takes me back to Canal Street and the book that inspired all this. I start wondering about the all connections: about a big Hollywood corporation like Warner Bros. in cahoots with a hip hotel chain like Ace in cahoots with a major NY art gallery like Marlborough. In Pynchon land the less subversive something seems, the more subversive it probably is. But what’s really at stake here? Is there a point to all this beyond spreading the word about an upcoming film? How is the novelist connected to the director connected to the artists? Have the artists even read the novel? Has the director seen the art? My date tells me to chill, to get another beer, and to enjoy the show. 


Charlie Schultz


(All photographs: Max Serota)

Posted by Charlie Schultz on 1/7 | tags: performance installation sculpture collage Pynchon parties psychic ills Ace Hotel inherent vice

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Smack Mellon's RESPOND and the New Imaginary
by Joel Kuennen

There is no better point in time to enact change than during a cultural rupture. Popular culture—the expressions that bind a collective group—is a smooth stream of images and ideologies that flows at an overwhelming and indomitable rate. This is part of the mandate of contemporary culture: to express with as many images and words as experienced time will allow.

Smack Mellon, a New York venue in DUMBO that supports emerging and underrepresented artists put its exhibition schedule on hold this month to present RESPOND, an exhibition in reaction to the nonindictment of Daniel Pantaleo, the Staten Island police officer who murdered Eric Garner. Opening night saw lines around the block and a packed gallery for the salon-like exhibition. Artists from around the world responded to the open call the gallery put out on the heels of Pantaleo's nonindictment and the exhibition is at once sobering and jubilant. It exhibits, with force, an imaginary that confronts head-on a unidirectional, racist regime of popular images.

Installation view of the main gallery


Pop cultural representations are often just memetic iterations with slight alterations. As such, most culture serves a single purpose: to reinforce the social relationships and ontologies existing in that moment. Culture is often still unidirectional—that is, it moves vertically from the top down—despite the burgeoning flatness—the horizontality—of production online. The reality of Black Twitter goes to show just how necessary a popular culture grounded in the experience of blackness is, along with its ability to be given flight by horizontal networks of communication. Because of this flatness of production, cultural ruptures will be more frequent and more widespread. The unidirectionality of popular culture will be challenged more and more as it becomes more multidirectional and the hegemonic voices of the few become drowned out by the establishment of the many. RESPOND begins to do just that.

Dread Scott, Sign of the Times, 2001


Some of the artworks like Dread Scott’s Sign of the Times, 2001, and Mel Chin's Night Rap, 1993, were not made in response to the recent cultural rupture but address the issues of police brutality and racism more generally. Though their inclusion could be questioned in an exhibition entitled "RESPOND," they do serve to remind us that counter-imaginaries have existed in the past and persist today.

Most works in the exhibition directly addressed the deaths of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, and Trayvon Martin. In the annex of Smack Mellon, a more intimate installation housed some of the most enduring artworks. One of the most powerful was a painted transcription of Eric Garner’s last words by Atikur Abdul.

Atkur Abdul, Garner's Last Words, 2014


To the right, in a small shadow box, an intaglio printed feather bore a face, eyes closed, lips parted in a moment of exhale—ecstatic and moribund. Ann Johnson’s series of feather prints recall a lightness of being that directly resists the heaviness of the oppressed experience. Originally paired with a video of people from her community telling stories from their lives, this single work from her series Suga Blue finds new prescience within this context. 

From Ann Johnson's series, Suga Blues


Continuing in a clockwise fashion around the annex, I came upon Megan Tatem's pretty fuckin' awesome work, MFNLU, which paired Michael Brown's defiant high school graduation photo with a quote from Drake's hit song "Worst Behavior" from his coming of age album Nothing Was the Same. The layering of Michael Brown's graduation picture and Drake's lyrics perfectly insinuates the emotional posturing needed by the oppressed. The Making-It experience that Worst Behavior represents becomes at once allegorical and satirical. Making-It provides the dream of acceptance while the extravagance associated with Making-It exhibits the seeming impossibility of escaping oppressive circumstances.

Megan Tatem, MFNLU, from the series Identity Crisis, 2014; Courtesy of the artist


A photographic work by Elliott Brown (image at top) is hung framed by dirt-dyed and worn white undershirts. A single black cord tugs from the top of the picture at the subject's neck and cock. The bound victim looks up in distress. The figure is fragile—again, moribund—wrought in opposition to the portrayal of the black male in popular culture. 

RESPOND is more than a response. It is at its best a sampling of a new cultural flow, a new imaginary that is able to redirect a hateful regime of images that serves to oppress and invalidate the black body.


Joel Kuennen


Posted by Joel Kuennen on 1/19 | tags: RESPOND political artwork Trayvon Martin hands up don't shoot blacklivesmatter Daniel Pantaleo ican'tbreathe eric garner smack mellon

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Conceptual Intent: The Recent Emergence of Crime Art
by Philippa Snow

I have been thinking, for the last week or so, about art and criminality. Not so much about the inherent criminality of the art world, necessarily—whether this dealer or that dealer might also be involved in the arms trade, or ruminating on the more subjective moral brand of “criminality” present in the sale of an eighteen-million-estimate artwork—but the literal "Push me Pull you" relationship which the two “concepts,” have been enacting in my peripheral vision.

