at envoy enterprises
in the Lower East Side area
This event has ended - (2012-09-13 - 2012-10-14)
at The Metropolitan Museum of Art
in the Upper East Side area
This event has ended - (2012-09-18 - 2012-12-31)
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at C24 Gallery
in the Chelsea 24th area
This event has ended - (2012-09-13 - 2012-10-27)
The massive “Regarding Warhol” retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art has unleashed a wave of renewed interest in the artist’s legacy alongside the usual, now hackneyed, criticisms about the worth of his work. One can expect a fall season filled with events featuring his Superstars, art history scholars, and others interested in discerning how and why Warhol’s work was “clairvoyant” and “genius,” in the words of Peter Schjeldahl’s brilliant New Yorker review. New pieces of writing continue to emerge as well, including Catherine Johnson’s Thank You Andy Warhol and a piece called I Shop: Andy Warhol written by the playwright Robert Heide, who was friendly with the artist. In addition to this merited spotlight on Warhol’s impressive body of work, new art that is influenced by or directly references Pop and its great standard-bearer also points to fresh and innovative directions in the future of Pop.
On the Lower East Side, an exhibition of works by Desi Santiago titled “This Pop Is Perfection” inaugurates a new gallery space operated by Envoy Enterprises. On the opening night of the show, Santiago warmly welcomed visitors. I was curious about meeting an artist with a unique history of using his own body and persona as a mode of creative expression. But his days as the Club Kid and BOOB band member Desi Monster have given way to work as an artist and designer known for jarring installations and set pieces. Upon entering the gallery, black cubes called “Workboxes” beckoned the visitor to peer into peepholes revealing arrays of blinking lights and complex mechanical constructs. The smallness of these boxes can be contrasted with the massive neon pentagram that dominates the rest of the space. On opening night, fellow veterans of yesteryear’s Clubland joined Santiago, including Walt Cassidy (formerly Waltpaper), Ernie Garcia (formerly Ernie Glam), and Astro Erle, who emerged from the gallery joking that it was a “Disco 2000 reunion.” Whether or not it was intentional, Erle’s remark about the famous Michael Alig-Peter Gatien party alluded to the pentagram’s hue and the lime light it radiated throughout the space.
The pentagram is indeed impressive and itself worth a visit to the space. The largeness, brightness, and movement of the piece are imposing, highlighted further by the contours of the Envoy space. This massive piece obviously contrasts with the Workboxes’ demand that each viewer stoop in order to squint into tiny holes. Particularly when the gallery is crowded as it was on opening night, in order to move downstairs or outside into the gallery’s patio, the visitor had to carefully maneuver around other guests huddled together holding drinks as well as the immense and illuminated star spinning in the middle of room. In this sense, Santiago has achieved, in a very simple and elegant way, what so many artists and gallerists claim to be interested in doing: to make the exhibition space more immersive, more interactive, more provocative. Santiago’s rejoinder to the challenge is straightforward and very Pop: make something bright, big, and beautiful, combined of course with his own interest in symbols and automation.
The lower level of the exhibition appeared to be darkened for both utilitarian and aesthetic motives. First, the space was unfinished. Second, the darkness augmented the lights of the robotic work called Bomb. An easy reading would address this work in terms of its monstrous and cyborg qualities, the way in which Santiago melds together fleshy appendages and metallic limbs. This may indeed be part of the piece’s appeal, although there is also a totemic quality to its symmetry and layers. Like Victor Frankenstein’s monster, the assemblage is not only meant to insert itself into timeless debates about humanity’s control over the technological tools it creates. It also demands that its bizarre beauty be worshipped, or at least to assert its command over the viewer’s gaze for a certain span of time. Like the Workboxes, this piece also speaks to Santiago’s use of robotics to both animate his works and allow them to disturb and enchant the viewer.
Across town in the Gallery District, I visited C24 on the day after the opening of Skylar Fein’s new show and was able to walk through the exhibition with the artist himself. Despite also having Pop overtones, much of Fein’s work also reflects his revolutionary political commitments. For example, he upholds the work of writers like George Orwell or Samuel Beckett, who did not apologize for their political work. In his C24 show he has constructed gigantic reproductions of telegrams used by Beckett to communicate with the Resistance. Like Orwell, Fein experienced profound disillusionment with soured revolutionary moments, among them the Soviet socialist experiment. I asked Fein if his work’s nod toward political mobilization was a way to recover or recuperate a lost optimism. Fein’s eyes narrowed as he replied, “Recuperate? You speak politics.” He was right in a sense. Unknown to most of my collaborators today, I was once active in leftist politics until, perhaps like Fein, disenchantment with failed radical projects led me to instead turn to the art world and popular culture. But despite Fein’s attempt to sustain some political thread in his current art, he no longer harbors any real hope for revolutionary change. As he told me, “I don’t see myself as optimistic in any way. I’m very negative.”
It is perhaps not surprising, then, that some of his most vivid work is more Pop than political, despite the fact that the impact of Hurricane Katrina on his work and career often frames discussion of Fein’s creative process. In line with the practice of Pop artists like Warhol and Lichtenstein, Fein engages in what Dan Cameron of the Orange County Museum of Art calls an “extended appropriation of already-appropriated forms,” a strategy that fits well into a cultural context where “it sometimes appears that almost everybody appropriates from somewhere on an ongoing basis.” It was therefore not surprising to see silkscreens as well as wooden constructions meant to resemble electronic devices in one wing of his show. I told Fein that one of his works reminded me of the Brillo Box, an observation that he accepted, noting that his work, like Warhol’s, also teased the line between graphic design and fine art.
Fein characterized Warhol’s point of view as “heartbroken,” another similarity that the two share. But I noticed a certain dividing line in Fein’s art, a divergence largely absent in Warhol’s work, which elevated the commonplace into the realm of iconicity and recognized the evocative power of everyday mass culture. I suspect that Fein’s future work, to which I look forward eagerly, will try to resolve this slight tension, one best represented by my two favorite pieces in the Fein show: a pink cotton piece paying tribute to Cyndi Lauper and a stunning metallic work paying tribute to the murdered socialist Rosa Luxemberg. The latter is meant to be a new “a secular icon.” Rather than the divine “eye” of a god, the “I” of the committed revolutionary martyr is enshrined not by heavenly flashes of light but rather rays that resemble daggers or spears. But which of these two iconic women had the greater impact? Who left a bigger mark on the people who could potentially bring about meaningful change? Fein has hope in both perhaps—despite his avowed lack of optimism—but the tribute to Luxemberg’s final stand may also be the quiet last gasp of Fein’s radical fervor. As he told me, “If I’m an artist then this is my ammunition. I’m going to do what little I can to change the world. I’m sure that I’ll fail, probably, but that doesn’t release me from trying.”