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The Art Voyager, 2-12: Gallery Hop-o-thermia
Fear & loathing in Chelsea

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011 Paul Ben-Itzak

NEW YORK -- Only a true art-fanatic with a death wish would walk 50 blocks to the Chelsea Art Valley on a polar night in Manhattan, when the towering buildings on the seemingly interminable blocks between 10th and 11th Avenue make the art voyager seem particularly naked in the Naked City. So there I was -- oui, moi -- with a scribbled list of a dozen galleries hosting openings Thursday night, in search of high middle-brow art 'arrosed' by red, red, wine. What I found was middle-concept middling art watered down by tepid white wine (doesn't stain like red), only one artist worth remarking among the 12, this defeated art voyager treading wearily home in his Fort Worth Mexican flea market tan cowboy boots, only to be saved by Joel McCrea riding out of the high country with Randollph Scott riding herd.

This art spy first came in from the cold and for his first disappointment on W. 27th Street for the Flomenhaft Gallery's closing reception for a group women's show which, well, had the ambience of a group women's show, that is to say an exhibition driven more by a cause than an aesthetic marker. Whatever works might have been interesting -- more from a social context than an aesthetic one -- were hard to identify for the casual observer because the artworks were identified only by little numbers next to them, a printed out grid which matched the numbers to the artists' names being hoarded on an out-of-the-way desk in a corner of the space. I liked a large tableau by Jaune Quick-to-see-Smith which, as you might guess by the lyrical name, had a lot of symbols related to Indians (e.g., buffalos) and words evoking their cause ("Bury my heart at...") and was moving to look at for that reason but, like most of the rest of the work on display, didn't show a lot of depth of skill or art. Looking around the room and seeing only two other guys, I got the feeling that I had intruded at a women's networking event and skee-daddled back out into the stinging night.

Between 27th and 21st Street -- which ate up about an hour; you'd be surprised how long it takes to walk to the middle of one of those blocks, and then walk back to the avenue to continue downtown -- the landscape in Chelsea Art Valley was pretty barren, the most interesting objet d'art turning up being the swirling cornices on an the art deco elevator it took to reach the "Rogue Space" in suite 9e of 526 W. 26th (after the elevator you have to navigate a series of hallways). At the Benrimon Gallery on W. 24 -- I see I've written "BAD" next to the name on my scribbled notes -- Troy Spengler was confusing pop art with just writing phrases that were tired in the '80s -- "It's not about you," for instance -- in large block letters over bright, almost garishly colored passages populated with clowns, Last Supper attendees, etcetera. When the artist started giving away pins with flowers, I knew it was time to leave.

At the Julie Saul gallery I'd been drawn by -- did I mention that there were so many openings last night that I'd actually filtered my itinerary, mapping only those that seemed from their websites to offer interesting art? -- I'd been drawn by an image on the website of a brightly lit Eiffel Tower in a brightly lit urban landscape, part of David Stephenson's "Light Cities" portfolio. It was only when I got there and heard a young woman remark to her mate, "That's funny, I don't remember it like THAT" that I realized it was probably not THAT Eiffel but the lookalike erected somewhere in China, where one city has erected a whole fake Paris neighborhood. In this photo, the skyscrapers surrounding the Eiffel were the hint -- the real Paris segregates them for the most part to the business-centered suburb of La Defense. And in this exhibition, Stephenson hadn't added anything particular to the images, beyond perhaps over-exposure.

It was only because of what had proceeded it -- and perhaps a gnawing hypothermia that was beginning to cloud my artistic judgment, warming it where it should have been cool -- that at first I greeted the mobiles and mixed media black hanging posts (hanging as in hangman, I mean) in Geoffrey Farmer's "Bacon's not the only thing that is cured by hanging from a string" show at Casey Kaplan on W. 21st as something at least original and thus refreshing. (On the gallery's website earlier, I'd only actually read "Bacon's not the only" and thought it was referring to a specific work of Francis Bacon, the caliber of artist one used to see in Soho when vestiges of the scene were still hanging on there.) It may also have been my soft spot for soft-lit colored light-bulbs, which featured in most of the works. More troublesome was that each also featured cut-out photos of people, which was when I realized that the art was back-loaded, concept determining form. How long artists, or at least Chelsea artists, had fallen since Picasso -- the subject of the new MOMA exhibition "Picasso: Guitars 1912-1914" -- chose cardboard and paper because that was how he saw his guitar. Now artists like Stephenson -- and there are a plethora -- start with the clever message and let it designate the medium and (in?)form the art. This was the Chelsea, anyway, in 2011, a land where 20-something artist groupies go to drink while barely drinking in -- they're too busy chatting up for that -- art by artists who, by the utter lack of sophistication, if not sophistry, seem to also be in their 20s.

