In a small room on the top floor of the Old School building at the corner of Mott and Prince Streets, floor-to-ceiling shelves are lined with pictures of disembodied heads and torsos adhered to off-brand canned goods. An infernal German pop song from 1960 is piped in on loop, indifferent, or perhaps complementary, to the cutout photograph of Klaus Biesenbach leering at you from a tin cylinder of sliced peaches. A glance downward reveals a floor carpeted in Astroturf, the fake lawn material alternately known as a euphemism for grassroots dissemblance. Yes, the mugs gracing the room, nearly all belonging to curators, are definitive of the so-called art world, or something like it, but this installation, “Midi-Midinette (Wernicke’s Tune)” by Brooklyn-based artist Grace Villamil, isn’t really out to make some hectoring critique.
In at least one way, “Midi-Midinette (Wernicke’s Tune)” refracts the Spring/Break Art Show, of which it is a part. This smaller fair defines itself as a curatorial confab (“curator-driven” is the official verbiage), with each room organized by at least one but often a suspiciously large handful of individuals, given the size of the rooms in question. Though I am sympathetic to the curatorial task, and understand that groups and collectives of curators can bring together disparate perspectives, curator inflation can produce increasingly canned results. (Try as it might, contemporary art is not the Wu-Tang Clan.) Hence Villamil’s piece, which distills the banality behind so much pretension in the white-picket guild of art’s shelf-stockers.
But linger in the installation awhile, as I did on two occasions — the mobbed opening on Wednesday and an eerily empty afternoon yesterday — and what was once agitating becomes hypnotic, even pleasurable. “Midi-Midinette,” the song from which the exhibition derives its name, is an obscure 1961 Continental pop effort by the then-18 German starlet Conny Froboess, cheerily recounting a promenade with a paramour in Paris. The cheesy orchestral flourishes project the song’s quaint innocence in the face of the hip rock-and-jazz-inflected kitsch music that was breaking out at this time from yé-yé’s pioneers in the countries surrounding Germany. The song is great because it is also an embodiment of a scenester’s greatest fear: earnestly missing a trend.
It might be a little ungenerous to call Spring/Break a scenester’s imagining of an art fair, but that’s largely what it is — how else does one explain something like a one-car drive-in movie theater (the largest installation), or the central hall featuring cracked and dried bovine blood projected onto the walls from transparencies? It’s all pretty cool, but none of it is that interesting. According to the organizers, the fair’s theme this year is “PUBLICPRIVATE,” but that can more or less mean anything, which I guess is the point. Assimilating the works on view into this dyad is largely a fool’s errand. Besides, attempting it might ruin the fun, and ruined fun is the enemy of cool.
There are several substantive exceptions: Vanessa Albury and Rachel Rampleman’s The Sun That Never Sets: Spectacle and Normalcy in Time and Benjamin Sutton’s The Monstrous Self. In the first, curators Albury and Rampleman present a Debordian collection of new-media works (and old-media works about new media). It sometimes feels a bit phoned in, like the wall-mounted monitor playing a screen-capture recording of a World of Warcraft game. But Joe Namy’s “Testify” (2014), projected footage of tourists holding iPhones and iPads aloft before the Bellagio fountain in Las Vegas, though it sounds simple, has a frisson-inducing quality of witness to it, and is one of the most effective works at the fair.
Another notable work at Spring/Break is Sigrid Sarda’s “Rule 34: Charm” (2013–14), from writer and curator Sutton’s The Monstrous Self, a morbid figurative sculpture of a decomposing female corpse holding a telephone, sprinkled liberally with gold-painted maggots. (As it turns out, “The maggots are real” is not as reassuring as one would hope when said aloud.) Sarda’s body shared the coffin-like room with a number of paintings and sculptures on the walls, including Caroline Wells Chandler’s “Selfie as Chocolate Chip Cookie” (2013), which, together with her “Cowabunga Pizza Time” (2013), are contributions par excellence to the Junk Food Uncanny, whose recent practitioners number Cameron Gray and Christopher Moss. (The latter is currently on view at Theodore:Art.)
Finally, though there’s a lot of new-media nonsense to sift through at Spring/Break, two rooms of Walter Robinson’s Hollywood pulp–inspired paintings on the top floor, curated by Andrew Gori and Ambre Kelly, bring things expertly down to earth with a timeless vision of mediated anguish, desire, and fantasy. A small closet in the second room departs from the midcentury pulp theme to reveal smaller, similarly painted renditions of titillatingly intimate internet self-portraits by women. Far from succumbing to tired McLuhanite tropes, the interplay across time and medium is made startlingly fresh — a rare feat, not to mention the showing most directly responsive to the fair’s official theme of public and private.
Spring Break Art Show runs March 6–9 at the Old School (233 Mott Street, Soho, Manhattan).