Thursday, April 22, 2010

Originality in the Identity-Crisis Laden Art World: An afternoon in Chelsea

by Victoria Greising
As an artist wandering the streets of the Chelsea, a hopeful yet resentful feeling seems to consume my opinions. It is inspiring to know, that to a certain extent, anything goes. The resentment comes when I realize that I did not think of the idea first. It is a tough spot to be in, especially when trying to keep an open and absorbent mind.
Maintaining a sense of originality in this never ending sea of the identity-crisis laden art world, also, sets up a particular challenge for working artists. The use of new materials becomes a cover up for original; creating works on the wall and off the wall transcends the stereotype of painter/sculptor; presenting a mishmash body of work that has no connection besides the lack of connection have all become the parlor tricks in the repertoire of contemporary exhibiting artists. (Disclaimer: I, too, use the parlor tricks.) But, since many of our colleagues have caught on to this slight of hand, the magic fa├žade of authenticity loses its charm. Somehow though, this challenge of originality encourages us to push the limits of our imagination and embrace the openness of what is possible. Glimpses of what is possible, some good and some bad, are currently installed in Chelsea.
My favorite part of meandering the blocks of the 20th-24th street is the guarantee of stumbling across the expected and unexpected. I enjoy strolling the zig-zagging path through the old meat packing district hoping to get photographed by Scott Schuman, noting the trendy art-folk, and aspiring to one day become the very well put together older couple. My most recent trip was destined for this familiar itinerary of art and people watching. But, since I made this mid March visit specifically to see the Banks Violette show, I headed straight for Gladstone Gallery on 21st.
Situated behind an unassuming exterior, this gallery demands a certain amount of respect. The intentionally disengaged trendy art kid at the front desk was there to “greet” us with a lack of eye contact. I did note, however, that he quickly transformed into an eagerly attentive host when asked a question. The stark quiet interior was clean, crisp and inviting. And the A/C was refreshing for the unusually hot spring afternoon. Because of these sensory pleasantries, I immediately developed a certain set of expectations. A glimmer of hope manifested in my imagination and it was fixed on the idea that this was going to be something impressive. I, luckily, was not let down. Ranked against the other 14 shows I saw later in the day, a handful of which begged the question, “Why was this chosen to hang in a gallery in Chelsea?” Banks Violette came through with a dominating self-justifying installation.
Constructed with hard edges and industrial materials these large-scale pieces are figurative and narrative. The large room is smartly filled with four pieces. First greeted by a chandelier of fluorescent lights tailed with a chaotically arranged mass of wire, the immediate visual experience evokes a strange blend of 1980s rock-band meets hospital meets dining room table. The lighting casts a certain aura that is reflected off of the slick exterior of the other three pieces. The natural lighting from the lofted ceiling offsets the fluorescent glow and heightens its manufactured quality.
The next piece that immediately draws your attention is the largest in the room. A shiny rectangular black mass collapsing in on itself is supported by metal scaffolding that emulates the structure of the ceiling and a stage set. The piece is free standing and visually dominates the space and viewer. The two other pieces, constructed of the same black board engage different characteristics. The smallest of the show hugs the seam of the floor and wall reflecting not only the light from the chandelier but the image of the viewer. The last of the four pieces is an elevated version of the same material. Supported by the same metal scaffolding this piece towers above human height and evokes a certain drive-in theater screen that has recently succumbed to depression.
The expressive quality achieved in these industrial size works steals the show. I approached each piece with an unanticipated amount of compassion and respect, which was not commanded by the size, but by the figurative aspect. Each piece depicts a specific chapter of the narrative. The shape of the chandelier signifies it as a character in this universal plotline. The folds in the larger black pieces mimic the form of an abstract figure emerging through a thick manufactured black veil. The repeated experience and discovery of these abstracted forms lends to the collective narrative being portrayed. While the storyline is not explicit, it seems to captivate all in the room. I think was part of the plan.
The quiet maintained in this large space is reminiscent to a state of mourning or that of a theater house right before the play is about to start. The ominous nature of the pieces finds a theatrical balance between solemn and disturbing. These pieces are much more than a display of macho guy meets machine and produces sculpture. They transcend their connection to the history of large minimalist sculptures and can be evaluated as a theatrical collective narrative waiting to engage the audience. As they do take on the theatrical, the viewer becomes an audience and the installation becomes a set (sand bags, scaffolding, and raw quality of the back of the black board, which maintains the labels of D4, G4, etc and the purely functional aspect of the duct-tape). Violette creates the stage and the viewer writes the story.
This variability could lead to a potential downfall in the work. There is a change in storyline from viewer to viewer and the artist’s hand is taken out of the final product. And yet, while the viewer is asked to engage so strongly with the work we are also naturally separated from the piece. The theatrical audience is always just that, something separate, on-lookers and observers, not active participants. Violette not only demands that his work surpass it’s associated history, but he expects the same thing of his viewer. Not only are we an audience but we have to be an active one. Thinking, reacting, and reflecting (quite literally in the sheen of the black) on the part of the viewer is an essential component the finish of the piece. It is a gamble, but one Violette seems more than willing to take. And for that, Violette gets props for outshining his counterparts in the white cubes along the Hudson.
After Gladstone Gallery, the spring visit to Chelsea fell into the typical stroll. We stopped into Jack Shainman to see Ross Rudel, stumbled accross HoneySpace for the unexpected psychedelic slightly confusing installation by Daphane Park, and hit a variety of the typical stops. While, I unfortunately will not be featured on The Sartorialist blog (there were no Scott Schuman sightings) the afternoon certainly did not disappoint. “Post-modernism”, “post- post modernism”, or maybe it should be called “anything goes-ism” is definitely alive and thriving in Chelsea. A range of painting, photo, and sculpture (on and off the wall) is fully represented and, for me, more than a few shows actually stirred up new ponderings and inspiration. For the most part I left feeling visually satisfied, yet exhausted, and ready to dig into my spaghetti bolognaise around the corner.

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