As is JJ Brine’s way, he’s hesitant to speak about the past. Even the very recent past, when Brine– Satanic gallerist, practitioner of “Post-human” art, founder of the Vectorian and its “Crown Prince of Hell”– took off for Los Angeles to start fresh. “I don’t even know if it’s relevant to recall what happened in Los Angeles,” he said. “This is now, that was then. I’m doing what I’m doing now.”
Now that Brine has captured the attention of the art world, conservative conspiracy theorists, gossip columnists, even Dow Jones reporters, it’s much easier to track the artist’s more recent trajectory, even if he’s reluctant to go into too many details about the non-present.
When we last heard from JJ, he was preparing to abandon Vector Gallery’s Chinatown location, that strange, shimmering neon storefront that looked like the haphazard, tin-foiled interior of a primetime-TV paranoid schizophrenic’s apartment, updated with post-internet flair and JJ’s sinister lightboxes that radiate with hellish motifs. It wasn’t surprising that he was drawn to LA, which has always been a strange magnet for cults, clairvoyants, and, of course, Charles Manson. But a little more than one year later, JJ’s already dismantled his LA art gallery and, as it turns out, he’s come full-circle.
Nodding to this coast-switching, JJ’s opening night at New York City’s third incarnation of Vector Gallery– a night of rituals and brown-bag-beer sipping awash in the glow of new installations, appropriately titled Send God to Hell– will set the scene for a divine swap of sorts.
“It’s 2028 now, it’s the Summer of Hate,” JJ explained on my recent visit to the new East 3rd Street space (the date of the opening, it’s worth noting, is 8/25 and the start time 8:25). “The cosmic meeting ground for the devil and the lord will be provided and the great switch will take place in which God will be sent to hell and Satan sent to heaven.”
The place is already attracting oglers. Conveniently visible from the street, a crooked arrangement of letter plates hanging on the wall spells it out, just in case anyone’s confused: “WELCOME TO HELL HEAVEN IS DOWNSTAIRS.”
As usual, items seemed to be falling from the ceiling at will on a recent visit, as if some Poltergeist wasn’t too happy about the reversal that JJ has in mind. Either that, or those letter plates are perfectly timed to suddenly become un-sticky when my skull’s nearby (something I’d experienced at Vector’s Chinatown space as well). Turns out, I wasn’t the only target.
“The other day a mannequin fell on my head and I got five staples in my scalp,” JJ explained through Facebook chat after sending me a blood-soaked selfie.
All this bad juju hardly seemed appropriate for a so-called “neutral” meeting point– maybe “buffer zone” is a better fit? Or, if we’re aiming to be brutally accurate here, “labia majora” is probably the best way to describe Vector Gallery’s physical role in Send God to Hell since the actual location of the diabolical transfiguration, according to JJ, is inside the Vectorian Minister of State Lena Marquise, who has volunteered her vagina for the occasion.
“Yeah right,” you say? Well, clearly you don’t remember Art Basel 2014, when Vector blew up the fair with a piece titled “Body as Commodity.” The installation/ live art demonstration starred a nude Marquise and her vagina. In fact, the performance artist/professional dominatrix made her pelvis into a sort of cell phone charging portal where, for a price, Basel goers could plug into Marquise’s Virginia and somehow, magically charge their iPhone (but hopefully not their Droid).
The Huffington Post (rudely) declared that Marquise’s performance was “not art,” and that it was actually Usher who had made the “impromptu art” by paying Marquise $20 and surrendering his phone to her kegel’ing.
Obviously, JJ gets a kick out of shocking people (pun totally intended), and these stunts are often tied to a particular Judeo-Christian belief or embedded in absurd cultural norms that can be traced back to scripture. But believe it or not, Brine takes religion very seriously, and he’s often moved to passionate discourse when it comes to the figure of Jesus H. Christ in particular. For example, during our most recent interview, I wondered aloud, vaguely, if religion was on the decline in some ways, at least in our own culture.
JJ snapped back at me with the verbal equivalent of a bitch slap. “It bears noting that these things are important to billions and billions of people who take these matters very seriously, and that it’s still the dominant force in shaping thought and behavior [around the world],” he argued. “Look at Jesus Christ– this 2,000-year-old man, this sectarian clannish Jew, this megalomaniac, really, who said ‘I am the only god, I am life, I am the only way to my father, I am my father.'”
So, JJ argued, the whole point of Christianity– “the enshrinement of the ultimate psychic vampirism”– is skewed, and proof that God is Satan.
