As of today, a new body of work by Kim Gordon is living at 303 Gallery in Chelsea, a white box like most others on this slick block of 24th Street that’s all glass, steel, and tourists. Naturally, we’re excited. Kim Gordon Week may be long over, but we’re still obsessed with the musician-designer-artist-author who for some of us (me) is our girlhood hero. But on my visit, I was trying to keep things pure — hoping to avoid any unwanted osmosis from an artist statement or a pre-determined explanation to fulfill, I darted straight back to the art, resisting the temptation to pick at the stack of press releases for Design Office: The City is a Garden.
I found myself in a well-lit, spacious white room filled with large, crumpled, sparkling canvases hanging from the wall. Other starkly painted canvases resembled banners wrinkled up on the ground. And there was a variety of faux hedges, made from silk clover leaves trimmed to form rectangles and cubes. It was strange seeing something that looked clean, almost suburban, from the former Sonic Youth bass player — a woman who (in song) once explained a tango with acceptableness and consumerist identity as an experiment of sorts: “I wanted to know the exact dimension of hell.”
At first, it was hard for me to separate a sense of sparseness, controlled decay, and white-washing from my surroundings. I was, after all, in Chelsea. I’d made the mistake of eating lunch at the High Line, otherwise known as the city’s blandest, fakest park (do any actual residents of New York City hang out there?). After I realized I was sitting uncomfortably close to two groups of people – one discussing “Uptown Mommy blogs,” and another, a pair of girls deck out in Lululemon complaining about a lackluster gym experience– I started to jam the under-seasoned Whole Foods salad bar mish-mash into my mouth with urgency, trying to get this sometimes enjoyable necessity that I’d inadvertently made into a miserable experience out of the way as quickly as possible.
So maybe I was projecting, but at the gallery I could have sworn one of the almost indiscernible, crumpled up canvases now lying on the floor in front of me had the word, “High Line,” dripped on the surface in thick black lines. Another could only have read “Chelsea” and maybe further down, “Enclave.”
The thing about these curious giant spit-ball shaped paintings on the floor is that they’re more sculpture than two-dimensional object, which means their text isn’t immediately legible. I imagined myself un-crinkling the canvases to find declarative banners, impassioned entreaties. But I assumed that kind of behavior is discouraged, so instead I must have looked like a neurotic dog trying to take a piss circling these things in an attempt to read them — stepping in, out, circling clockwise and counterclockwise and looking all around me to make sure I wasn’t going to plow over a child or wayward tourist.
Were these half-thoughts painted on canvas by the artist? Tossed out ideas? They had the look of discarded banners, as if somebody at some point really, really believed in the demands scrawled across them. But the way they were painted also appeared as if it were the work of someone who was very angry and wanting to communicate their disdain, disapproval, or sense of injustice.
The less crumpled canvases hung on the walls, but no words here to help, only thick layers of glitter plopped over swaths of black, white, and (less so) navy blue paint. These looked like pretty, sparkly sedimentary rocks, in a way, but it was also hard to take them seriously, which seemed to be the point.
The central point of focus, naturally, is the only human form in the room, and even then it’s only partial. We’re looking at a monochrome image of a floating hand from the vantage point of the artist, as if we are the artist. Are we in control of something? Are we being given the power to paint over all this whiteness? Who knows.
We can’t be sure, but it looks like Gordon’s hand– feminine, lanky, and (notably) wearing a wedding band– if so, it’s glaringly literal, especially when you realize she’s holding not some sacred chalice, but a bowl filled with black paint. The rest is implied, a shadow of the artist’s arm in the right corner, above freshly painted symbols. Is this a meta communique? A work of art depicting Gordon painting the art work?
Stashed in a corner of the room, there’s something that seems like it was made to be overlooked — a smallish stick painted black and splattered with flashy purple glitter. On the stick hangs what looks like black gauze that on closer inspection is a pair of pantyhose. (Kim Gordon’s pantyhose?! Yes, I managed to creep myself out with my own excitement.)
I had a lot to think about. But my head was swirling around the city, especially its tony parts. I don’t come to Chelsea often, and when I do it’s usually to consume some some art or to set myself up for self-hate by blowing way too much money on a lobster roll. Either way, I’m in and out as quickly as humanly possible.
I couldn’t take it any more. If I wasn’t allowed to read the canvases on the gallery ground, I was damn well going to read something. And thankfully, the artist statement brought it all together for me. My reasoning for giving in: What am I, an alchemist? Nope, but I am a writer short on time. And bingo, Gordon was aiming to create work that’s about the city, and more specifically Chelsea.
Whoever wrote the statement dryly explained, “Gordon’s primary concern is the radical change in the landscape of New York City […] For the past 20 years Chelsea has been a center of urban renovation, including the opening of the High Line in 2009.”
Gordon — and, ahem, she’s hardly alone in this — takes issue with the banality of urban planning that’s turned massive blobs of Manhattan into a wash of sanitized, mall-like sameness. And who better to talk about transformation of the art neighborhood than an artist who’s inextricably associated with the New York City downtown art scene?
“The new lushness of New York would seem to reimagine NYC as a city for the people, as well as a more attractive landscape for new consumers.” The statement continues: the work here “upends this notion of beauty, exploiting its inherent artifice.”
All of this was vindicating, but equally frustrating. As Gordon criticizes the bland landscaping of a city once filled with grit, she’s also doing it from inside the walls of an “establishment” institution (albeit one of Chelsea’s trailblazers) that is so pristine as to be hygienic. Isn’t this part of the problem? (I mean, I’m no saint, I’m the one eating at Whole Foods for lunch.) Oligarchs and consumer robots putzing around these kinds of places look more at home than any artist. These walls reek of cold, hard cash — hell, a single door handle in this place is worth more than my scalp. And when it comes to criticizing sameness and lamenting a lost New York City grime, doing it from inside walls like these is like breathing softly into a massive sail hoping for something to budge. The sail is attached to a model ship made of diamonds, one that’s at a dinner party. Filled with billionaires. In Dubai.
Kim Gordon’s “Design Office: The City is a Garden” opens Thursday, June 4 (6-8 pm) and is on view until Saturday, July 25 at 303 Gallery, 507 West 24th Street in Chelsea.