Chelsea Art Walk

Roberta Smythe


Fernando Urena Rib, a renown Latin American Master , during the Orfica Art exihbition




A lot has been written, both positive and negative, about the new Chelsea gallery district in Manhattan. It has been praised as an alternative to both the commercialism of Soho and the stodgy old-boyism of the Upper East Side. Equally, it has been debunked as a detached, exclusive and inaccessible art scene designed for the limousine delivered art viewer. All of these descriptions, while partially true, miss several points. One point, which could be the subject of an article in itself, is why the art galleries of Manhattan are so compelled to locate themselves within a given area, in this case Chelsea, that is designated "important" by the art media.

The concept being that locating a gallery in an "important" or "serious" art area will automatically deem the gallery and the art exhibited "important" by association. This notion is absurd, for a great painting will be just as great on the wall of a cabin in Alaska as it is on the wall of a Chelsea gallery in New York. Likewise, a pitifully boring artwork will remain pitiful even as it hangs in a Chelsea gallery.

 Unfortunately, this is a concept not yet understood by the critics and art pundits of the high art media, such as the New York Times and Art In America, who continually heap praises upon the artworks in Chelsea galleries, no matter how boring, redundant and derivative they may be. This brings us to the main point, which is what kind of artwork is being shown in Chelsea? The answer to this question lies in a visit to the galleries themselves, a visit I undertook this past May.

The journey began on 26th Street, between 10th and 11th Avenues. The neighborhood feeling on this street and in Chelsea generally is somewhat mixed. Galleries, plus a coffee shop and a boutique on 22nd Street, are attempting to trendy up the neighborhood, yet the gallery blocks are still shared with the traditional businesses of Chelsea, primarily auto repair shops, self storage facilities and assorted wholesalers. With the exception of 22nd Street, decrepit buildings, abundant delivery trucks and unkempt business frontages gave a somewhat undignified atmosphere to this art locality.

The main art feature on 26th Street is a large industrial building at 526 W 26th, which serves as an art mall, with many galleries on several floors. A security guard and an elevator operator, who very slowly ferried people upstairs in an antique freight elevator, attended the lobby. A bulletin board covered with papers listing gallery names and a large directory with more gallery names listed in a very confusing manner, gave a disheveled feel to the place. On the upper floors galleries were located in rooms behind solid metal doors. The long, dismal hallways, dimly lit with strips of fluorescent tubes, the cement floors and gray, enamel paint created a heavy, industrial, prison like atmosphere.

One gallery, Nicloe Klagsbrun, had replaced the old metal doors with glass ones to make her space more inviting. Here artist Robert Miller exhibited paintings on paper and canvas. The proceeds of this show were to benefit "The Children’s Hope Foundation," which is interesting, because the artwork itself looked like it could have been made by a child. In a Kindergarten style, this artist made the same painting over and over in different colors.

A rectangular paper or canvas with a plain background was filled with one flat abstract bowl-like shape. There were blue ones, red ones, yellow ones, faded ones, light ones and dark ones. The ones on paper had a washed out poster paint look, the canvas ones had a thicker look like they were made with a hard, dried up brush. Perhaps if this show had opened in 1955, it would have been a radical, exciting departure from the norm. Today it looked rather washed out and tired, like a kids watercolor that has hung on the kitchen wall for too many years.

In the same building, Rush Arts Gallery had works by Sheila Batiste, who exhibited several small squares of plywood on one wall. They were all painted white. There was nothing on these panels but white paint, but they did look a little beat up, like they had been lying around the studio for a while.

Also in this show was a piece of plywood painted red, a piece of red fabric with five white fabric cones hanging in front of it and several large blank papers with a cone shaped squiggle drawn on them. Like the Robert Miller show, these works would have been a breakthrough about forty years ago. Today the white panels no longer look like minimal or conceptual art, they just look like old squares of plywood that someone painted white, left out in the rain for a couple of days and then hung on the wall.

Jeffrey Coploff Fine Art exhibited thick, vacant, decorative, white abstract paintings by Serena Bocchineo. The white surfaces were streaked with washed-out colors in a scribbled manner, but the lines were not as fine as those of Sheila Batiste. Serena’s scribbles seemed to be deliberately crude, as if they were made by an arthritic or simian hand. The color combinations, while trying hard to be impressionistic, were somewhat putrid. The only redeeming value of the paintings could have been as wall decoration, but in this regard they seemed to turn up short, due to the poor choice of color.