“Everything switches and folds back into itself so rapidly that you can’t distinguish,” he explained. “It’s like a gif.”
When JJ talks about Jesus, each sassy rebuke crackles with intense disgust and is invariably followed by a complete turn around– sometimes JJ will even praise the narcissistic mystic.
“I just think they’ve got it all wrong with Jesus Christ. I mean, I’m just as self-aggrandizing but I don’t intend to be slaughtered for my own entertainment, because that’s why I died last time, for my own entertainment. Christ died for my own entertainment,” he concluded. “He was one of my favorite performance artists, actually.”
Clearly, JJ’s art-making is concerned with the larger questions of existence (God, Satan, the struggle between Super Powers, birth, the remnants of colonialism in the Middle East, um– the Middle East), but he finds pop culture equally titillating. In fact, JJ explained that he’s been very pleased with all the Warhol comparisons.
“Nico, however, I am in love with, so this connection brings me happiness,” he said. “Yes, Nico’s the best, the meaning of life.”
He even managed to befriend Amanda Bynes (one conspiracy theory forum had a field day with this one– Bynes? Brine!) after reportedly meeting her at a Brooklyn McDonald’s. JJ has praised Bynes as “brilliant” and once said that she was the only person he’d ever met “who’s more psychic than I am.” The friendship sort of seemed like a weird pop stunt in itself, especially when bizarro tabloid coverage ensued and JJ reacted by sharing the absurdness of it all on social media.
But Vector Gallery goes well beyond pop art renderings, and JJ’s not just the manager of a hyperactive internet presence. He’s actually living his art through reinvention, and creating his own cult of personality. Most importantly, Brine’s smashing these two seemingly opposed worlds together– the divine with the gutter-dwelling, base tendencies of our Post-Internet Time– resulting in some devilish chimeras. Some of JJ’s newer pieces include an image of Lucy Ricardo undergoing mitosis; neon lights (an essential piece of arty flair for any downtown art opening) bent into the Star of David, the Christian cross, and of course a vector; a lightbox with a picturesque screensaver-like ocean and big cloud background with Microsoft Word style banners that read: “Butcher White Americans For Art.”
JJ has even commanded some new video art, including Commercial for the End of the World– a flurry of glitched-out clips from old-school video games, a talk show eppy featuring Condoleezza Rice, demonic children, and images of dancing McDonald’s logos. It strangely mirrors the onslaught of images and media any American kid who grew up in the ’90s with access to a TV and the horror section at Blockbuster will remember with a nauseating mix of horror and fondness.
I noticed that JJ’s newer lightboxes at Vector have taken the sort of malformed energy of lobotomized subway ads– impossibly out-of-touch, only-in NYC weirdness (whereas DIY ads from Detroit, for example, can be downright genius)– and turned it an inexplicably demonic reel of ’90s media experience. “I think that advertisements are incantations,” JJ said. “I think everything is an ad and all forms of communication are advertisements.”
Vector’s ritualized art openings also blend the sacred and the profane, making for a populist, backpage-girl, monster-truck grotesqueness to devotional seances and ecstatic bursts of heretic fervor. In short, JJ throws a great party. Are people swallowing loads of LSD at one of these things? Probably. Beer is certainly not enough to lubricate another restart of JJ’s constantly revolving birth/death/birth cycle.
It’s safe to say that Brine is in a sort of constant flux, choosing never to linger in one space for too long. Anti-dogma is the opposite tendency of 2,000-year-old religions and conservative thought, so even though he’s an artist concerned with ancient orders and universal arrangements, JJ is inherently (and constantly) struggling against static.
When we last met in April 2015, JJ was already preparing to leave his Chinatown gallery on East Broadway, where he’d moved only about a year prior after being forced out of Vector’s first home at a Clinton Street storefront on the Lower East Side. It was at the East Broadway location where JJ Brine became more widely known, the subject of countless articles that declared him a “provocateur” even a “gay cult leader.” His quick, irreverent wit and love for paradox and chaos confounded the basics and sent gullible ninnies into legitimate Satanic-Panic tailspins, while prickling the fancy of art writers and with-it countercultural observers.
Just after he left the city on a detour to Vanuatu before moving to LA, the Wall Street Journal published a story that had unearthed some previously undisclosed JJ history, some of it pretty revealing, but nevertheless maddeningly limited. For example, we still don’t know a lot about JJ’s high school experience, or who his parents are (which might explain why he looks like an ageless, perfectly-honed Swedish vampire porcelain doll with purple eyes).
