by James McGirk
The “gallery” still exists on paper and hosts an occasional salon – these being one-night-only performances choked with marijuana fumes and haunted by octogenarian Warhol hangers-on and younger artists whose parents are presumed to have money – but lost its physical space five years ago. Today the gallery is a husk, but for a couple of years this gallery, which shall remain nameless, maintained a convincing façade and provided our heroine A— with her first glimpse at the art world’s mottled backside.
Art remains a mostly visual medium. Without a gallery to display his or her wares in, a dealer is little more than a middleman. Without shows, a critic has nowhere to direct his or her audience and thus has nothing newsworthy to write about, and without an overlay of critical gravitas, a painting is just paint on canvas, a sculpture is just papier-mâché wadded over wire, etc. And from a buyer’s perspective there is no quantifiable reason to pay a premium for artwork. Without space to display, an art dealer is essentially worthless to an emerging artist.
Our nameless gallery was run by J—, a friendly if somewhat frenetic American, balding and goateed, but quite handsome in spite of it, about forty years old at the time, given to fugues of untruth whose force corresponded directly to his bank balance. Not a bad man. He was vague about how he came into the art business. He inherited money from his parents, who were apparently doctors. He was money-driven and a bit of swindler but not a malevolent one. As teenager he fancied himself a sort of European aesthete and claimed to have bluffed his way into Oxford University – or almost did, he was caught registering for classes. Later he claimed to have tried the same stunt at Dartmouth, only to be found out a half semester in and discretely removed.
J—’s space reflected his persona. Appearance was everything, not necessarily a bad thing in the art business. Just off Soho’s main drag, on a cobblestone street, it seemed the perfect location. During the day his street was an escape route for the wealthy residents who loathed the tourist-clogged main street. His neighbors included celebrities and financiers and even a few of Soho’s remaining artists. Although J was not quite at center of New York City’s art world (which began on 57th street, moved down to Soho, then drifted up to Chelsea and appears to be trickling down to the Lower East Side, although Chelsea remains the center) he was within walking distance. The space was a former shoe-shop consisting of two floors connected by a steep stairway. It was awfully shallow – which meant paintings (and patrons!) tended to clash and squabble during shows, but it had big glass windows and tall ceilings and decent frontage, i.e. much of his wares were visible from the street.
J— would sit in his ground floor window sipping wine with bottle beside him, beckoning people in, and gradually a few of the local artist began to introduce themselves.
One these artists was a professor at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. J— mentioned he was looking for emerging artists and asked for recommendations. He suggested A—, a slim, striking redhead, who was completing her senior year. Her thesis began as a series of realistic portraits of luminescent blood stains – dark oil paintings of glowing blue dribbling down doorframes and flung across stained walls and shabby rooms – but her work had changed, become increasingly abstract as A— reduced and refined the optic qualities of each image. How could a glowing blue splotch on a dim background produce a palpable feeling of dread? How could that sensation be intensified and magnified? Her professor said J— was far from perfect but would make a good starter gallery.
A— was a non-traditional student and always had been. Born on Florida’s Gulf Coast in 1972, a card-carrying citizen of Cherokee Nation who was once a contender for a national roller-skating title. Florida is a more tolerant place than it was in the 1980s, but at the height of Death Cult Hysteria, sunny, sports-crazed, pastel-clad Florida was no place for a gloomy, rebellious girl who was so sensitize to ultraviolet radiation her skin felt as if it were burning the instant it was exposed to direct sunlight. But A— wasn’t alone in her alienation. She ran away from home at 14 and joined a peculiar nocturnal subculture of Goths, Skinheads, New Romantics and Post-Punks. This mix of melodic, gender bending British synth and gloomier Goth music, and furious predominantly American, politically active post punk and heavy metal was an ideal counterbalance to the rigid, religious sun worshippers who ruled the day.
She earned a GED (a General Equivalency Diploma, a secondary education equivalency credential), then found a mentor at a small community college who encouraged her and introduced her to the strictures of a classical art education, relentless drills designed to improve her sense of composition such as an assignment asking her to create 100 different compositionally balanced forms from five parallel lines and hours and hours scrawling charcoal sketches of nudes. Moved out from a small community of runaways calling themselves the Family and paired off, beginning to earn a living as retail clerk and a barista and a hostess. At night she created assembled elaborate costumes from the flotsam and jetsam she found in thrift stores, and sometimes went on long drives to watch space shuttles arc through the sky. And eventually found her way to New York City.
A— consigned her paintings to J— and joined a motley crew of artists. There was a graffito-tag inspired autodidact who created hundreds of bite-sized paintings that he pixilated the steep walls of the gallery with, and sold for tens of dollars per piece. (He made more money than anyone else in the gallery) There was an art handler and journeyman carpenter who was deeply influenced by Francis Bacon and helped J— build partitions and carry other people’s art around (one wondered, as one often did at the Gallery, whether there might have been a tit-for-tat exchange going on), a nubile Eastern European or two with a mysterious background, whose shows brought stiff, silent men in shiny suits, and about half dozen artists from the neighborhood – some famous, others unknown to all but other artists.
