Even hazy patrons bumbling their way out of opium dens– if the dope cave hadn’t been replaced by frou frou cocktail bars– would have had a hard time missing a gallery boom like the one currently going down in Chinatown. Increasingly fancy art palaces are moving in, bringing with them pristine minimalism and white-walled remove, which presents a pretty dramatic departure from the existing chaotic density of saggy red-yellow-and-smog-colored awnings, old ladies in bucket hats hustling meat sticks, careening unmarked buses hiding in alleyways that you didn’t know New York City had, murky fish tank smells, frenetically blinking neon signs, and countless aging storefronts overflowing with sun-bleached gecko supplements, acupuncture diagrams, and yellowing, curly-edged Chinese calendars.
But during the last week in August one of these newcomer art spaces, Chinatown Soup, stood out from the usual streetscape scene in an entirely different kind of way, when an army of scrunchy-faced troll dolls, troll paintings, and troll-everything descended on the gallery in a flurry of bare-ass bubble butts, electrified jewel-toned hair tufts, and that trademark rubbery meltface that hits halfway between confused orangutan and dewy-eyed human baby.
“It’s sort of a last hurrah for the old vanguard of Lower East Side bohemia,” explained Michelle Esteva, founder and director of Chinatown Soup, a downtown-centric arts non-profit that opened last year. “It’s been celebratory but also commemorative of an era that’s pretty much ended in terms of quirky, DIY, experimental art.”
Reverend Jen Miller, the performance artist and all-around Lower East Side legend, and her “world famous” Troll Museum were responsible for the invasion. Actually it was more of an extended fuck-it funeral for her massive private collection of troll dolls, troll paraphernalia, and troll-inspired art. All in one, the show managed to be all things for the array of visitors who stopped by: a bittersweet goodbye for downtown old-timers, a manic celebration of troll-dom for newcomers, a fetishistic fête for elf freaks, and a detour from art-world sameness.
Until recently, the Troll Museum had a home of its own, inside Jen’s Orchard Street apartment before an eviction turned her life upside down. As Bowery Boogie reported, Rev Jen was wearing only a towel when a city marshal knocked on her door in June and served her with an order to vacate her home of more than two decades. Following the aggressive encounter with the marshal, Jen enlisted her friends and neighbors in a desperate attempt to remove the troll collection from her apartment before she was out for good.
Of course for Jen (and others), the eviction was a lot more than getting kicked to the curb and suddenly facing homelessness– Jen attributed the ouster to a larger transformation happening in her neighborhood.
“The Lower East Side used to be a great neighborhood but has now turned into the greediest shitshow on earth,” she wrote on Facebook in the days following her eviction. The building’s management company, Misrahi Realty, claimed that Jen hadn’t paid rent for a year, which she acknowledged. However, she’s maintained that the landlord never served her the proper eviction papers throughout her period of delinquency.
When I visited Chinatown Soup, Jen was understandably still very upset by the events leading up to her removal from her home of 21 years. But the troll show maintained a manic sort of cheerfulness. When I pointed out pieces that I liked the most and complimented Jen’s gorgeous chihuahua, Reverend Jen Junior, the senior Jen flashed a meek smile. True, the show was a memorial service, but it was still a resurrection and maintained true to the original spirit of the Troll Museum– DIY, outsider, and absurdist to the extreme.
This was at least partly owed to the fact that Chinatown Soup keeps it real, and is far from a hushed, reverent gallery with cliquey attendants and unapproachable art work.
“Everyone loves it,” Esteva explained of the Troll revival. It was true– even during my brief visit the show attracted an incredibly diverse group of visitors. “I knew that Rev had a following and this underground cult status, but it’s been such an overwhelming response, which I didn’t anticipate.”
In addition to Reverend Jen’s title as curator of the Troll Museum, Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York has hailed Miller as a “legendary Lower East Side performance artist, poet, Elf Girl.” Unfortunately, Jen was more than a little reluctant to speak at the exhibition, something vastly out of character for such a character. But John Foster, who said he’s known Miller– “my closest friend and gifted visual artist who uses Renaissance painting techniques”– for around 15 years, stepped in. “It’s a post-eviction moment,” he said gravely, offering to answer my questions about Jen and the show.
