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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)

“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 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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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

21 replies on “LES Is a-Changin’: Controversial Artworks Canned at Arlene’s Grocery”

  1. From what I can gather the work feels like the way people yell at non-English speakers in an effort to help them understand what they’re saying. If by “aggressive” and “literal” they mean “facile” and “obvious” I don’t think Arlene’s would be all that far off. Maybe it was really a decision reversing a bad call in taste instead of “censorship”. Either way, pulling the artist early is still a jerk move.

    However, perhaps not unrelated: the sole link on Preston’s press page is a review from The Stranger on a past dual exhibit he had with Charles Krafft – the artist that turned out to not be ironic and really a white supremacist.

      1. I’m not commenting on the work in the show you had with Krafft. I just thought the show itself might be found it relevant, or at least interesting by people reading an article that calls your work “controversial”. Should I not have mentioned it?

        Anyhow, I might not be a fan of your work in this particular show, but I am sorry to hear about the way they treated you – its unacceptable.

      1. No, my comment’s just an opinion. I’d like to think most comment’s are, though.

        However, the article does seem to offer some opinion coloring this incident as censorship rather than some other kind of poorly executed gallery decision; e.g. “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.”

        I’m not hating on the article. I’m just speculating on the gallery’s intentions; perhaps in a way that wouldn’t be approprite for a news story, but is normal for a commenter.

        1. I think that’s quite true about the Lower East Side. I think Mostafa, who can chime in himself I’m sure, is pointing out that sort of thing wouldn’t happen in the LES that lives in most people’s minds. That LES is gone. I think that was more his point.

          Also, I would’ve thought the venue would say, “I hate it, take it away” if that was really what they meant, rather than it’s too “aggressive” or “literal,” which seems to make the club look worse, no?

          1. I really can’t offer an honest opinion about the LES – I haven’t been there since last year (and even then didn’t stop by any galleries). But I’m sure you’re right – I’ve heard it a lot.

            I don’t know – maybe you’re right about what they would’ve said. I feel like what they meant by “more abstract” is maybe telling about it being an aesthetic call. Maybe I’m wrong. Either way, if these opinions of theirs are at all sincere they should have done something before the opening or dealt with it till it closed.

          2. The message that I got initially was that the work was too “aggressive” and “overly political”. This somehow got changed to too “literal”

          3. I suspect that if I had done PRIDE as George W Bush as a chimpanzee instead of Barack Obama as pharoah with drones – my work would still be hanging in Arlene’s Grocery. I also suspect this is why Danny Olda tried to tar me with the Charles Krafft brush

          4. Wow, sorry about mentioning Charles Krafft. Just thought it was an interesting coincidence. I thought your work was not at all controversial. That’s why I was questioning their decision to pull the show because of that.

          5. Nice try. If I had painted Bush instead of Obama I doubt you would have made those rude comments about my “facile” and “obvious” work. Then you compound it with a not so subtle witch hunt digging through my website to find a reference to Krafft. The political content of my work is the elephant in the living room.

  2. It may or may not be true that Charles Krafft really is a white nationalist, but this isn’t a story about Charles Krafft. This is a story about Robert Preston, a NYC guy who got a show, and we have to assume that the karaoke bar knew what the work looked like because, on his site, older/similar versions of these paintings exist and somebody gave him wall space, right? Maybe they should have bothered to show up and see the paintings before he put them up? It’s just not professional to say yes to a show, even if it’s just on the walls in a bar, and then pull it the following day. It feels like high school or something.

  3. I’m a little disappointed at how measured and reasonable some of the comments are. I’d have thought there would have been more outrage, period, among artists. ps connecting this artist to Kraft or White supremacy is ridiculous.

  4. clearly it was the content of the art that was found objectionable. If strong, direct, and literal political works are frowned upon, and summarily removed after an advertised program and an opening, I think we should all be pretty pissed off, first of all, instead of discussing the artist’s provenance, for crying out loud.

    1. Thank you! I must have very bad, ‘literal,’ taste, because I think reflection on our political and social spheres is one of the goals of art creation. I wish that it was explored more actively in the art world today. We have enough galleries, and art programs, promoting art products for rich peoples living rooms.

  5. I’m glad to have trudged through the rain to see this work while it was on display. Clearly, it’s wrong in every way to say “yes” to exhibiting an artist’s work and then pulling a 180 degree turnaround and say “take it down now” after only one day. That’s uncool in everybook, whether conservative or liberal minded. And for the record, the visual poetry Robert employed sufficiently shrouded the messages of the work so that you had to contemplate the paintings. Good job on covering this, Hrag!

  6. It’s disappointing that they would pull the show down, but I think what we are seeing is the difference between a gallery, and a commercial space that also happens to show art. When you have a business, the work that is up, whether you like it or not, projects and reflects on your business. Obviously the owners were uncomfortable with these ideas being associated with them. The correct response would’ve been to politely decline the show in the first place.

  7. I agree with Danny, if this is what passes for controversial today then big brother really has won. This stuff isn’t just easy, it’s juvenile. Yes the gallery mishandled this situation but I can’t believe they exhibited it in the first place.

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