While wandering from gallery to gallery yesterday in the Lower East Side, soaking up a pair of museum-like nostalgia exhibitions focusing on at least one part if not all of a few-decades long span from Warhol’s Factory days through the ’90s club kid scene, I started thinking about a conversation I’d had with one JJ Brine, Satanic gallerist extraordinaire. Before JJ took off for Vanuatu (btw according to his Facebook page, he made it just fine), he explained he was departing indefinitely because he was frustrated with what he understood as New York City’s unusual fixation on the past at the expense of devoting energy to the future. I couldn’t have agreed more, but somehow The Last Party and Michael Alig’s appropriately-titled solo exhibition, Inside / Out succeed in drawing a line, however crooked, between the past and the present and making this nostalgia part of current existence. How? Well, I felt as though I could almost see myself in some of the blurry old party photos and even the creepy clown-like painted odes to various poisons of choice.
At first I found the massive time span of The Last Party: the influence of New York’s Club Culture: Mid 70s – Early 90s, an exhibition on view at WhiteBox featuring photography, paintings, video, even installation work, to be a little off-putting. So much happened from the height of Warhol’s Factory days in Union Square to the outset of punk at CBGB to Studio 54 to the AIDS crisis on up to the ecstasy-fueled raves of the ’90s, that it seems difficult if not impossible to glean any real commonalities from it all.
But once this timespan was laid out before me, I understood that parties and “the underground” haven’t changed all that much over the years, even throughout human history for that matter. Partying satisfies some basic human urge that seems to have been ticking around inside us since humans had a frontal lobe. As the diametric opposition to conservative elements within any given society, the underground party scene has always offered a peaceful (not to mention fun) path of resistance and escape from the daily drudgery of meeting certain societal expectations that most of us have to entertain for at least a few hours a week.
Sure, the presence of famous faces (Debbie Harry, Marlon Brando, Iggy Pop, Lou Reed, Patti Smith, Divine, Andy Warhol, Basquiat, Lydia Lunch, a young Joan Rivers, Martin Rev and Alan Vega, any one of the Ramones — basically everyone I grew up wanting to be) as well as recognizable, and some long-gone places (Max’s Kansas City, CBGB, the Mudd Club, the Chelsea Hotel, the Limelight) in many of the photos cemented me in one particular moment or another. But whatever these people were doing or seemingly feeling seems timeless, something we can readily access without having to travel backwards in time. (Though admittedly Bob Gruen’s photo of Patti Smith, Lou Reed, John Cale, and David Byrne playing a set in 1976 at the Ocean Club leaves me burning with FOMO).
While some of the photographs are clearly staged “band photos” that show the subjects at their posiest, but not necessarily their realest, others were imbued with a true sense of intimacy. One black-and-white series by Anton Perich– a Croatian-born photographer who moved to New York City in 1970 from Paris, befriended Warhol, and also put in time working as a busboy at Max’s Kansas City– belongs in the latter group.
Perich was clearly part of the scene, and you can tell from his photographs. Many of them were taken down in the pit, amongst the rabble-rousers, and at the witching hour, when the drugs had worn off or were just about to, makeup was smeared or nearly gone, and dresses hung half off bony shoulders revealing chests and distracting from hazy eyes and crooked smiles. The photos are far from technically perfect: they’re smudged, blurry, underexposed, and haphazardly composed. But it’s hard to imagine that this delicate balance of happy accidents could ever be achieved if someone were trying.
One photo in particular stands out from other similarly situated performance photos on display. It appears that Iggy Pop is on stage, either in the middle of a set or having just finished one, but it feels like the photographer is level with him. Iggy’s mouth is contorted into a painful-looking pucker, he’s covered in sweat and bleeding from a gash on his bare torso. His eyes are closed either because he’s caught up in a moment of complete concentration, ecstasy, or not improbably, he’s just faded as hell.
Perich caught Iggy in a truly– forgive the pun– raw and powerful moment. Not only that, but Perich also shattered whatever fourth wall might have existed, because he’s not just a photographer at the show, he’s an audience member too, a regular party-goer. As such, he can more easily sort out the banal moments in favor of capturing the transcendent ones.
