Fear and Loathing at :)

FriendsWithYou, "Starburst" (2010) (all photos by author)

Drawn by an over-900 people attending Facebook events page and a plug on GAYLETTER two months ago, I wandered into the opening of :) by FriendsWithYou at The Hole and left feeling a mixture of what Dr. Hunter S. Thompson described as “fear and loathing.” Now, a few days before the exhibition’s closing, I revisited :) to see if my opinion of the art would change without the unseasonable near 100 degree heat, crowded gallery and drunkenness. It didn’t.

FriendsWithYou is a Miami-based art collective that formed in 2002 by Samuel Borkson and Arturo Sandoval III to spread “Magic, Luck and Friendship” around the world. Beginning by making toys and now consulting with corporations, FriendsWithYou is perhaps best known for their recently closed installation Rainbow City near the High Line.

Filled with smiling paintings and sculptures made primarily of Lasercut MDF, car paint and acrylic and a giant inflatable sculpture, :) is a frightening testament to how much power hype has in the current art scene. With previous exhibitions of artists such as Kenny Scharf and Cody Critcheloe & SSION that are truly gleeful and my own love of Pop and bright imagery, I entered into Jeffery Deitch-protégée Kathy Grayson’s The Hole thinking that I would at least appreciate FriendsWithYou. While the cheerful works like “Plasma God” are clearly inspired by the Pop irreverence of Takashi Murakami or even Keith Haring, I am still left feeling completely blank about the work.

FriendsWithYou, "Plasma God" (2011) and "Lucky Stick" (2011)

While the joyous faces and cartoonish colors are meant to invoke a childlike wonder in the viewer, the main problem with :) is the disconnect between the language FriendsWithYou and The Hole use to discuss the work and the work itself. This problem is only multiplied and becomes more terrifying when these ideas are taken up by reporters, bloggers and art viewers, who get caught up in the trendiness of the show.

FriendsWithYou, "Infinity Pond" (2011)

Clearly from the press release, The Hole and FriendsWithYou see this exhibition as a rejection of the staid and morose art scene. As the press release reads:

Their sculptures and paintings, inflatables and objects are meant to trigger the buried, neglected urges and yearnings that a seasoned art viewer may not expect to have activated; playfulness, laughter and inquisitiveness.

Looking at a work like Infinity Pond, I did not feel playful or inquisitive, but instead felt empty and confused as to why so many people in the art scene were interested in this work. Even more aggravating than the cloying work itself is the implication through the press release that if you don’t have a certain response to the work, you must be an angry art-viewing douchebag that hates fun.

FriendsWithYou's ":)" installation shot and "BFF" (2011)

In the center of the installation photograph of :), “Round & Round” (2011), a work featuring two spinning yellow smiley faces, shows the moving works of the exhibition. Spinning, moving vertically or just shifting eyes like retro cat wall-clocks, certain works in :) are in constant motion, which still does no’t help to make the show more meaningful or interactive.

Native Shoes pop-up store in The Hole

The most disturbing part of :) for me and where my “fear and loathing” came to a head was the Native Shoes pop-up store inside The Hole. Native Shoes are a Canadian shoe brand that co-presented the show with the Hole. In their second collaboration with FriendsWithYou, the Native Shoes pop-up store is completely jarring and points to a problem with the commercial art market.

I’m not against galleries selling artist multiples, books or even artist-designed clothing and shoes. I frequently bought merchandise from Keith Haring’s Pop Shop when it still existed on West Broadway in SoHo. The Native Shoes store has no artistic connection to FriendsWithYou, which makes me wonder about its placement in The Hole. Maybe its an indication of the horrible economic time we’re in that a gallery has to sell shoes in order to finance an exhibition or maybe its blatant consumerism. Either way the Native Shoes store in The Hole made me feel as if the popular art scene was doomed.

FriendsWIthYou, "The Portal" (2011)

After walking through the exhibit a second time, I still kept trying to find reasons for the popularity of FriendsWithYou’s work and the show in particular, wondering if I had missed the point. Is the meaninglessness a ploy like Andy Warhol’s calculated emptiness in his work? Is it making a statement on Internet culture with the emoticon show title and smiley faces everywhere? Honestly, what were they thinking? As the most hyped show of the summer, I still feel that :)  is the finest example the power of trendiness and style with no substance. But at least, you can buy some shoes?

:) by FriendsWithYou will be on view at The Hole until August 6, 2011

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