At Audiello Fine Art were paintings by Jeronimo Elespe. Jeronimo exhibited several medium sized canvases in the three to four foot range. Each canvas was covered with a dull gray paint; it was an umber gray, a bit warmer than the hallway outside. On each dull gray canvas, the artist painted some very small objects - on one were two eyeglasses, another had three light switches, another two calendars, and still another, four toilet paper rolls. I saw this same idea, small realist objects on large flat color fields, done over fifteen years ago in Soho, only at that time the background colors were brighter. Rehashed the second time around these paintings were as dismal as the flat gray colors the artist used.

Tatunz Gallery exhibited large pencil drawings by William Anastasi. The abstract drawings were about six feet square and starting from the center streamed outward to form a shape like giant graphite dandelions. The largest drawing, about eight feet high, was a rectangular vertical piece. A chaotic frenzy of scribbled graphite covered this large paper with no logic, shape or form.

Gorney, Bravin and Lee Gallery exhibited photographs by Sam Samore entitled "The Sorcerers." All the photographs had a snapshot quality, but blown up very large. The first photo in the show was of two women drinking out of some sort of ritualistic cup. The rest of the photographs, large faces and body parts of women, did not seem to have any relation to each other or the title of the show, they just looked like large blown out snapshots in very expensive frames. By titling the show "The Sorcerers," is the artist saying that the women in the photographs, who looked quite ordinary, are evil, demonic witches? Perhaps the artist thinks that all ordinary women are demonic. He would not be the first male to have this warped idea, but the possibility of this as a thematic concept did not make the photographs any more interesting.

In general the artwork at 526 West 26th was uninspired. There was no overall unifying theme to the work aside from a general lack of depth. Much of the work was poorly executed, vacant and derivative. All of the work I saw, from scribble drawings, to minimalism, to blown up photographs of body parts, I have seen done better before. I left the building at 526 West 26th Street somewhat disappointed and proceeded two blocks south to 24th Street.

On 24th Street at Barbara Gladstone’s gallery there were two shows. Upstairs artist Jan Dibbets had three paintings of windows, one on canvas and two painted directly on the walls. The large ten foot canvas was black, the walls white. The windows painted on them were deep-set casement type windows with blurred trees outside. They were painted in a photorealist style and looked like they had been projected from a slide and traced on the wall. Not that this should matter. If you are going to do three paintings of windows with blurry trees outside, whether you project it or draw it free hand will not change anything.

You still did three paintings of casement windows. Why anyone would want to make a painting of a casement window is another matter, still another is why Barbara Gladstone would want one painted on the wall of her gallery. Barbara’s downstairs gallery featured some large photographs, some six feet in size. The photos were of country scenes and birds. There were some large framed pieces that had two identical photographs within one frame, a small and a large version. Why were there two identical photographs, were they for sale separately at different prices, or were they intended to go together as a single work? Perhaps this was a novel idea for collectors who can not decide between the small and large version, so they can get both at the same time.

Next door to Gladstone at Matthew Marks, three photographers, Robert Adams, Bill Owens and Henry Wessel exhibited small, black and white photographs of sprawling suburban America from 1968 - 1978. These small photographs provide a historical record of the poorly built housing that over ran the country during this period. They would make an interesting book, but their value as fine art is questionable. The artistry of the photographs was not apparent, and there may in fact be little difference between these photos and the multitude of photographs in home photo albums throughout the country from this same time period. Also on 24th Street, Luhring Augustine exhibited works by John Kessler entitled "The Outsider."

 Here large black canvases were painted with colored squares and scrapings in a technique borrowed from assembly line abstract shadow art normally seen at Circle gallery. However, in these paintings the artist left the shadows off so just the scrapings and shapes remained without the floatation effect. In the back of the gallery a large, steel object, basically a box with windows cut in it and mounted on a tube, resembled a crane prize game from a boardwalk penny arcade. The box was illuminated from behind by neon, and inside, instead of prizes and a crane, a stuffed parrot slowly rose up through the tube into the box and then down again. There seemed to be no reason for this parrot box to be in the gallery aside from purposes of entertainment. If this was the case, the gallery would have been better served by the installation of an actual boardwalk crane, or maybe a few skee-ball alleys. Somewhat befuddled by the collection of works on 24th Street, I traveled down to 22nd Street.