Several recent news items make up a kind of proto-zeitgeist in this regard: first, the Boston Professor arrested for attempted robbery last week, excused as dubious fodder for an art film; then the robot programmed to shop for illegal goods on the deep web, and finally—most intriguing of all—the episode of the U.S. rape-thriller Law and Order: S.V.U. aired on the 14th of January concerning an actor/performance artist accused of doping and dumping a teen girl.

Joseph Gibbons Photo: Steven Hirsch


That this character is a supposed hybrid of Shia LaBeouf and James Franco is in fact perhaps the second most interesting thing about the episode: the first is actually its real world look at an unreal art world (there is a thesis, or at least a Tumblr account, for the way that popular culture believes that “art” looks, but this topic is too coherent—frankly, too sane—for my present pinball state of mind). This aside: a criminal mode of making art “is [about] the romantic idea of the artist getting involved in these kinds of activities as a kind of research,” as the shamed Professor argues in his own defense. “[And] gaining experience.” 

Gaining experience, indeed! The Franco/LaBeouf chimera’s suitcase-stuffed groupie, at first, is written off as a creep show publicity stunt; the Random Darknet Shopper robot, meanwhile, seeks to “directly [connect] the Darknet with the art space” with its purchases of fake Hungarian passports and replica denim. To some degree, the popularity of the romantic ideaof the marriage of art and crime—or of art and the criminally dangerous act—is so typical as to be boring. In handing her body over to the mercy of an audience which she has armed with a gun, Marina Abramovic becomes our William Tell; the anonymous Banksy, our stencilled-in Robin Hood. Caravaggio was a thug, and Pablo Picasso—famously—was an asshole.

Consider the motivational quotes by Werner Herzog circulating wildly on social media, lately (who knew, incidentally, that so many of the vaguely right-on students that you were with at art school liked Werner Herzog so much?): “There is nothing wrong with spending a night in jail if it means getting the shot you need.” Or, for that matter: “Carry bolt cutters everywhere.” Is this real radicality? Maybe it is, given Herzog's age and standing, or given the need for media-training and lapdog-lite goodness in most of the better-indoctrinated of the New Young Faces of Art—sit; stay; attain corporate sponsorship; sell an installation to Jay Z, or a canvas to a hotelier—or maybe the vast majority are still easily amazed by rebellion, packaged or otherwise. 

James Franco, Dicknose in Paris, 2008


We imagine slipping on lawlessness as we would a disguise—a cat-burglar’s balaclava, in which the very slipping on-and-off of badness itself becomes important. One need only look at reactions to the work of the real (or the “real”) James Franco, whose projects like Gay Town and Dicknose In Paris, while not examples of actual illegality, are left-of-center enough in their art-school provocation to make him a safe, freaky foil for the normies. A self-identified straight man, playing at queerness; an A-List beauty playing at ugliness with his shaven head and his cultivated paunch, and his close proximity to Seth Rogen (with apologies to Seth). These transgressions are easily undone, or passed off as irony, or as mildly nutso “experimentation.” They are equivalent, in their own way, to the act of robbing a bank and then calling it “film research,” or of using a robot patsy to surf the black market. What links these stories is not simply “art and criminality,” but a kind of phony criminality which can be excused by art, for better or worse. A canny opt-out for the half-committed, or a safety-net for the shrewd.

As I say: these are simply things about which I’ve been thinking, as I circle the drain of my own subconscious during pitch-meetings, Skype calls, and dinners; as such, I wouldn’t perpetrate the crime myself of describing this text as a real, coherent think-piece. I would invite you, though, to imagine the kind of crimes which you might enact were you able to discount them as pure performance. Can murder be art, if intent is conceptual? Does the victim’s identity make a murder more profound? Is killing permissible if the choice of weapon is truly ironic? If liberating a silver-plated Tiffany cigar tube from the shelf is, according to the liberator, a comment on both the unfair distribution of wealth, and the widespread scale of cancer—on the medical difficulties of the poor who live in countries without healthcare—is the liberation beyond reproach? If James Franco faked his death and sold the story to the National Enquirer, would it be an artwork?  Feel free to swap your brushes for bolt-cutters; make a still-life of a body in suitcase in lieu of a bowl of fruit; steal freely with specific conceptual purpose.

Brian Eno has posited that the key to understanding art is to cease to think of the works themselves as objects at all, and instead to begin to think about them as “triggers for experiences.” We might easily consider a robbery or a kidnapping or an embezzlement, then, as meaningful a "trigger for experience" as a Futurist sculpture.


Philippa Snow


(Image at top: Screenshot of Law & Order S.V.U., "Agent Provocateur," aired January 14, 2015) 



Posted by Philippa Snow on 1/26 | tags: conceptual werner herzog artist criminals bank robbery art crime shia lebeouf james franco

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