At first it was sort of sad that for this year’s rendition, Spring/Break Art Show had traded its eccentric, labyrinthine location inside a disused section of the historic James A. Farley Post Office in Chelsea for an actual office space. But when the elevator doors opened on the 23rd floor of the Condé Nast building in Midtown, the switch-up immediately made so much sense–because, let’s be real, an artist-led hostile takeover of corporate America is exactly what we need right now (even it it’s just for a few days).
Inevitably, visitors had to make their way through what would normally be a claustrophobic atrium, but had been transformed top-to-bottom. It looked like a hurricane, or maybe a squad of bros blasted on hurricanes, had swept through, but the sound of the MC5 blaring overhead hinted that the chaos was somehow controlled. Paint-splattered canvases hung lopsided from the walls, but a pair of dirty jeans also coated in paint were splayed out and framed somewhat more precisely. “I like those because they sort of look like angel wings,” the artist Greg Haberny said.
Huh, I thought. Angelic is the opposite word I’d use to describe this chaotic heap of… what exactly? Hanging from the ceiling were inscrutable mini-sculptures, strange and yet definitely still plucked from the same crop, and then jet black canvases that glimmered like burnt caramel. Frankly, this whole thing looked like it was made by an insane person. True to the setup, manic energy hellbent on destruction is what propels Haberny’s process, a perpetual motion machine of carnage.
First, he paints a canvas, then he burns that canvas, then uses the ash to make paint and starts the process all over again. Sometimes, Haberny will even buy back artwork that he’s sold, just so he can destroy it and start the process allover again. “I like to break everything,” he explained. The mini-sculptures, likewise, were once larger pieces that he’d broken up, some were “severed with chainsaws,” and smashed into tiny bits in order to put them back together again. “It’s not so much recycling as upcycling,” he said.
It’s a step-by-step atrocity exhibition that obliterates the assumption that destruction is a Point A-to-Point B process, and that “destroyed” is a superlative. For Haberny, the potential of material is infinite.
Having to make your way through the chaos of Haberny’s installation in order to enter the show was really a great metaphor for the last year or so in America: Just when you think things are bad, they’re going to get a whole lot worse. At the curatorial domain of Katharine Mulherin, visitors were greeted by David Kramer‘s Old Glory, straightforward painting of an upside-down American flag adorned with the word “FUCKED,” said it all.
But for all the anger and frustration at the current political situation that Kramer’s painting suggested, the room itself included works that indicated– hey, life goes on. Ness Lee‘s print of two women embracing, rendered in dreamy blue and red, felt comforting and warm in a time of profound coldness.
And then there was Emily Roz‘s painting of two journalists, Gwen Ifill and Judy Woodruff, who made history as the first-ever all-female anchor team on a nightly news program when they inherited their respective thrones at PBS Newshour in 2013. It served as a reminder that, even if the executive branch spirals out of control, we can depend on our really actually very excellent press to “speak truth to power” and all that cool stuff. It’s important to note that Ifill, who passed away late last year, broke all kinds of barriers as a woman of color covering news, and her image immediately resonates for that reason as well.
Another inspiring lady made an appearance, but only if you picked up on the fact that a pile of clothes in the middle of the floor was not just… a pile of clothes. There weren’t any big arrows instructing people where to go and why, which made for a number of audible gasps and squeals as visitors lined up to stand at the designated viewing point, the only spot from where they could catch a glimpse of the one, the only Helen Keller whose portrait wafted up all ghost-like from the blah-colored corporate carpet below her.
An attendant explained that Noah Scalin had made this big ol’ laundry mess in honor of an early social justice warrior (did you know Keller was one of the cofounders of the ACLU?), which was truly inspiring– now I know exactly what I’m gonna do the next time two-weeks worth of unfolded laundry ends up on my bed.
As probably everyone can agree, 2016 was just the worst. That’s true for the whole world, of course. But here in America, but – just when you think things are bad, they’re going to get a whole lot worse.
The flip side of that is the fact that, in many ways, things have always been bad for some Americans (aka everyone but white straight males). There’s nothing unprecedented about a racist President, for example–it’s just that, for the first time in a long time, prejudice and hatred are out in the open in places where white people can see the nasty stuff.
So it wasn’t so surprising to see an abundance of politically-positioned artwork, but it was also encouraging–especially pieces that focused on or referred to the Black Lives Matter movement itself, and in some cases the events that sparked the movement.
Bushwick-based artist Phillip Buehler deals in landscape panoramas, three of which were on view as part of his installation American Trilogyl which gave people the chance to step inside 360-degree photos of three locations where some seriously society-shifting events went down. The only one worth mentioning was Buehler’s Ferguson piece, based on photos taken in the exact place where Michael Brown was shot and killed.
Actually, “Ferguson” is a huge departure from Buehler’s usual fare, which seems to be dominated by desktop-screensaver types and ruin porn. But he really seems to be on to something here–standing there looking out at the makeshift memorial for Brown, a black teenager who was unarmed when he was shot and killed by a white police officer, was really moving.