On 22nd Street, Pat Hearn Gallery hung crude and smeary abstracts by Jutta Koether. The works had simple color themes, two were black with smudging to create tones, one pink and green, another yellow, pink and white with some text smeared over. The text on the paintings killed the show. On one level the crudeness of the large abstracts had a primitive, emotional energy that was genuine, but the incorporation of meaningless text within them as a design element, which would have been "radical" back in 1970, now becomes a meaningless appropriation of a worn out trend. Pat Hearn, who used to sit with weird hairdos in her radical East Village gallery on Avenue B, has successfully transformed her gallery into a conduit for more mainstream drivel.

Also exhibiting large abstract paintings was Terry Winters at Matthew Marks huge 22nd Street gallery. Unlike Koether’s smeary work, Winters uses squiggly lines of color to make large, monochromatic shapes on canvas. The paintings were different colors, other than that they were all pretty much the same, a large mass of squiggly lines. After cashing in on Bryce Marden’s squiggly lines, Matthew Marks probably figured more of the same was a good bet. One was mostly red, another dark blue, that’s all there was to it.

Next door at Annina Nosei gallery things looked a little grim. The gallery floor was cracked and dirty, and the gallery desk also had cracks with bits of filler falling out. Nosei, like several other Chelsea galleries, could not afford or did not want to bother with color invitations or brochures. The only offering was a piece of white card with the show information printed on it.

Perhaps the shock of leaving a great storefront location on Prince Street in Soho for a beat up second floor space in Chelsea has left Annina a bit depressed and unable to keep up with the simple things like gallery maintenance. Annina exhibited sculptural work by Abraham David Christian. Christian makes boring white objects in varying shapes. One looked like a kayak, another looked like a large white chessboard with squares cut into the surface, another was a large oval shape with holes in it. The white objects were kind of dull and flat looking, but might look nice on a glass coffee table next to some potpourri.

Speaking of coffee tables, Max Protetch gallery exhibited steel and Formica coffee tables and furnishings by Michelangelo Pistoletto. Although an attempt was made to give the tables an alternative design, they were still steel and Formica furnishings and no more appealing than similar furnishings found in Macy’s or any K-Mart type store. A few strategically placed constructions added some fine art pomposity to this display of furniture.

A figure eight shaped stack of blank artist canvases sat in the back of the gallery. By the front window, a similar shaped large box mirror had neon lettering that flashed on and off. The lettering flashed, "Does God Exist?" Then it answered itself, "Yes I Do! M.P." Did the artist M.P. intend this message to be a philosophical maxim, a delusional proclamation or just a dumb joke? Anyway you look at it, the mirror message seemed pretty pointless and did not enhance the furniture display. However, a group of white, middle aged women tourists from Greenwich, CT standing in front of the gallery window did seem to find it fascinating.

At 303 Gallery, artist Liz Larner had three plastic sculptures made with brightly colored plastic tubing. One bright yellow green one was made of hundreds of cubes and was in the shape of a cube, like a little bright green Borg cube on a Star Trek TV show. Another was red and gray and sat on the floor wrapping around a square column. Yet another was yellow and in the shape of a large bent up cube. In the basement of a smaller building at 504 West 22nd, Jessica Federicks Gallery exhibited paintings by Linda Burnham. The paintings were of patterns and dots in pink, white, yellow and black that seemed inspired by a 1960’s psychedelic design.

The work reduced the design elements to remove the psychedelic qualities, leaving a decorative pattern with a "something’s missing" feeling: like decaffeinated espresso, or (in keeping with the ‘60’s theme) THC-free marijuana. Upstairs at Linda Kirkland Gallery was Gary Gissler’s show "Thinking Out Loud". Using graphite on paper, Gissler wrote long blocks of word salad, free associated text in a near microsopic and illegible format. The most interesting thing about this show was Linda Kirkland herself, who was the epitome of rudeness. Sitting at her computer in the back of the gallery she refused to be engaged in conversation. When asked a question, she sat silently staring dumbfounded into her computer, as if no one was there.

Determined to finish the tour, I hunkered down and headed two blocks south to Chelsea’s other gallery mall building at 529 W. 20th Street. The glass frontage, clean lobby and new elevators gave this building a more accessible feeling than the prison like mall on 26th Street, but the artwork was no better.