Mostly, Foster acted as Miller’s manager, boasting about her role as a downtown social figure. Rev Jen attracted a following around the so-called “Art Star” scene, and has thrown some of the city’s freakiest and most memorable events over the last 20 years. Starting in 1995, downtown weirdos and artists convened weekly at Jen’s “Anti-Slam” open mic, a recurring event that she’s described as “the last holdout of bohemian culture left in these parts.” In the early days, the Times wrote “100 people on a given night might have experienced anything from a comedy act to a primal-scream interpretive dance.”
She’s still putting the mics together– the most recent Anti-Slam was held in June, and over the years, “it’s brought in everyone– just people off the Bowery to people like Louis CK,” Foster recalled.
And for nearly just as long, Jen’s drawn the crowds to her annual Mr. Lower East Side pageant. In a somewhat prophetic turn of events, Jen was forced to move the raucous pageant that doles out awards such as “Best Nutsack” to Brooklyn for the 2015 installment, and when the party returned to the Lower East Side this year, The Slipper Room cancelled on Jen last-minute. Subsequently a chaotic (but hilarious) mess ensued at a karaoke bar that served as the makeshift venue for Jen’s 17th turn at the pageant.
Foster continued to rattle off Jen’s numerous artistic achievements as she grumbled in protest. “Off the top of my head, she’s a published novelist,” he explained, naming workings like Elf Girl, Live Nude Elf: the Sexperiments of Reverend Jen, Reverend Jen’s Really Cool Neighborhood, BDSM: 101. He pointed to her collaborations with “Mr. Zedd,” and her work in Quest for Camel Toe and Lord of the Cock Rings. “I wouldn’t know where to start,” Foster beamed.
All of this explains why the Troll Museum revival could never have been a normal art exhibition (whatever that means anyway). Esteva, who offered the show to Miller when she heard about the eviction, agreed with this assessment.
As people walked through the doors at Chinatown Soup, they locked eyes with the troll dolls and scanned their way over the bare, rounded asses of the plump plastic creatures, and almost invariably started cackling. Kids openly discussed the trolls without fear of retribution– “This is so weird,” one of them exclaimed, gazing at all the dolls in awe. And the kinds of old-school downtown characters you’ll find at 169 Bar at noon on a Tuesday streamed in and out as Jen and her cohort hung out in the backyard. One guy, who came in searching for Jen, looked like a cross between an extra from Willow, one of Robin Hood’s sidekick bandits, and a Gogol Bordello accordion player. He grew especially pissed after realizing he’d just missed the Reverend. “Fuuuuckkkk!” he screamed at the top of his lungs. No one missed a beat.
How could they? The trolls were far too enchanting for anyone to be distracted by mere humans. The dolls spanned several generations of official and unofficial troll toys– some of the older ones, dating back to the 1960s when troll dolls first became a fad, had the sort of matted hair and discoloration that comes with age, while others had sparkly tufts; later models accessorize with space suits and diapers. Many of the pieces on display seemed to be strange hybrids– giant stuffed troll dolls with hard waxy plastic heads and even something that looked like a cross between a wooly mammoth-style troll and a log. Many of these strange chimeric sculptural pieces look handmade, while others are simply loosely troll-themed toys that resemble Gwar schwag or badly-rendered knockoffs.
All of the figurines appeared to be well-loved, some of them were even sorta filthy (in the cutest way possible). This caused a strange Freudian shift in me as I realized how vastly different the Troll Museum was from the “collecting” I was introduced to as a child– flashback to that time when my BFF and I were scolded for emancipating her mom’s Beanie Babies from their plexiglass prisons. Apparently we were in danger of sullying their perfectly combed polyester fur and leaving some deal-breaker tag creases (never mind the fact these were safely sealed behind archival-plastic tag protectors).
