So you want to go look at some art. I won’t hold it against you. Maybe you’ve watched True Detective through, or your iPhone’s broken. Plus, at an opening, there’s always a chance of free beer.
But it turns out that in Chelsea all they’ve got is Chardonnay, and you can’t see the art for the money anyhow. In Soho all they’ve got now is clothes. So where do you, the young art-liker turn? Why, to the home of everything else fishy and just barely tolerated: Chinatown.
Or so I’ve been informed. A few Fridays ago, on a post-dumpling meander, I dropped into the newly opened STL, a gallery space on 138 Eldridge, to try to figure the whole business out. The room, three cement steps below street level, in a former fishmonger, is under the care of Martos Gallery director Taylor Trabulus and writer-curator Alexander Shulan. They’d spent only three days installing the first show: walls remained tacky, the ceiling low, and water dripped out onto the floor in the back of the room—although it turned out that the leak, at least, was part of the show (it fell from a pipe attached to useless industrial vents and empty sake barrels).
That afternoon Shulan explained that the show was made to look intentionally “rotting” and “trolly” (i.e. 4chan, not Tolkien). “This stuff is not easily marketable,” he told me over a summer ale, with the rushed eloquence of a man with a headful of ideas, and 700 tabs open. “There’s an attention to material … maybe an afterword to digital computing, but it isn’t internet art. In fact, the show’s almost explicitly against internet art.”
Near the entrance tinsely glued together chunks of metal hung within a wood frame that looked like it had been lifted from grandma’s house in Mamaroneck. Opposite: a slightly pixelated above life-size image of a princess drowning in her palace. The upper portion of the photo-paper curled clumsily onto the ceiling. A huge clump of dried up phragmites plucked from the Rockaways leaned along the side wall. Under them lay a broken glass frame encasing a black-and-white photo of railroad tracks. Oktoberfest ribbons twined around the reeds.
At the official opening, a few hours later, people swarmed and sashayed in and and out, unable to avoid stepping on the art. The crowd was young but motley enough.Web artists and web series starlets mingled. Downtown kids got down. Two swarthy norms in a corner were, for some inexplicable reason, talking about Plautus.
Probably no one had a transcendental art experience, but the spectators weren’t being disappointed or messed with, either: no one had come looking for one. A few vestiges of anti-art irreverence remained (a dirty mat by the door was titled “Harpo Playing Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C-Sharp Minor,”) but mostly the work was too subdued to be irreverent. Over the course of the night there were a few chuckles, but stifled ones. In the same way (and perhaps for the same reasons) that it’s become impossible to look at anything new without wondering about the price, it has also become difficult not to wonder where the joke is.
And yet it occurred to me that despite (or because of) the show’s explicit emphasis on humor, the works here were less mocking than the ones we’ve come to expect from our modern-day object-makers. I’ve got no special insight into what the artists at STL are trying to achieve, but I suppose that if you go in for classifications, you might want to call these new Chinatown artists realists—so long as you acknowledge how much of young New Yorkers’ reality consists of bullshit on the internet and bits of garbage preserved by the snow.
Money, of course, was somewhere in the room too, in all likelihood sulking alone in the corner, not getting anyone cute’s number.
“D’you sell anything?” someone asked Shulan, as the opening trailed on toward the next day.
“Do you see anyone here over 30?” he replied, and, with a wiry grace, fled outside to quickly sweep up a dozen forgotten beer cans into the dumpster.
“I don’t want to get a ticket,” he explained, as I met him on the threshold, “it’s like 5,000 bucks.”