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This is the story of two hours spent at the Chelsea galleries this past Thursday night. Our adventure reveals many of the pluses & minuses of the art scene there – and how to navigate it.
Our short foray showed how when you set sail on art opening evenings keep an open mind – and shift priorities constantly: disappointment and disaster can lead to discoveries and sweet desserts.
We first went to an opening on 19th which ArtCards.cc recommended – but which had been moved ahead a month. Strike one?
No, because we met Brendon Macinnis, publisher of the M art media empire that has in the space of but a few years become The publisher of art maps for all of NYC’s art districts, M Magazine, and the M website, intheArtworld.com.
In shitkicker boots, glove leather pants, leather vest, western shirt he and his red hair were a happy surprise. He’s proud of M’s site – and installed it on my iPhone simply by going to the M site. M is The (paper) Guide when you hit the NYC gallery scene. Each neighborhood has its own – and the M map is impeccable.
ArtCards.cc gave us a great list of openings for the evening, allowed us to pick the ones we wanted to cover, printed out a list tailored to our choices + a map showing locations. (The usefulness of the ArtCards.cc app is the focus of a future post – and reference page.)
Once we got to 24th Street on Chelsea we realized there’s been a mini-paradigm shift in what we now call the Ground Floor Chelsea Galleries – the GFCGs. From 6-8pm Thursday night they host the art locusts – beautiful people who’ve discovered a new distraction and a new place to network. They’re looking at each other; no one’s lookin’ at the art.
A mini-mini-paradigm shift? Ground floor galleries are no longer serving wine – nothin’. The GFCGs have done gone dry. For drivers who tend to toss back a few too many in a city where a DWI results in confiscation of your car that can be a good thing. You could tell who the gallery owners were though: they had the filled crystal wine glasses.
Despair not: there are two fallbacks. First galleries are open who aren’t doing an opening. Go to these. The GFCGs are now into shock art, art that grabs attention and gives nothing back. The non-opening galleries have Real Art.
Two galleries on 24th filled that bill.
Jack Shainman’s gallery, 513 W 24th, shows Maroons, new works by Radcliffe Bailey. This is a tell it by the pix show about escaped slaves. And their archeological remains: shapes, objects, images. The result is thunderous. Look up Bailey. He had a solo exhibition of his work that started in the High Museum in Atlanta but travelled to the Davis Museum in Wellesley and the McNay art museum in San Antonio. Just the titles betray what he’s sayin’: Du Bois in Our Time, Neo-HooDoo. He’s in the Met, Smithsonian, Corcoran, MFA-Houston, and Nelson-Atkins, Kansas City. Congrats Shainman; this is your sixth show of Racliffe’s stuff.
We also thank the c24gallery at 514 West 24th, the second gallery with NO opening whose work thundered across 24th street. These folks who are now bringing you Skylar Fein’s story of Abe Lincoln as a gay man, documented in his two story construction: “The Lincoln Bedroom.” It features the bed Abe shared with his partner Joshua Speed for years.
Sky told the Speed family that he wouldn’t proceed with this project unless they approved it. They not only endorsed it, they provided tons of artifacts from the period for Skylar to create the Lincoln/Speed bed chamber.
The Wikipedia article, Sexuality of Abraham Lincoln cites: “In his 1926 biography of Lincoln, Carl Sandburg alluded to the early relationship of Lincoln and his friend Joshua Fry Speed as having “a streak of lavender, and spots soft as May violets”. “Streak of lavender” was slang in the period for an effeminate man, and later connoted homosexuality.[7] Sandburg did not elaborate on this comment.[8]
Sandburg’s materials describing Lincoln as having had close homosexual relationships were removed from subsequent editions of his book.
Lincoln wrote a poem that described a marriage-like relation between two men, which included the lines:
For Reuben and Charles have married two girls,
But Billy has married a boy.
The girls he had tried on every side,
But none he could get to agree;
All was in vain, he went home again,
And since that he’s married to Natty.
Lincoln’s homosexuality was documented in the 2005 book, An Intimate Life of Abraham Lincoln, by C.A.Tripp. Unfortunately Tripp died the week that book was published. (Gio and I were good friends of him and his Thai lover.) His homophobic coauthor squelched the launch campaign – and bent over backwards (as so many homophobes do) to deny the book’s thesis. But we heard Tripp pile documentary brick after brick from the 1300 books on Lincoln he had digitally converted so he could search the historical record for evidence of Lincoln’s liaisons. Since people at the time noted everything Lincoln did – and didn’t shy away from noting that he slept regularly in the White House when Mary Todd was away with the head of his security force. Let’s just say he was successful in his careful documentation.
Skylar also raises questions Tripp wouldn’t dare. When Sherman needed 10,000 rifles for the Union Army, and couldn’t get them through normal channels, why did he call Josh Speed? who was able to get them pronto? The Speed family lived in Kentucky. Why didn’t Kentucky join the confederacy? how important were the Speeds in keeping Kentucky a border state? Did Speed’s gay relationship with Lincoln save the Union?
Forsaking the crowded – and sober – GFCG crowds followed our second openings guideline: we headed higher up. In this case we went to the second floor, to the First Street Gallery. Now in its 40th year this artist coop outshone all the GFCGs combined – in terms of creativity, amiability, and finally some treats and wine. Here we found artists’ families in abundance. Kids crawling along the floor. People taking pix in front of their pix. This is what happens when you throw 20 artists in a bag and you shake it up.
Coops are the future in the art world. And always have been a mainstay. They’re the only way to escape the Art Production Machine that mainstream galleries have become, making their artists produce the same $10,000 paintings that sell, sell, sell – – and nothing else.
The Mad Ave galleries market the biggies. The Chelsea and Soho galleries are New York’s art machine. And the lower east side, Williamsburg, and now Harlem are the incubators.
But what happens when costs rise so high for artists that they’re forced further and further out? the same thing that’s happening to the young professionals in New York: they’ll buddy up in apartments, search out cheap studio space where they can work as a co-op.
And if they’re smart they’ll get day jobs as guards at the Met museum. More on that in a future post.
But good things run in threes. And for that we hied our asses to the third floor to the Rush Arts Gallery where the shenanigans of the Rush Philanthropic Art Foundation, the Bed-Stuy Restoration, and LIU Brooklyn have conspired to bring us  the most exhilarating art in a long time. (There’ll be another opening at the Skylight Gallerey in BeStuy at 1368 Fulton 3rd Floor today, Sat, Jan 18, 4-6pm – and an opening at the Salena Gallery at LIU, 1 U Plaza on Fri 1-24-14 from 6-8pm. GO!)
The sea of blacks at this opening testified to the fact that it is off the wall, it is out of the park, it is not in  the sea of normality and expectation. It highlighted the downright embarrassing fact that NYC’s art world is Lilly White. (Oh, and male: but that’s another post.) Boy does this show correct that beautifully. This is raw art. And the joy of the artists and their families was palpable.
The golden moment of our evening came when on our way out we came across one young artist showing his artist’s notebook to two friends who then trotted out theirs.
One of our artist friends says he always asks to see an artist’s notebooks for that’s where the rubber hits the pavement: that’s what the artist draws when he simply has the time to do so. This is his art.
Our jaws dropped when we discovered in conversation with these guys that they were all in art school – and this was the first art opening  they’d been to. As we fluttered page after page of pictures suitable for framing, one upon another, never ending, I realized this is where art is. This is what art is all about.
Art is creating. Period. What is framed and sold is after-the-fact – skins shed by the snakes who have long since moved on, maneuvering through life with deftness, courage and bravado.