Aside from the blessedly un-pristine trolls dolls, there was the crush of memorabilia and paraphernalia, which included everything from Troll movies on VHS to a tattered troll velcro wallet. Then there were the items whose purpose was a bit opaque– a stuffed monkey baby wearing an infant romper, a painting of a hamster with super powers and a trollish, purple mohawk.
There were also a number of two-dimensional original works by Jen, such as a collage piece “Satan Hold My Hand” and drawings of two-headed trolls. There’s even a sort of pop culture chronology to the troll collection– from a photo of Sonny and Cher in matching peacock blue to a trollish ode to Donald J. Trump.
But what really makes the Troll Museum worth much more than some hobbyist’s unusually large Pog collection or some hoarder’s awe-inspiring quantity of bottlebound urine, is Jen’s physical embodiment of the troll in the form of “Elf Girl.” You won’t find Jen wearing some cosplay-worthy troll wig, but you will find her as naked as a troll, clutching her chihuahua Reverend Jen Junior, and her pointy-eared likeness peering back at you from evocative line drawings and expressive elf portraits.
While the collection definitely distinguishes between elves and trolls, the curator seems to regard them as spiritual cousins. But when I tried asking Jen about this or that I realized “curate” wasn’t exactly the right word for this particular show. For all the elfin multitudes contained within the gallery’s confines, the show didn’t account for even a fraction of the entire Troll Museum which the Reverend has amassed since the early ’80s by way of donations, gifts, and other types of random acquisitions. The collection was already extensive by 2000, when Jen (“while stoned one night” according to Broadly) dreamed up a way to turn her troll/elf fetish into a private, appointment-only museum. According to Jen, after she was evicted from her apartment the landlord gave her just one hour to collect her belongings. “I just grabbed whatever the fuck I could,” she told me.
A sign at Soup reminded visitors that everything could be had for a price. “Money for Jen to relocate herself,” Esteva explained. And an old Treasure Trolls box reminded visitors of the perfectly reasonable “$3,000 suggested donation.”
And yet no one seemed to know what would become of the Troll Museum after the show. Information about where Jen would go and what she would be up to after this was scant as well. John Foster emphasized that Jen was still very much a productive artist, pointing out that her directorial debut, Werewolf Bitches From Outer Space, a film that he helped produce, is “coming soon to a theater near you.” However a quick Google search shows that the film has been promo’d since at least 2013. More importantly, there was no talk of Jen’s prospects for finding a new apartment, let alone setting up a new Troll Museum. B+B reached out to her to find out, but Jen hasn’t responded for comment. After the exhibition was dismantled on August 30, even Esteva still couldn’t tell me where the remaining troll collection went or where it might end up. “That’s the burning question,” she sighed.
And really, the loss of the Troll Museum proper was a major blow to the fast-dwindling weirdness of the Lower East Side. That’s because Reverend Jen’s collection is so much more than a bunch of naked, hairy dolls– it’s an important part of the neighborhood’s eccentric lore. Of course, Jen herself was acutely aware of this, and the final stretch at Chinatown Soup was somewhat fraught.
But by the look of all the galleries and multiplying boutiques, the Lower East Side is heading the way of a very different kind of art community, one that looks a lot more like Chelsea. “Now that Orchard Street’s been coined ‘Gallery Row’ by all the brokers, galleries from Chelsea are trying to move in,” Esteva explained. “It’s becoming overly saturated with a white-box vibe rather than a grassroots, DIY situation.”
Though Chinatown Soup might look a bit like a gallery on the outside– traditional white walls, newish interior, and poured concrete floors– it’s very much the exception in the neighborhood. “In the back, it gets weird,” Esteva laughed, which is one reason why they prefer to be called an “art space.” When they first opened about a year ago, she assured us that the owners weren’t just setting up shop in a trendy neighborhood because they wanted to be part of the real-estate action, instead they’re committed to preserving the downtown area’s cultural heritage.
“There’s a reason we want to be here,” Esteva explained more recently. “When I said Chinatown Soup was going to be dedicated to historic preservation, I just had no idea that would involved a troll collection, but that’s part of what makes this area so great.”