As the bejeweled gather at Manhattan’s Hudson Piers for the Armory Show this week, the avant-garde regroups, reinvents and relocates. Today, its heart is in Bushwick. As an alternative to the Armory’s high society, the Con Artist Collective – a group of mainly Bushwick-based artists – has fiercely claimed all of 300 square feet in a tenement on the Lower East Side.
Curated by Uta Brauser, owner of the Bushwick Gallery Fish With Braids, “New York Shitty” celebrates everything about the city that isn’t Big Art, Big Money, Big Fashion and Big Glamor – embracing the gritty, the raw, the democratic, the unwanted, the despised and the prosecuted. Though it invites viewers to “come downtown and join us for some affordable art after you see what you can’t afford at the art fairs,” the show is as much an occupation and a performance as it is an exhibition of goods.
Brauser, who paints murals, is slightly older than most of the 20-somethings on display. She floats about in an elaborate pink scaly headdress and a painted unibrow that makes her look like a cross between Frida Kahlo and something from Star Trek. She shows me the photographic storyboards that document some of the urban encounters that inspired the show, the visual conversations about public space and territory, unfolding on the same walls over time.
When another street artist covered her characteristic Frida Kahlo mural with the solid block letters of his tag, she wasn’t going to do the same to him, she told me. “Instead, I decided I was going to interact with him.” Brauser’s next move was to paint an octopus behind the letters of the tag, its tentacles weaving in and out between the letters. “I tagged him on Instagram and started a whole conversation about how street artists converse with each other over time.”
James McGann, of papier-mache penis fame, also featured. With powdered face, black beauty mark and pointy, gold glittered shoes, he looked like a courtier of Marie Antoinette. His new project, LUX, is all about the slow corruption of the art world by fashion, poking fun at the ridiculous amounts of money people spend on luxury items, he told me. This is epitomized in Kim Kardashian’s oversized Birkin tote, valued at $40,000, which – as a Christmas gift to Kim – Yeezy commissioned artist George Condo to paint.
As part of LUX, McGann created a replica of the bag out of cardboard and valued it at $1,621,115. “I want the prices to mirror the cost of the actual goods,” he said. “The project is a critique on status symbols and how our society worships money and celebrities.”
On the other side of the tracks – so to speak – was Pizza Rat. Or at least an homage made out of felt. Motherpigeon sells her felt sculptures of pigeons, rats and discarded street food on Union Square and Washington Square. Tonight she wears a multi-colored coat, white cat-eye spectacles and a headdress of felt pigeons. When asked what inspires her, she said “the mumblers of New York City. They’re those people who come to the public parks and very quietly and sneakily feed the pigeons and the rats. I just love them, and I admire what they do, sticking up for the underdog. They’re very shy because they get shamed for feeding ‘vermin.’ I sometimes try to talk to them, and they avoid me. I tell them, it’s okay – I do it too.”
The show’s defense of New York’s dirty underbelly is ironic in such a rapidly gentrifying city where grittiness could be called a diminishing resource. The low rents and creative energy that accompany its shrinking underworld are already the subject of so much nostalgia. But the show offers more than countercultural naiveté: Consider, for example, Subtexture’s “lost” postcards of dropped gloves – knitted, leather, plastic — individually photographed like rare and exotic flower specimens on the asphalt and shrubbery and fall leaves on which they were found. Or the hybrid creatures that feature in Omer Gal’s multimedia art: watercolors of tentacled, mollusk-like critters and baboon-like papier-mache masks form his collection “Shitheads.”
A stop-motion film projected on the wall shows something that looks like an egg frying on a hot pavement, or it could be an eyeball, or a creature being born. A short animation shows a monkey and a bat dancing around each other. It all denotes a kind of wild urban dreamscape where the lines between human and animal are increasingly blurred. In a corner, a small dark wooden frame displays eight extraordinarily intricate anatomical drawings of hearts: some look like faces, others have plantlife growing out of them. They are like the shrunken, scattered heart of the city’s avant-garde.
“New York Shitty” will be at the Con Artist Gallery at 119 Ludlow Street until March 12. On March 5 – 6, “New York Shitty in Real Time,” a live street action event, will be taking place in the Meatpacking District. For more details, see here.