Here, at Denise Bibro Fine Art was a show of old shredded rugs with holes strategically placed in them. The rugs were painted different colors. It is curious what was in the mind of this artist while mutilating these rugs, but more curious is what was in the mind of Denise Bibro herself to show a bunch of mutilated painted up rugs in her gallery. After all, if someone really wanted an old painted rug full of holes on their wall, couldn’t they just get some paint and an old rug and make one themselves?

At Christenrose Gallery, Pauline Stella Sanchez had new works consisting of suburban kitchen style Formica cabinets with piles of tiny wooden cubes glued on top of them. The cubes rendered the cabinets useless as storage devices, and if this was not the intended use, it is hard to imagine what the intended use could be, because they were not much to look at.

To enhance the show of wooden cubed Formica cabinets, the artist had painted circles on the floor in a 1960’s psychedelic style, similar to work by Linda Burnham at Jessica Fredricks on 22nd. Also, little neon yellow and yellow-green plastic shapes, similar to the material Liz Larner used, were placed on these discs. The circular designs did not seem to impart any desperately needed substance to the display of Formica cabinets and little wooden cubes.

Even more absurd was the installation at Stephen Gang Gallery. The absurd installation was entitled "Willem De Ridder is World Famous in The Netherlands, The Illegal Exhibition (interactive exhibit) with Works by Larry Miller: DNA of Willem de Ridder." The installation consisted of a couple of photographs of a funny looking guy with frizzy gray hair who is supposed to be the famous Willem De Ridder. Along with the photos were some phony agreements framed and hung on the wall that certified De Ridder’s genetic code and also a "Genetic Code Sales Agreement" in which De Ridder sells his genetic code.

A few different chairs were also situated in the room - a wooden office chair, a folding chair, a vinyl covered cushioned chair. Each chair had a paper next to it with a history of the chair, where it was from, who the owners were. While the pointless absurdity of the objects on display was intentional, the comic effect was on par with a high school mentality. The overall impression of this show is that Stephen Gang must have been paid quite a bit of money by Larry Miller to put this stuff in his gallery, and if he wasn’t paid handsomely he should have been, because there is no other logical justification for its display.

Also at 529 W. 20th Street is Ricco/Maresca Gallery, who gave up a storefront location on Wooster Street in Soho for a third floor space in the 20th Street art mall. Ricco/Maresca has been trying to cash in on the Outsider Art, Self-Taught Art phenomenon for some time, but the show of Ivan Chermayeff Iris Prints has taken it to another level. In this show collage portraits and faces made up of found or pseudo found objects such as old metal buckets, pieces of weathered wood, used envelopes with postage stamps, buttons, stones, old tools, etc., are reproduced as Iris Prints. The problem with this idea is that the Iris Print is a technical medium requiring the photograph and subsequent conversion of the image into a digital computer file that is then printed on the Iris Printer. The medium in itself is incompatible with the whole notion of the primitive, outsider or self-taught artist, who in some cases can not even read and is not in the habit of retouching digital files in Photoshop on the computer. The images themselves did not have a genuine self-taught quality, but were too cleanly manufactured and gave the impression of designer Outsider Art. This is a consistent problem with galleries that specialize in this genre, as anyone who has visited the Outsider Art Fair can attest. Genuine, raw Outsider Art is hard to find and so these galleries revert to showing works by trained artists who have designed their work to have a stylistic resemblance to that of the untrained, raw artist. The resulting artwork may work well as a decoration in a trendy, deconstructed loft space, but it lacks the emotional force and psychological intensity of real Outsider Art.

Here I ended my tour of Chelsea. While there were more galleries to visit on the outskirts, these four blocks had the major concentration of galleries and seemed enough to answer our original question: What kind of art is there in Chelsea? On review the answer is: the same old derivative, uninspired art that these galleries exhibited and everyone was bored with when they were in Soho. Unlike the East Village gallery movement in the 1980s, which had a bohemian, street-art movement at its root, the Chelsea scene was inspired not by art, but by real estate and the desire for rent relief.

Perhaps the scene is best summed up by the strange vacant stare of Linda Kirkland, frozen at her computer screen, unable to acknowledge the presence of another human being. With it we leave Chelsea sadly behind us, inspired only with a desire to knock on the empty wooden heads of the mediocre and confused gallery owners and loudly ask the question, "HELLO, IS ANYONE HOME?"

Roberta Smythe


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