LES Is a-Changin’: Controversial Artworks Canned at Arlene’s Grocery

Arlene’s Grocery (image via Wikimedia)

Arlene’s Grocery, the popular Lower East Side bar, gallery space, and concert venue, has taken down a show featuring the work of Robert Preston, arguing that the artist’s work was too “aggressive” and “literal” for their venue. Preston’s pieces, all paintings from his Seven Deadly Sins series, were slated to run at the space through the end of the month, but he found his works censored the day after Monday’s opening and was asked to take them down. The artist, who splits his time between New Hampshire and New York City, was somewhat taken aback by the sequence of events, telling Hyperallergic, “Am I surprised? No. Shocked? Yes.”

Robert Preston takes down his Seven Deadly Sins series at the request of the owners of Arlene's Grocery (image courtesy the artist)
Robert Preston takes down his Seven Deadly Sins series at the request of the owners of Arlene’s Grocery (image courtesy the artist)

“Arlene’s has been very supportive of its artists. Ultimately it’s their venue, and these particular pieces were a little too aggressive for them,” Joseph Meloy, an artist and curator for Arlene’s, said by way of explanation. The venue’s general manager, Julia Darling, elaborated to Hyperallergic when reached by phone earlier this evening: “I felt like the work was too literal for Arlene’s — we like to showcase artists that are a little bit more abstract.” She added that the management felt “terrible” for canceling the show.

At this point, only the most ardent gentrification denialist would consider the Lower East Side to be marginal or countercultural, so this type of thing isn’t exactly eyebrow-raising. But it is a useful test case in how well-meaning people can be unwitting reactionaries, too afraid to make people uncomfortable. It seems almost tragic to champion the arts while relegating visual culture to the realm of decoration. And, curiously enough, this isn’t the first time Arlene’s has run afoul of the artists it hosts: in 1997 it was the target of a boycott by the Noise Action Coalition, a downtown musician’s rights activist group protesting the venue’s policy of not compensating musical acts.

An image of …… art works when they were on display at Arlene's Grocery. (image courtesy the artist)
An image of the Seven Deadly Sins series when they were on display at Arlene’s Grocery. (image courtesy the artist)

At any rate, Preston — who used to live “on Christie and Rivington in ’80-’82, when it was a warzone.” — hasn’t exactly been silenced. The artist is moving his banned work to Proto Gallery in Hoboken, where he has an ongoing show.

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