It would take an old-school Chelsea gallery to rescue me from this new Chelsea and the art-loathing it was starting to produce in this art-lover, and I found it in Elizabeth Harris Gallery, a 20-year operation in school at good ol' 529 W. 20th, a towering babble of galleries, where Eyal Danieli had created a whole universe in the half of the gallery given over to his "Fagin's adventures / assorted works on paper." The works in question are best physically described as silhouettes, an effect achieved by simple black (it isn't always) charcoal on white paper. The figures, usually etched in charcoal, include the recurrent character of a bearded man who could be a devout Muslim or a Hasid; in one figure, he faces the head of a camel. There's also a sweeping airplane, a running man, twin gothic towers, a woman in a hijab. (You can get a better and broader idea on Danieli's page on the gallery's website.)

"This is the first art of substance I'd seen tonight," I made a point of telling Harris, the gallery owner, who introduced me to the artist, to whom I popped the question, "What's it all about?" "You're supposed to make up the story," Danieli punted with an impish smile. "It has various trajectories." The basis, though, or part of it, is "personal history," he said, and that authenticity reads; no cleverness here, no flashy words or flashy style, just charcoal on paper creating silhouettes and the worlds they stand in relief from.

I took my shivering silhouette back out to W. 20th, so inspired that I decided to walk the many blocks home. (I'm being obscure lest any of the other 11 artists I've dissed decide to trace me.) Somewhere on some avenue, I stumbled across a video store offering a "going out of business" sale. Smothering the instinct to ask, "How many years have you been going out of business at the same location?" (thank you, Robert Klein) I instead quickly -- even tepid white wine must out, and so I had to get home soon -- scoured the bins for any jewels, my eyes lighting upon "Ride the High Country," Sam Peckinpah's 1962 epoch-straddling Western in which two heroes of the simply etched '40s and '50s Westerns, Joel McCrea and Randolph Scott, not only ride the high country into the West but help Peckinpah ride the Western into the nuanced real-Cowboy epoch of the '60s and '70s. From the moment McCrea walks down main street with frayed white cuffs and taped over boot-soles, you know this is going to be a true Western, the first, poignantly raw and painfully natural, even with a young Mariette Hartley along for the ride as the heroine the heroes reluctantly rescue from a forced marriage wth a mountain hillbilly and his brothers. And there it was on a shelf in front of the counter, boxed with two other Peckinpah classics -- "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and "The Wild Bunch," the latter of which I'd never seen, plus "The Ballad of Cable Hogue," in which Jason Robards plays a desert rat selling water to thirsty travelers while he waits for the moment the two guys who done him wrong show up so he can watch them die of thirst. "How much does it say for the price?" the Billy lookalike behind the counter asked. "$24.99." "Well, just about everything in the store is selling for $5, so you can have it for $19.99." I briefly considered adding a tin-boxed Johnny Cash set which included 24 of the old tunes and a made-for-t.v. movie in which Johnny portrays an illiterate coal miner, all for $9.99, but decided to stick with just the Peckinpah Westerns after seeing that the cast included Brenda Vaccaro -- Danger, Will Robbins, bad '70s made-for-t.v. movie!

The first time and the last time I saw McCrea and Scott and this movie were in France, the first at one of Paris's many art-house theaters -- I always loved Westerns, but it wasn't until I got to France that I was able to discover so many of them (while we were watching Godard, France was watching Peckinpah, Fuller, Ford, and Wyler) -- and the last on public television when I was living in a 300-year-old stone house, 'The Pidgeonaire,' in the Great Southwest of France in my own valley with my own river in the backyard, and that time the cowboys were dubbed in French. (Little-known secret: When public television stations in the U.S. show French movies, they leave the voices alone and offer sub-titles; nine times out of ten, their French cousins go for the dub.)

So tonight -- as I dash to finish this off it's cocktail time in Manhattan on Friday -- I'm girding to ward off all the "Black Swan" converts who will no doubt flock to the opening of New York City Ballet's "Swan Lake," secure in the knowledge that if the swan fans get too overwhelming and the Peter Martins after Petipa choreography is too underwhelming, I can hit the trail for home, where Joel and Randolph will be waiting for me with a cuppa scalding coffee, a kettle of steaming beans, and a yarn even older and more eternal than the one about the swans, riding the high country.

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