Curator Kristen Coburn handed over an entire room to New York-based performance artist Taja Lindley who transformed box-like confines into a darkly visceral theater that felt less like one of those stand-and-watch operations you find at the museum and more like being inside a garbage bag. And for good reason.
At This Ain’t a Eulogy: a Ritual for Remembering, the room was covered top-to-bottom in black garbage bags, the kind that rustle loudly at the slightest puff of air, which blacked out the whole room and mirrored the environment found in the video on view. showed Lindley engaging in some sort of interpretive dance that, at first anyway, felt somewhat obscure. But if you stuck with it, things started to take shape almost immediately. “Sh-sh-sh-shoot, you shoot anyway […],” Lindley whispers. “Don’t shoot, Don’t Shoot. Hands up. Hands up, don’t shoot.” Her movements switched between frenetic and forceful, calm and precise, while the black plastic trash bags continued their noisy swooshing throughout.
For Lindley, the black plastic bags are a potent reminder of the way that black people are treated in this country, like “discarded material” and useless refuse. The performance was not only about mourning she said, but “healing”– which can be realized both by confronting racism and our deeply ingrained culture of violence against people of color, and by imagining and enacting ways to overcome.
“My work is about both honoring the dead while simultaneously shedding light on a persistent problem and providing commentary on how we can heal and get on the other side,” Taja clarified in a later email.
As a dance-heavy piece focused on physicality both as metaphor and movement, Lindley’s piece was immediately connected to Black Lives Matter and the movement’s emphasis on the body itself as a place where oppression is not only internalized, but ingrained in physical experience.
But remember, this “Ain’t a Eulogy,” so the piece was not all doom and gloom. “I don’t want to just open something up,” Lindley explained. “I want to get to the other side.” Toward the end of the video, what she called a “mystical healing” process had taken over. Looking determined, Lindley repurposes the bags into something new and beautiful. “It”s a hip-hop technology,” she explained. “Black people have been remixing forever.”
The elephant in the room was, of course, Putin’s-new-best-friend hopeful, President Donald J. Trump, who made several noteworthy appearances at Spring/Break. None of these depictions were what you might call flattering, so go ahead and file them under “fake news” or whatever– and yet, somehow they were much more accurate than anything the flops out of Sean Spicer’s mouth.
At least one artist dedicated an entire room to the cause– Kosmo Vinyl smartly chose to transform the florescent Office Blandlandia into a bright pink room, painted a smooth shade halfway between soothsaying Baker-Miller and Barbie’s Glam Convertible, with enormous windows that looked out over Times Square in all its flashing bright weirdness. But even against that garish and sort of beautiful background couldn’t compete with the popped-out art inside, The Cisco Kid Vs. Donald Trump featured sassy takedowns of our Orange Creep in Chief and black-and-white images pulled directly from the “1950’s Cisco Kid newspaper comic strip.”
I found Mr. Vinyl– a “former Londoner turned New Yorker” and the artists responsible for the work–seated on the window sill dressed in a dapper black suit. “You look like a pin sort of girl,” he told me, handing over a pink button. Likewise, Kosmo is definitely a pin sort of guy– Wikipedia describes him as a “longtime associate and sometime manager for The Clash” and other punk bands of that era. And the “Cisco” series definitely has a punk vibe to it, with clever quips like “Business acumen my ass!” and “If Adolf Hitler flew in today, they’d send a limousine anyway.” According to his artist statement, Vinyl started the “Cisco” series during the campaign season “in protest of Trump’s policies and presentation,” assuming it would end after the elections. But he’s since decided to continue the project due to the results.
True to this year’s theme of “Black Mirror,” there was an abundance of autobiographical pieces, self-referential art, showing/not telling or telling/not showing. Valery Jung Estabrook, the artist featured at the two-room Open House booth (curated by Debbi Kenote and Til Will), was all about self-reflection with Hometown Hero (Chink), her jarring and yet hilarious piece that assailed the nativist concept of a monolithic American culture and at the same time picked apart the complicated concept of assimilation as both an outside pressure and personal longing. Nearly every object in the granddad’s living-room-like space– an old-school TV set, a Lay-Z-Boy with a confederate flag print– was either covered in or made up entirely of a particularly American fabric, cheap fleece-like synthetic-poly-something.
It was a scene dominated by a dusty, worn-out and castrated kind of Americana (seriously, those limp shotguns were amaze), all of which eluded to the undeniable fact that our country’s long-held tradition of exceptionalism is not only gross, but grossly outdated.
Another Estabrook installation, Thinly Worn, occupied the front room and featured a still from her video work, Beautiful Face, but most importantly an assortment of nylon masks– you know, the kind people use to rob banks. But adorned with a variety of femme faces, the masks eschewed that very masculine association (which, yes, I too resent). They were horrifying and sort of endearing at the same time– even though the oh-so-synthetic visages served as a stark reminder of how dismal the stereotypical “masks” are that women are socialized to strive for in a culture that emphasizes gender-binary-based behavior and presentation.
As a Korean-American, Estabrook’s focus included not only a maniacally smiling “Miss America” face, but “Miss Korea” and “Eomoni,” which means mother in Korean. “Crybaby” was a tearjerker, as a takedown of the BS insistence that women need to be made-up an beautiful all the time, even when we’re crying. And “No Drama”– which means precisely “lots and lots of drama”–might have been my personal fav.
