By 8:30 p.m. last Thursday night, just half an hour after it opened, the line had stretched for The Patriot, an unclassifiable and frankly insane group show at O’Flaherty’s gallery at 55 Avenue C and East 4th Street down and flirted with Avenue B. By the time the New York City Police Department arrived with at least a dozen officers and several squad cars, the crowd had swelled to a rough estimate of around 1,000 people, and it was quite conceivable that many of them were waiting to go about their own work see.
About four weeks ago, the gallery issued a democratic open call: No work smaller than 1.00m² will be rejected. It was answered enthusiastically. At last count, the exhibition features 820 artworks crammed into the gallery’s modest storefront, most of them salon-style with impressively little air to breathe, but also crawling to the ceiling, sprawled on the floor and colonizing the bathroom.
In the New York art world, the summer group show has traditionally been a suave, low-impact affair with loosely connected works under a minimally taxing conceit. It’s really a placeholder until the collectible class returns from Amagansett – “the most disappointing show for an artist to attend,” as the show’s printed statement correctly identifies.
“The Patriot” is not polite. In his rabid excess, he pushes the summer group exhibition to its absurd limits. It is by turns hysterical, profane, unsanitary, obnoxious and somehow unsettling. It’s also a lot of fun. Predictably, given the volume, it’s not all good, and some is actively off-putting (“I mean, what’s that?” asked painter Jamian Juliano-Villani, who runs the gallery with artist Billy Grant and musician Ruby Zarsky showing a fillet of herring rotting in a plastic sandwich bag attached to a door).
Seemingly every conceivable and unthinkable medium is represented: color, of course, but also synthetic wig hair, broken hockey sticks, insulating foam, needlepoint, hubcaps, brasserie menus. An accurately scaled tinfoil sheep left on a dolly – a good sight gag – roams the ground floor. Any kind of compelling curatorial principle is secondary, namely trying to do something interesting instead of just moving products.
Without context does not mean without claim. The Patriot becomes its own kind of concept art. “Everyone thinks they have an original idea, but there are 10,000 of the same painting,” Juliano-Villani said. In fact, themes emerge: reworked muddy oil paintings; Ready-made sex toys; post-ironic obsession with celebrities (a drawing of the famous paparazzi picture of Jake Gyllenhaal sullenly feeding soup to Kirsten Dunst stands out).
If the overall effect is that of a Cooper Union thesis show on psilocybin, it reveals, probably unintentionally, the deep and abounding desire among the city’s artists, who clamor for notoriety and desperate for recognition, and the difficulty in getting commissions and representation receive. The show is a microcosm of the art scene in all its frustrated expressions: art school dropouts, first-timers, artists who have long suffered in the dark, the celebrity wild. It’s a kind of alternative Whitney Biennial (most of the work was submitted by local artists, but some also came from Virginia and Vermont). In terms of digging up the corrupt heart of American art production, it’s more effective in many ways.
While the thrill felt by a struggling artist securing his first group show surely has to be genuine – and alongside established artists like Josh Smith, no less, who has previously filled commissions for Louis Vuitton and here a Rauschenberg cigar box with razor blades attached B. contributes by chewing gum – it won’t count as anyone’s big break or spruce up a resume. When the show uses them as props, none of them seem to mind.
When I came back the day after it opened, the scene was much more civilized. A handful of people wandered around sharing what appeared to be the same amazed expression of sensory overload. An artist tended to a kinetic sculpture on the floor, a complex network of silicone skin that pumped and recycled what appeared to be blood from two gallon-sized jars. A gallery assistant asked about the likelihood of an explosion. It wasn’t out of the question.
It was impossible to determine whether or not a plastic shopping bag left in the middle of the first floor was an actual work of art, but it might as well have been (it was later recovered by a visitor, but a similar one might have been hung up in the office where a series of blinking video works blinking on tiny screens like a miniature Shinjuku neighborhood). Occasionally the entire gallery groans, signaling that a visitor has tripped over the vibrating subfloor in an adjoining room housing a display case filled with Abraham Lincoln’s supposed death pillow, on loan from the Morgan Library and Museum. (Juliano-Villani: “Billy was there to meet someone who owed him a favor”; a spokeswoman for the Morgan said, of course, that the object was never in its collection, nor did the museum loan any objects for the exhibition.)
In fact, the number of established artists who have chosen to participate can come as a surprise. For example, you can try to find work by Jonas Wood, Terence Koh, Jordan Wolfson, Rob Pruitt, and Sarah Morris. Cecily Brown offered a half-hearted canvas (alongside a jar of Eurocrem, Serbia’s answer to Nutella). Lipstick marks on the underside of the toilet seat in the bathroom are attributed to Dan Colen. A shadow sculpture by British duo Tim Noble and Sue Webster stands on a plinth and probably looked better during the opening when the gallery’s lights were off and visitors were given flashlights to see in the dark. Good or bad, there are no aesthetic judgments, which, as Juliano-Villani said, “is the perfect way to annihilate any kind of art scene.”
There’s a dizzying embrace of chaos that used to define the downtown scene but has been largely absent of late, zapped by confident taste ratings and smoothed by the unified glamor of social media and expansionism. For all its dripping humanity, The Patriot is the polar opposite of a sterile concrete retail space. Still, like everything that works or doesn’t work in New York City, “The Patriot” has a real estate component. It is the gallery’s last exhibition in this space and will be on view until August 10th. The gallerists said their landlord, less enamored with their anarchic spirit, was evicting them, and the exhibit was a parting gift of sorts in the form of nearly 1,000 holes in the walls, a final punk gesture befitting its surroundings.
Avenue C has remained largely untouched by the slickness that has gripped other parts of the city. It’s only a few minutes in either direction to the art trading districts of West Chelsea or TriBeCa, but mentally it might as well be on the moon. When O’Flaherty’s opened last year, Juliano-Villani, feeling handicapped by the demands of the market, described her desire to “show art that isn’t afraid of itself”. In the window, a putrid green neon sign asks, “What’s up?” – a question that teases what’s going on inside, but which could, and probably should, also sensibly be asked of the rest of the art world at large.
Through August 10, O’Flaherty’s, 55 Avenue C, Manhattan, oflahertysnyc.com.