But the article did reveal that JJ’s real name is Jonathan Friel and it confirmed that JJ’s interest in the Middle East stemmed from real, substantive experience and wasn’t simply the result of a passing fascination. JJ had already told me about his time at the American University in Beirut, but the WSJ revealed that in 2010, several years before he moved to New York City, Brine was far from the citizen of a “sovereign” Vectorian state whose allies are Syria and Haiti.
In fact, Brine was working at the American-Turkish Council, writing speeches for Brent Scowcroft, a top National Security Advisor to the George W. Bush administration whose Twitter bio would probably read: “Republican, Mormon, retired U.S. Air Force Lt Gen, my work @Henry Kissinger + @RichardNixon.”
On the surface, becoming a Satanic gallerist was quite the career change, but JJ’s interests have remained intact– he’s still enthralled by the Middle East. This obsession sort of explains why JJ took off for LA. Maybe. As he told me last year when I asked : “Maybe it feels a little bit like the Middle East.” It’s likely JJ was being a bit facetious, but it was definitely prescient in that JJ had inadvertently anticipated how he would feel about LA after returning to New York.
“I was in the middle of a war zone,” he said. “And I didn’t ever really have the feeling that I was in Los Angeles.” The city, he conceded was “quite a grid” and “logistically complicated.”
However, there are a few details online about specific performances, rituals, and art happenings at Vector LA and it’s clear that JJ settled into the scene almost immediately. At the time of JJ’s second LA opening, Broadly reported that Annaliese Nielsen– the founder of “alt porn” site called Gods Girls and an elite sorority for grownups, Girls Night In– was in attendance as a member of the Vector Government. Nielsen has been described as a “consummate party girl” who “radiates glamour” and, according to Broadly, she and JJ are pals from their middle school days in Florida. And just days before Vector LA closed, TMZ made a terrifyingly stupid video about the “Manson Retrial” at Vector which involved putting the actual, IRL son of Charles Manson “on trial.”
I pressed him to tell me more about LA, because it seemed to me that he completely hated it, but JJ dodged my questions repeatedly. “I accept Los Angeles, unconditionally for what it is,” he cracked a smile. “That being said, I never want to go there again.”
Certainly, LA has seeped into JJ’s veins a bit, but he wasn’t willing to say that his art has taken a new direction. “[LA] drew more Vectorians, but it was the same state, the regime didn’t change,” he explained. (Vector has added to its government, including the Minister of Growth Michael Bianchino– he and JJ actually seem rather smitten.)
As usual, JJ seemed way more interested in the moment at hand. “I don’t have a segmented view of it, no. It just came time to return,” he explained. “It’s like I didn’t leave. I needed to leave.”
But JJ didn’t beeline back to New York from LA– actually, he maintains that he ended up back here sort of by accident. At first, he took a detour to his former home, Washington D.C., where he planned to make himself comfortable and set up Vector Gallery in the most dogmatic, authoritarian city America has to offer.
Whitney Kimball, a reporter who’d recently moved from the Lower East Side to D.C. got wind of JJ’s plan to move his Satanic gallery to the capital. She was ecstatic, at first. But then JJ explained his larger plan for D.C. “Vector’s next feat [is to] insert itself into politics as a kind of psychic control center,” she wrote. The story goes on to quote JJ saying that he was interested in finding a way to “program” the presidential elections in hopes of bringing about “systemic shifts in the geopolitical configuration of power in the Middle East, particularly in relation to the competing national interests within The Levant.”
Compared to the insanity of the elections this year, JJ Brine as the presidential puppeteer doesn’t sound so wacky. (Hell, some Bernie bros might even be on board with it.) But Kimball wasn’t so sure that D.C.’ers would understand that JJ’s interest was artistic rather than real, and let’s just say the U.S. government isn’t particularly fond of charismatic individuals telling them how to manage their foreign policy. “Frankly, I worry for his safety,” she concluded.
JJ didn’t express the same concern, and was rather vague about his D.C. detour. “I was reverted from that, suddenly,” was his only explanation. But he was clear about his feelings for Trump. I mentioned that the Republican presidential nominee seems like one of the most psychedelic news stories ever to unravel, in my lifetime anyway.
“I can’t dispute that. He’s pure poison, I suppose,” JJ responded. “I think that there’s a great game to be played and I intend to keep exerting pressures on it in places where I intend to exert pressure.”
Vector Gallery’s inaugural show, “Send God to Hell,” is happening Thursday, August 25, 8:25 pm at 199 East 3rd Street.