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ROASTING CHESTNUTS IN CHELSEA

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East Village USA
Curated by Dan Cameron
New Museum of Contemporary Art
556 West 22nd Street
Through March 19

Suddenly it's the 1980s all over again in this lively and insightful exhibition. The intent of "East Village USA" is to recover a time of hope and dreams when a generation of art stars, some now stellar, others twinkled to obscurity and extinction, were oh so young and feisty.

There is a lesson embedded here for those who care to look. That art runs through cycles. Some more brilliantly than others. But there is the perpetual motion of the new. The forever young willing and eager to storm the slums, dig in, act outrageously, be just fabulous, and club till they drop. A handful survive and thrive. Move on to major careers and big time galleries. Others perish. Whom the gods love dies young. The less fortunate grow older and less fabulous. Hang in and on. Or relocate to teaching positions somewhere in the Heartland. Never to be seen or heard from again. Their karma: To educate the next crop of graduate students.

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. At least at Macy's. There are a million stories in the naked city and here are some of them.

But this is not the East Village I remember from the late 1960s when, for several years, I lived in a store front on East 11th street between Avenues B&C. I recall the Sunday morning when they took the body bags with Linda Hutchinson and Groovy out of a building. She was from the burbs and hooked up with Groovy.They got brutally murdered. It was a big story during the Summer of Love. Or the Balloon Farm at Saint Marks Place, where I saw the G perform the whip dance with the Velvet Underground. There I heard Scott McKenzie perform "If you're going to San Francisco be sure to wear some flowers in your hair." In Tompkins Square Park there was a free outdoor rock concert featuring a band from San Francisco called Clear Light. They had two drummers and released a white dove at the end of the set. Like wow man. Never heard of them again. I got free, white flannel pants from the Diggers store and Bambu rolling papers at the local bodega before they opened the first Head Shop. The commune Group Image made the cover of Time Magazine and the Fugs were the local band. I organized the first Psychedelic art exhibition, the Visionaries, at the East Hampton Gallery. Hung out with Moondog. Then split for New Orleans and Mardi Gras with my girlfriend Arden. Later, settled in Boston and wrote for Avatar. After that it gets hazy. Went to Woodstock and stuff.

So this show at the New Museum represents a chapter of the East Village that I never knew. Directly. But seems to have a lot of the same zany spirit. Much more gay and clubby though. The East Village I knew was tough and grubby. Jazz at Slugs. East Village Other. More druggy. Banging the bong around. Not as artsy fartsy. Macrobiotic. Lots of mushy brown rice.

Missed Fun Gallery, Gracy Mansion, Pat Hearn and other pioneering wheeler dealers. Did see the Times Square Show. Never hung out with Jean Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring (met and photographed him in his Soho store) or Kenny Scharf. That would have been interesting but by then was hunkered down in one of those kushy teaching positions deconstructing the next crop of grad students. So know Jeff Koons, Peter Halley, Philip Taffe, Martin Wong, Pink Lady, Mike Bildo, David Wojnarowicz, Sue Coe. Rodney Alan Greenblatt, George Condo, Mc Dermott & Mc Gaugh, Ashley Bickerton, Meyer Vaisman, Richard Prince, Cindy Sherman, Peter Nagy and the others only through exhibitions such as this. For which I am truly grateful. It saves me a lot of nights of frantic clubbing and Sunday mornings coming down. I guess the curator Dan Cameron did all that. And has lived to tell the tale. Bless him. This is a show, trip, whatever, not to be missed. It's the zeitgeist baby. Déjà vu all over again. In another twenty years we'll be ready to look back at the Williamsburg scene. The kids are all right.

Susan Rothenberg: Drawings 1974-2004
Sperone Westwater
415 West 13th Street
Through December 18

One of the tropes of modern/ contemporary/ postmodern art is the disappearance of the figure (abstraction, non object, conceptualism) and its reappearance. Another way of looking at this entails the truism that the figure and representation art in general never really do go away. That they are always present. What is implied in this debate is that for high art, the avant-garde, representation/ abstraction is a rabbit from the hat, magic trick. Some form of critical legerdemain. That figuration runs through cycles from cool to uncool and then cool again.

The theme of "The Return to the Figure" was a topic I explored in great depth while producing a catalogue essay for a traveling exhibition of works by Lester Johnson some time back. He was one of the few figurative, neo expressionist painters who enjoyed status in the Artist's Club which debated the issues of the abstract expressionists when the figure was deemed anathema by Clement Greenberg et al. Even deKooning was battered for deserting the purity of abstraction to paint the Women. Lester and his peers, Bob Thompson, Emilio Cruz (who died recently) Jan Muller, Red Grooms, early Claes Oldenburg, Jay Milder, George Segal, Peter Dean, Earl Pilgrim, Tony Thompson and others who showed in the Sun Gallery in Provincetown, were poised to be a part of the Return to the Figure. As well as, the California artists David Park, Joan Brown, Richard Diebenkorn, and the Chicago painter, Leon Golub. But Peter Selz got it all wrong in a misguided MoMA exhibition, New Images of Man, which actually did more harm than good. That mixed effort got trampled when the new figuration got embraced instead as Pop Art. Most of the aforementioned artists, including Johnson, never made it into the canon. Their names and images are not included in the standard textbooks and they are never mentioned in the survey courses which draw on those sources.

