White House Purple Heart Ivory Tower Red Neck Blue Devils Yellow Submarine Agent Orange Black Power Green Thumb Pink Dollars Dumb Blond Golden Showers Silver Linings
30 October - 20 December 2008
Mary Boone Gallery, New York
This week Bones, intrepid art-world raconteur, puts on his best suit and heads uptown to the Mary Boone Gallery. Only a year ago, Aleksandra Mir put on a brilliant, heart-warming show downtown. Can she do it again in the shadow of Bergdorf Goodman?
It's good for the commercial art brain to take the F train way north of Chelsea to the 57th Street Galleries once a month. Dangerous stylistic tics of looking and posing borne of a strict Tenth Avenue diet deserve a regular recuperative massage to keep them in check. The northern gallery experience always hits like a mild electric shock: invigorating, kinky. The 57th Street landscape is bustling with bona fide rich people, thoroughbred and buttered with baubles you'd never want to own but can't help but examine. No one pays an iota of attention to you on the street because you look déclassé. It doesn't matter if you're dapper and a beauty: these people are too busy and have too many hot friends already to make a street connection. Suffice to say this makes a delightful change from the shamelessly randy and judgmental hormonal soup of the art beat downtown.
And the galleries themselves could not be more different—refreshingly so—from the parking-garage styles permitted in Chelsea, those freezing rectangles of steel and cement. Some galleries have carpets here. Some galleries have walls that are painted to look like brushed suede. Some galleries have walls that curve. 57th Street Galleries offer civilized peace, the same unhurried sanity you'll find at the city's museums an hour before their weekly free admission evening starts, because nobody is ever there. Over half an hour in Mary Boone I only saw Mary Boone, a young guy with a pompadour haircut who she would shout at periodically through the wall, and a geriatric lady with an intense brocade situation who exchanged pleasingly terse pleasantries with me. I always return from these jaunts thinking about the art I've seen. The singular clarity of the uptown art experience, this peace, is not to be taken for granted.
Aleksandra Mir is a wildly experimental, driven artist who acts like she can do anything anywhere in the world, and usually does. She put on a wonderful show at the 24th Street Mary Boone space in 2007 called Newsroom 1986-2000, where she worked in the gallery throughout the show's run making 200 large-scale Sharpie recreations of New York tabloid newspaper covers. The show had a warm heart and great legs, getting better as the run went on, richly expounding on the power and value of humans making and reporting news together. At the same time the work, through the expired and quaint headlines of the recent past that appeared on the gallery walls, pointedly never escaped the fact that this whole thing was 'old news.' Humorous and high on the rewards of history-making, however humble, Mir embodied the excited and contagious spunk of a primary-school teacher giving it her all. It was a good look.
Evidently the show was a hit, because Boone has put her on with a not massively different body of work exactly a year later at the 57th Street Gallery. The 13 drawings, again very large, largely text, and executed in black marker, all play on the colors of politics. White House Ivory Tower says one, in gothic script. White House Golden Shower' says another, with a comic thicket of rain descending from the letters. White House Black Power, showering snowflakes over a black background, had sold. It cost $25,000, and I was very surprised.
They really miss the mark, I think, these drawings, half-cocked in their conviction as to whether they're saying anything important. I am still not sure what the mark is. They have the look and feel of a project in the workshop stage that needn't be followed all the way through. They're not funny, visually appealing, or serious enough to nag a viewer and pursue them. In the refined uptown air, disappointment strikes clear and hard.
The second room contained a single piece, 3300 unique one-to-five inch buttons pinned to the walls in a floor-to-ceiling polka dot frieze. Made in the same spontaneous marker style as the drawings, they range from historical curios like King Streisand Taylor for McGovern to iffy oddities like Truman was screwy and the pure goof of Vote for the Republican Candidates for President and Vice President 1924. The powerful collision of voices, the hard, detailed work involved, and the naked evidence of desires bravely, publicly expressed in this tableau is really rather moving. It's a piece about the eventual volume and the collective impact your beliefs might bring, a matter that could not mean more than it did today, the morning after Barack Obama's election.
Still, let's leave American politics out of this. We'll only get carried away. Mir's Presidential pin piece also speaks, quite tragically I think, of the artist's own stifled needs. This all-told turkey of a show felt bullied, thoroughly stifled by the narrow needs of its environment. How else can one reconcile a single work with such clear purpose and plainspoken integrity, elegantly carried through in exactly the terms it describes, with the rest of Mir's uptown offerings, work that has no urgency, and no agency? The aristocratic glamour in the strongholds of the uptown scene can create a proud and uncompromising atmosphere, where dulled passive-aggressive fulfillment of perceived expectations become the artist's only recourse. It sure did here. Mir showed a beautiful piece with three thousand opinions, yet I wonder how many of this odd artist's own other opinions—less simple, less saleable—were tacitly chided into submission. Uptown is great fun, but it's best taken as a tonic to clean your spirit in preparation for a return to reality. Don't stay up there for long.