The shows were eclectic. Visually cacophonic. The gallery was crammed with work during each exhibition, perhaps given the overlapping factions of artists J— decided quantity was a better strategy than a narrow focus on a few exquisite pieces as most other gallerists would have done. But for all the noise the shows were unpredictable and fun to attend. J— would throw open his doors, turn up the music and pour gallons of wine. The crowd was a peculiar one. J— seemed to have few legitimate art world connections, so his openings were much more festive than usual. In more professional settings artists tend to be on their best behavior, at least until the after-parties. At J—’s many attendees simply walked in off the street; often a homeless or local eccentric would wander in, after canapés and bottles of wine. They often were not noticed for hours. But most of the crowd at the openings did have a home somewhere; they were usually friends of the artists and neighborhood-dwellers, making it an odd mix of crusty old New Yorkers and naïve newcomers. They frequently clashed but never actually came to blows.
After his openings were over, J— would gather up his artists and meander over to old bar and grill that was once famous for being an artists’ hangout. After a few drinks he would come back to his gallery to clean up and check signatures in the guestbook. It was always filled with names, but more often than not they were all wannabe-artists and pranks –
obvious ones claiming a visit from the likes of Leo Castelli and crueler, more realistic ones pretending to from The New York Times’ Roberta Smith or (then) Village Voice’s Jerry Saltz. But there were sales. A—’s first sale went to a New York Times business correspondent, was driving by the gallery on his motorcycle when he spotted one of her works, an ultramarine abstract form with a tiny trompe-l'oeil tear painted on its front, calling attention to its surface and creating a sort of circulation through the piece. A second one sold soon after her first solo show, also to a passer-by, this time a Miami-based businessman who visiting and saw a vast red on black rectangle.
The work continued to evolve. A— reduced her images to skeletal geometries of geometries and wondered what it was exactly she was creating. She pored over schematics of old Epcot center rides, of airports and fast food restaurants, tracing the shapes society forces its populations into, sometimes unintentionally, sometimes not. The smudges and trompe-l’oeil on her canvases turned into more dramatic shapes, entirely abstract shapes, glowing bars of light refracted and torqued by chunks of color.
The emerging artists J— wanted to champion were not making him enough money to stay in business. He looked to other sources of income. Arranging sales of artwork from established, often dead artists. He briefly connected with another dealer, R—, a magnetically charming older gentleman, who was even shorter than J—, married to a famous sculptor and who was once a powerful dealer, or so he claimed. He allegedly had connections to a pair of multi-million dollar works, the commission from those alone would be enough to nourish J—’s gallery for months. R— was an extreme alcoholic. J— often returned to his gallery to find R— sprawled out in the backroom, surrounded by empties. But those munificent deals were somehow always just around the corner.
The end of their partnership seemed to come all at once. R— tended to cadge $20 bills from artists and one night after A— broke down and gave him one during an opening, R— came running out after, clutching a charcoal drawing consigned to him (or more likely consigned J—) and purported to be from a major 20th century female painter. It was pouring rain. A— refused the sodden piece of paper. Later that night R—somehow punctured an aerosol can and knocked himself out, managing to damage most of the works in storage in the process. Or so J— said. But he seemed slightly traumatized by the event. R— claimed conspiracy and that he had stormed out. He managed to find another backer and opened shop down the street but the backer pulled out before R— had a chance to open a show.
A— decided to leave the gallery after she was accepted into Yale’s Master of Fine Arts painting program. J— occasionally would make demands no legitimate art dealer would ever dare make. He would ask her to turn paintings upside down, and as the gallery became shorter and shorter on cash, seemed to be take more and more liberties with his artists; the zenith being when he demanded a piece of work from each of his artists, and then tried to exchange the work he did not like.
At the academy, A— pushed her work to the limits of her physical endurance. She scaled ladders and painted work that was eleven-feet tall, and needed each layer of paint to be completed in a single sitting otherwise her surfaces would be ruined. The work began to move away from mere image and crept across the edges of her canvases, which became wider and boxier. Images became objects. Visual products assembled from the boundaries of the senses where optic phenomena cross over into touch and sound. And as she pushed her materials and subject matter further, A— began to notice how much of her visual vocabulary was actually undercut by the strange subterranean southerners she grew up with and the gender-bending, ominous angry music that seeped into her consciousness. The work was cultural, the work was queer; the work was becoming closer and closer to a direct channel to her optic unconsciousness.
J— was not done with her, however. About a year after A— graduated he rang her up with a once in a lifetime opportunity. He claimed he had met the curators of the Whitney Biennial and was all but guaranteeing a coveted slot at what is arguably the most important show in contemporary art. All he demanded in return was an exclusive contract that would lock her into business with him for the next ten years provided she make enough money. And even if he didn’t he was entitled to a hefty commission from any dealer. She declined and they have not spoken since. Although an occasional salon invite will evade the spam filters materialize in her inbox.