With that background I never knew just what to make of the New Image painters like Susan Rothenberg who always struck me as weak beer next to the stronger brew of the masters of figuration particularly the big three: Johnson, Muller and Thompson.

This remarkable and deep exhibition at Sperone Westwater does little to confirm or reconfigure that ambivalence to the work of Susan Rothenberg. The many versions of horses and figures do not persuade me of their excellence. The drawing is too scratchy and tentative to support an inflated reputation. What is there that I do not see? And why, by comparison, is there so little critical attention devoted to correcting the general neglect of much better figurative/expressionist artists? Did Rothenberg just benefit from the luck of better timing? Did she emerge during a moment when the mainstream critics and curators were either ignorant of, or indifferent to, a more worthy and interesting prior artists? Just what will it take to have another in depth look at the lost generation of figurative expressionists?

Delia Brown: Paintings
D'Amelio Terras
525 West 22nd Street
Through December 23

The current exhibition by Delia Brown seems light years away from her New York debut, in 2000 "What Are Your Jealous" that featured a provocative series of illustrative water colors of fashionistas lounging by a pool in Calfornia engaging in vida loca. It was a world of bling bling, bikinis, champagne and cigarettes. That debut was sensational and provoked both critical praise and rage. There were debates about the decadent subject matter as well as the quality of technique.

While the point of view of the work was arrogantly and defiantly young at heart it was surprising to learn that the emerging artist was already in her mid thirties. Much has happened since then including her relocation to Brooklyn.

Compared to that stunning debut, a knockout punch with a single compelling theme, this exhibition reveals midlife crisis. The mood is more sober and diverse ranging from meticulous still life paintings, to glimpses of that fast track glam scene, much more restrained than before, as well as long and sober looks in the mirror at her aging persona, both clothed and topless.

It is the self portraits that I find most compelling. They are the best observed and executed. The issue seems that the artist is struggling to master the medium of oil paint. The process is more demanding and labored than the quick and facile medium of water color.

The large, ambitious narrative pieces seem flat and matte where they should be rich and lush. They rely too much on the subject matter to pull them off. In "Party" she has invented a setting for the three curators of the recent Whitney Biennial. She was not included in that exhibition so is this work a ploy for attention or revenge? Perhaps a bit of both. Another work "Harem" seems inspired by a scene from a fictive moment in "Sex and the City" in which a bit of nude male butt is displayed to three women on the couch of a loft. In another smaller work "Artist and Model" the tough looking artist in paint spatter jeans is posed next to a chic, younger woman. The femme rests her hand, attentively/ suggestively on the artist's leg. Am I reading this wrong? Is the artist straight? I had thought so. This picture makes me wonder about that? Or is she just being provocative as has been her habit in the past?

In another large work three standing women romp and vogue, with beer bottles in their hands, in variations of scanties. One woman, turned sideways, in black bra and jeans, looks at us enticingly. She has been excerpted as the poster for the show.

It is the self portraits, sober and well observed that evoke confidence in the continued development of this artist. It underscores the need for more hard work. She is, after all, pushing 40 and should be phasing out of the vida loca. No, I'm not jealous. Not anymore.

Mark Tansey
Gagosian Gallery
555 West 24th Street
Through December 18

The philosophy inspired paintings of Mark Tansey find their source in the ancient classical notion of Homo Ludens. Man the playful. The impulse and source for the arts. Just to be amused.

But Tansey's jokes require a steep learning curve. Just don't admit it or you will come off as a rube. Of course, naturally, we are all deeply read in the authors that Tansey makes the subject of his elaborate trompe l'oeil humor. We are reminded that the master, Marcel Duchamp, filled his works with puns like L.H.O.O.Q.

As paintings the works are richer and more complex than before. The major change is that he has upgraded from grisaille to monochrome, flat, thin paint in layers of ultramarine. Call it his blue period. But with the same learned mumbo jumbo. Fun for the informed but not for the less well read. You either get it, heh heh, or not.

For those uninitiated in the lexicon of post modernism there is the visual delight of large, complex paintings and exotic special effects. There are views of vast mountain ranges and sublime moments in nature. The artist has also embedded images using the technique of anamorphosis. The most famous example of this is the scull in "The Ambassadors" by Holbein which comes into proper perspective when viewed at an oblique angle. It was a game than developed during Mannerism.

Are these works by Tansey, with their updates of such giggle and gaggle, neo Mannerism? Is there the same delight in gamesmanship intended for a decadent elite of cognoscenti?

Louise Bourgeois
Cheim & Read
547 West 25th Street
Through December 31

A large grid of small framed drawings of circles? So what. Or another series of slight variations of cross hatchings? Ditto. Her drawings, for me, have always been more bore than Bourgeois. There, I said it.