Another face-focused art install was Lino Meoli‘s Polaroid-coated room, dubbed Disco Queen. The photographer snapped these instantly-recognizable and super-duper candid images of her friends– Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Debbie Harry –from 1975 through the early ’90s as Meoli made her way through the downtown nightlife scene.
The shots can be posey, but the wall between the viewer and the real self of her subjects feels thinner than paper, and the overall feeling is that Meoli’s otherwise sort of mundane images are so spectacular because she was at the right place at exactly the right time (which makes them no less amazing) when a depressing, depleted, and desperately sapped New York City was home to a colorful, radical, and above all ridiculously fun explosion of creativity, art, and music, where self-expression reigned.
Anthony Haden-Guest is best known as a writer and art critic who’s been around the block–there’s even a (false) rumor that he’s responsible for the death of Jean-Michel Basquiat, and a true one that he was once kidnapped in Beirut. Anthony recently turned 80 years old (and celebrated with a boxing match at Overthrow, no less) so, truly, the guy has a memory well that’s about as deep as an ocean rift-valley.
So it’s kind of amazing that his drawings, an art practice that he picked up not too long ago, are so simple. Anthony’s quickly rendered monochrome line sketches are typically accompanied by conversational snippets and one-liner quips that are as on-the-spot as his process. Both the the drawings and his approach might come across as seemingly absent of any real planning or complexity– but that’s probably what Anthony wants us to believe. In reality, these ecstatic creations– charmingly sloppy and aggressively unpracticed on the surface–are hyper-focused, piercingly perceptive bits of human experience that are very peculiar in their feeling and strangely memory-stirring,
The windowless, micro-apartment-sized and cubicle-like office space where visitors could find Haden-Guest live drawing his way through the weekend, only added to the feeling of super-compacted interactions and. It also gave the artist an opportunity for audience arrest. Custom-made neon lights shaped as blurts of text lured wide-eyed passersby like fish toward shiny objects.
It’s funny that when you put something totally normal in a place where it doesn’t belong, that object or practice can go from totally banal to psychedelic. My friend Allie was one of the brave visitors who sat in a salon chair at Eve Sussman and Simon Lee’s “Jack + Leigh Ruby: Barbershop” where she got an actual, 100-percent real haircut from “a self-taught-at-haircutting artist named McDavid.” She probably felt quite safe after seeing a sign that read, “no ruler, str8 cutz everytime.” Sweet.
Splendid Isolation: Pathological Self-Absorption Before the Age of Social Media from the artist John Brill was equally focused on the everyday. Well, at least what that meant for him between 1981 and 1987, a period during which Walla, a self-taught photographer, obsessively made self-portraits– apparently while living in an apartment just like this one (but, you know, minus the tablets and flat-screens).
The abstracted images were snapped while Brill went about his everyday routine in New Jersey working as a school bus driver. On one level, they offer a somewhat awkward view of a young photographer discovering himself as an artist–a portrait of the artist as a young man, I guess? (Amazingly, Brill is still busing kids around the Jersey burbs–how quaint! No seriously though, he’s like a real life Paterson.) At the same time, they suggest that maybe all this social-media-induced mirror-gazing isn’t so horrifying after all. Um, as long as there’s a relatively creative impulse behind constantly wielding a selfie-stick, then go ahead and do your worst!
If someone asked me today to pick a spokesperson for our generation, it would be this guy. When Daapo Reo (who identifies as a “polyartist and writer”) was asked to envision a utopia of his choosing, the answer was easy: “African Unit. Fucking African Unity.” But after reflecting on the trajectory of various “Back to Africa” and “Pan-African” ideas– think Bob Marley and Marcus Garvey– Reo came to the conclusion, “This shit ain’t happening.” Instead, he came up with the concept of “Alcoholtopia (a Geopolitical Dream Under the Influence),” which is obviously much more realistic.
Don’t be fooled by the stars and stripes on the quilt-like flag you see above– is it American? Hardly, my friend. In America, would we ever do something as atrocious as this?
Reo instructed visitors on how best to diplomatically engage with this Alcoholtopia: “Pour yourself a shot of wine, stand three steps away from the flag, then chug the drink in one go. Close your eyes and count to three before opening them.” The instructions kindly include a couple of warnings– the exercise may or may not lead to “diplopia” which would cause visitors to “perceive two flags overlapping.” Most importantly, this boozy utopia is not suitable for “Afropessimists” and anyone with “neo-imperialistic tendencies.” Do I even have to tell you that by the time I pulled up to pay my dues, the wine was so far gone that not even an empty bottle remained?
Corrections: (1) An earlier version of this article wrongly attributed Splendid Isolation to Douglas Walla, the booth’s curator. The artist John Brill has been credited. (2) A quote by Taja Lindley– “The performance was not about ‘honoring the dead,'[…]”–included a typo. Lindley had said that her piece was “not just about honoring the dead.” And a line from her work This Ain’t a Eulogy was inaccurately quoted as, “You shoot anything” and has been updated to read, “You shoot anyway.”