In unofficial conjunction with the inauguration of Frieze New York on Randall’s Island, the galleries on Chelsea’s 26th Street decided to go big and throw a block party last Saturday. If there is one kind of party that galleries excel at, it’s glamorous and exclusive after-hours functions, on a rooftop suite somewhere far above the streets of Chelsea; if there’s one area where galleries are found unanimously wanting, it’s dealing with the public, with “regular” people, the viewers who venture through their doors simply to look and not to buy. Considering this, it was surprising and encouraging to see high-end Chelsea galleries reaching out, in a coordinated effort, to the art-going public.
After days of speculation and numerous press emails promising a “pedestrian-only” extravaganza, by Saturday night I was downright curious to see how this party would turn out. There were rumors of a DJ (Hannah Bronfman), a band (Dreamshow), New York City’s finest food trucks (Rickshaw Dumpling Bar, Morris Grilled Cheese Truck, Van Leeuwen Artisan Ice Cream), not to mention 28 participating galleries.
The night began with an air of anticipation. I saw Gregory Volk and Jane Cohan zigzagging the block importantly, and Shepard Fairey listlessly entertaining fans in front of Pace Prints, where his latest show opened that night. By the end of the evening, however, I had decided two things: First, that this particular “block party” was actually more of a disorganized, albeit glorified, night of openings and closings, and second, that galleries shouldn’t try to be what they’re not — that is, fun, welcoming and egalitarian. The 26th Street block party felt like the type of affair galleries think “normal” people enjoy, in an out-of-touch, Mitt Romney kind of way: what does the layman do in his spare time?
The party’s good intentions fell flat beginning with the inability of the galleries to close the street to traffic. Instead of having the block free to wander between the galleries, food trucks and impromptu stage, attendees were stuck navigating the width of the sidewalk. Crowded enough on a normal Thursday night of openings, the sidewalk rapidly became like midtown during rush hour. The food trucks compounded the problem by leaving people with nowhere to eat their food. Standing awkwardly on the sidewalk, trying to dip my dumplings in sauce while well-dressed, elderly gallery goers looked on with disgust, I realized this wasn’t the atmosphere I’d had in mind. The band, only viewable from the street, was almost impossible to see. And topping off the mayhem was the arrival of the FDNY, called to save a stuck and overcrowded elevator on its way to Shepard Fairey’s opening; after the ordeal, Pace Prints closed for the night.
Despite the flaws of the party, there was some good artwork to be seen. At Claire Oliver I was impressed by the contorted and sculptural animals of Beth Cavener Stichter. Stichter’s stoneware-based, mixed-media sculptures look like creatures out of an Aesop’s Fable, with lifelike detail. Her animals, emotionally distraught and physically tortured, are awkwardly bent over pedestals or mounted ungracefully to the wall.
The James Cohan Gallery showcased the California-based artist Mauricio Ancalmo. In a piece titled “Dualing Pianos,” two grand pianos face off in the main room of the gallery, while a roll of white paper feeds through both instruments and a computer. Conceptually ambiguous, the monumental sculpture referred to some kind of mediated and impossible conversation. Meanwhile, Mitchell-Innes & Nash exhibited the not exactly relevant though lovely, documentary-style photographs of Martha Rosler, taken on the streets of Cuba in the early 1980s.
Many of the 26th Street galleries showed more interactive art, though I couldn’t be sure if the decision was coincidental or intentional. The most successful gallery in this department was Mixed Greens, which exhibited Jenna Spevack’s playful sculptures making the case for indoor, urban farming. Her sculptures, equipped with florescent lamps, grow living greens inside, under and on top of everyday, interior furniture. Alternative ways of farming in yardless communities is certainly a worthy topic, and Spevack tackles sustainable living in a humorous manner. Galerie Lelong, taking interactive art to an absurd level, exhibited the maze-like sculpture of Hélio Oiticica, making viewers sign a waver before they were allowed to walk down a small, gravel hill. Away from the street level, searching out hidden galleries, I discovered the surreal, advertising-inspired, fashion photographs of Julia Fullerton-Batten at Jenkins Johnson, as well as haunting smoke and ash drawings by South African artist Diane Victor at David Krut Projects.
While the 26th Street block party had its problems, I think the idea was a good one, and I wish the execution hadn’t been so poor. Not all galleries are exclusive: Some are meant to be alternative spaces, venues where young and unknown artists can show and perhaps even sell their work, but those galleries aren’t usually in Chelsea. The galleries on 26th Street should work to be more inclusive, but the overall atmosphere of the block party seemed false, as if for one evening they pretended their audience and clientele were different. If the galleries in Chelsea are going to convince us that they’ve changed, they’re going to have to try a lot harder than that. Letting us walk on a few artworks and throwing a public party once every few years isn’t going to entice people. The only thing that gets me walking toward Tenth Avenue is the prospect of seeing some truly interesting and provocative art.
The West 26th Street Block Party took place on West 26th Street, between Tenth and Eleventh Avenues, in Manhattan’s Chealsea neighborhood on Saturday, May 5, 6–9pm.