The sculpture, here, as in the past, is quite another matter. They are as powerful and poignant as ever. Particularly, a maquette in several pieces that displays the gruesome phases of pregnancy and birth. This set before a curved metal background. Perhaps it is her intention to execute this riveting theme in a larger series of works.

Katharina Fritsch
Matthew Marks Gallery
522 West 22 Street
Through December 24

The German artist, Katharina Fritsch, is presenting a fixation with the glamour of Paris. The centerpiece is a life sized sculpture "Woman with Dog" featuring a fashionably dressed mannequin fabricated entirely with pink sea shells. She dominates the center of the vast gallery space. On the surrounding walls are twelve, large, monochrome, silkscreen on plastic prints in a variety of pastel colors. The images are appropriated from tourist postcards and convey a kind of fantasy. Call this Fritsch kitsch. Yet another example of the artist's over scaled, attention demanding, blind ambition. When is she going to get serious?

Timothy Greenfield-Sanders
Mary Boone Gallery
541 West 21st Street
Through December 18

This time Timothy Greenfield-Sanders is using his large format camera to document a series of porn stars as pendants: Clothed and not. Overall they are a rather sad lot of lost souls. These are folks who fornicate for a living. Hey, you have to pay the rent. What's wrong with that? Who am I to judge? But what does that make the photographer? Just a different kind of whore? Someone who whores the whores? And what of the buyers, excuse me, collectors? Who pay $35,000 to hang these flesh peddlers on their walls? At home? With the wife and kids? Or, at the office? Better not, to avoid harassment. You can get sued for that.

The women, they of the huge breast implants, look, well, used. The men, studs if you will, are, indeed spectacularly endowed. But hard to tell the full measure of their talent as they are depicted flagellant. Is that the right word? What I am trying to say is, well, soft. But, jeeze, huge.

Porn stars. Isn't that an oxymoron? Or is it just morons? Just how does one become a star by boning? I thought fame was about getting to bone stars. Not to be a star boner. Or is it woody? Hey folks, get a life.

Gilbert & George: Perversive Pictures
Sonnabend Gallery
536 West 22nd Street
Lehmann Maupin Gallery
540 West 26th street
Through December 18th

When making the rounds of galleries it is important to maintain a brisk pace in order to view a critical mass of exhibitions. This tends to put limits on the time expended in any one place. We linger over engaging and inspiring shows and dart in and out of lots of others. It takes a matter of just seconds to dismiss an uninteresting exhibition.

This time round, I lasted about three or four minutes in this tandem exhibition of the British superstars, Gilbert and George. I darted around a couple of galleries at Sonnabend before deciding to unplug. What is it about this work, its sense of samosamo, that just exhausted my patience? There was nothing about this work that held my attention having expended it on them long ago. For example, some years back, at the peak of their fame and fortune, when they commanded a sprawling survey at the Guggenheim Museum. I had left that experience feeling unmoved. Now I felt annoyed and impatient. Just nothing about their work, in which they appear as their subject and models, in a variety of individually framed elements comprising large photo murals, commands my attention. This is work to be ignored with impunity. Which is why I didn't bother to view part two of this show at Lehmann Maupin. Nada.

David Levinthal: Hell's Belles
Spike Gallery
547 West 20th Street
Through January 8

Hey, what can I say, the sex was just better in this exhibition of large format photographs of small, vintage, erotic figurines by the magical mystery man, David Levinthal. Initially, I assumed this to be new work by the artist who had worked with similar materials and formats in the popular Baseball and War series (my terms). But I was surprised to learn that this series "Hell's Belles" which entails a series of provocatively attired and posed fantasy women predates that other better known work. I enjoyed every aspect of this work.

Claude Wampler: Pomerania
Posmasters Gallery
459 West 19th Street
Through January 4

It was sad to learn that this hilarious exhibition commemorates a ten year long collaboration between and artist and her clever little pomeranian. But don't start thinking of William Wegman and his Weimaraners. No, this is a rather smarmy little runt. A lap dog in every sense. And the artist, Claude Wampler, is a naughty girl as well. But they seem to be having such wicked good fun. The main gallery is hung salon style with groupings of photographs of their collaborations and performances. The pooch is shown with panties draped over its horny little head. Oh my. Hope it got its bone. In the back room is a side splitting video taken from the vantage point of the seated artist, gazing down on the dog clinging to a leg and madly humping. Haven't we all "enjoyed" that experience with Rover? Down boy. Unless that's your thing.


Links:
New Museum of Contemporary Art
Sperone Westwater
D'Amelio Terras
Gagosian Gallery
Cheim & Read
Matthew Marks Gallery
Mary Boone Gallery
Sonnabend Gallery
Spike Gallery
Posmasters Gallery

All images are courtesy of the respective venues.

Charles Giuliano is a Boston based artist, curator and critic. He is a contributor to Nyartsmagazine, and the director of exhibitions for The New England School of Art & Design at Suffolk University. He periodically sends his column "Maverick Arts" via email, and Big Red & Shiny is proud to reprint it here.

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