But what’s most striking about Perich’s photos and others that share the same sense of familiarity with the scene is that, save for some recognizable faces, these could have been taken at a number of places or depicting scenes that exist today– in the midst of a foggy dance floor at Bossa Nova, jammed into a crowded punk show at Aviv, front row at a Bathsalts drag show at Don Pedro (RIP).
Another thing that The Last Party succeeds in is holding its secrets close. There are no lengthy explanations (save for one 8 and a half by 11 piece of paper pinned to the wall with a brief intro that illuminates the perspective of a handful of the participating artists) and there are few captions close at hand.
You kind of just have to get it to know what’s happening in these photos, much like I imagine the underground party scene must have been like way back when and is still like to this very day. No one was (or is) going to explain it to you, it’s either readily apparent or it ain’t. This show isn’t here to tell you what was going on in Brando’s life at this time, why he’s dressed like a strange deep space captain with a thousand yard stare in one photo, or why and how Divine’s legs are wrapped around one of the Dead Boys, or who’s holding who by a dog collar at CBGB. You just gotta know.
There are some photos that seem to have captured weird moments in rock history as they played out in real life (you know, that whole life imitating art thing), not in some VH1 rockucumentary. These little hidden bits will make any dedicated fanyboy or fangirl gasp with the thrill of recognition or feel as if they’re in on a joke.
One of these, taken in 1985, depicts two beautiful women standing side by side, heavily done-up, one bra and two pairs of underwear between them, and lush fur trees behind them as a background. The caption reads “Bryan Ferry Party” and, strangely enough, the image mirrors the cover of Country Life, an album cut by Ferry’s band Roxy Music more than a decade before.
But even if you can’t place every person in every photo or weren’t aware that so-and-so even knew what’s-her-face existed, let alone was willing to be photographed under the sheets with them, there’s a discernible spectrum of feelings that almost every photo shares and that is revelry, chaos, and a total rejection of inhibitions.
Some of the non-photographic work, paintings in particular at The Last Party seem like afterthoughts. Sure, the paintings feel more like artifacts pulled straight out of that time period than photographs do for some reason, which feel less like physical products of the era than ghostly visages of it. But party flyers fill this gap. As physical pieces of paper that essentially functioned as Facebook event pages do now (I know, ugh), these were actual objects that ’90s party people held in their hands. But like photographs, they’re also frozen visions of a particular moment. I mean, how much more ’90s can you get than: “DJ Chris Harshman / Florida’s #1 Resident DJ / progressive trance grooves / at Limelight.”
Some of these same flyers can be seen at the satellite location for Michael Alig’s show, Inside / Out, the bulk of which is on view at Castle Fitzjohns on Orchard Street. A few more works, some souvenirs (T-shirts, magnets, etc.), as well as some memorabilia can be found around the corner at the LESpace, a miniature pop-up gallery inside a former Colombian restaurant, Los Perros Locos.
Of course you can’t talk about parties in the ’90s in New York City without mentioning Michael Alig, the party- promoter-turned-Party Monster-turned-convicted-murderer who we spoke to first upon his release last year and once again at the outset of this exhibition.
In addition to his own work at LESpace, there’s a small table of memorabilia that’s easy to overlook. I certainly almost missed it. The flyers and posters are indisputably fascinating, but I found myself wanting more. Is this all that’s left from those crazy days? Well, I guess you can’t take physical manifestations of the drugs and the parties and the wild weirdness with you.
But whereas the paintings at The Last Party seemed like an afterthought, Alig’s own are literally afterthoughts (well, at least I assume Alig wasn’t falling into any K-holes while he was incarcerated). He painted these while he was in prison, post-Party Monster. Though they were created after the lights had been turned on, so to speak, they’re still very much hella weird meditations on party culture and drugs in particular.
So was JJ right about New Yorkers being stuck in the past, always harping on an era they imagine to be freer, more culturally significant, and crazier than the present? Of course. But shows like these remind us that it’s not as if all this vibrancy and fun and creativity and experimentalism went away, it’s just that newcomers have inevitably inherited the title of party people. But I think it’s safe to say “the scene” is still alive even if it’s moved just a little bit farther east of Downtown.