Last week’s exhibition opening at O’Flaherty’s, the East Village gallery co-founded by artist Jamian Juliano-Villani and longtime collaborators Billy Grant and Ruby Zarsky, drew massive crowds of over 1,000 by some estimates — and like any good party, it was shut down by the cops almost immediately. Photos of the pandemonium elicit palpable New York-is-back vibes, but the opening was conceived in part as a “fuck-you” to the gallery’s landlords who have refused them a lease renewal, the founders claim. O’Flaherty’s, named after a fictional Irish pub and launched less than a year ago, has just one month left in its Avenue C space.
“We’re getting kicked out of our really good junky spot because some loser tattoo shop signed a ten-year lease,” Juliano-Villani told Hyperallergic.
On Thursday, July 14, the gallery inaugurated The Patriot, the last show in its current space, to an eager line that stretched several blocks. Half an hour later, around 8:30pm, an enfilade of patrol cars pulled up and officers began dispersing the horde.
The curatorial principle of The Patriot — or lack thereof — explains this generous turnout: The exhibition features works by every single artist who submitted to an open call for art under 36 by 36 inches (absolutely no wet oils) for a total of 920 pieces. In a salon-style hang, or rather “a coral reef of shit,” in Juliano-Villani’s elegant parlance, works from a tin foil lamb sculpture by Dean Millien to Mexican photographer Mónica M. Frías’s image of rooftop sunbathers in Hudson Yards compete for space on the gallery walls, storage room, bathroom, and even the ceiling. “I’ve never used so many zip ties to hang things in my life,” Juliano-Villani said.
“We literally said, ‘We’ll take whatever,” she continued. “It’s not about taste, it’s about a snapshot in time. We wanted to represent what people are doing now, even if it’s bad.” (Only one submitted work didn’t make it in, a metal sculpture that was too heavy to lift.)
“Anything that was ready-made was good because it looks like shit to begin with,” Juliano-Villani said, citing a sculpture based on “an ugly Ikea clock” and “a shelf in the packaging that looked really cool” but turned out to be someone’s actual furniture. These scrappier objects are hung alongside contributions by comparatively recognizable artists such as Cecily Brown and Rob Pruitt, who did not mind their artworks being mixed in with the riffraff; in fact, Juliano-Villani said, they “understood the assignment.”
“Now every idiot can say they were in a show with a famous person,” she added. Spotting individual works is made doubly challenging by the fact that visitors must use flashlights to navigate the show, which is hung in near-total darkness.
Despite its explicit irreverence, The Patriot has art historical roots. One source of inspiration was a work by the accumulation and assemblage artist Arman, “Spirit of Yamaha” (1997), consisting of a piano bisected by two motorcycles (“really good junk that’s really specific,” Juliano-Villani said). Reaching back another hundred years, the conceit of including every work submitted to an open call recalls the Salon des Indépendants in Paris, whose mantra ni jury ni récompense — neither jury nor prizes — flew in the face of cliquish government-sponsored exhibitions.
The submissions themselves are a greatest hits of the tried-and-rehashed art historical canon. “Everyone thinks they have an original idea but no one does,” Juliano-Villani told Hyperallergic. “Muddy knife, airbrush, material-based Minimalist bullshit, black Ad Reinhardt ripoffs, lazy portraiture, the list goes on. There’s a million of the same shit.”
The comments section of a post on the East Village blog EV Grieve, which was the first to report on the gallery’s opening, reveals mixed feelings among residents of the Manhattan neighborhood.
“Fantastic,” wrote Lori E. Seid, a producer, stage manager, and activist. “The East Village showing its beautiful roots.” Artist Lola Sáenz, whose work was included in the exhibition, praised the show and gloated that local delis even ran out of beer. One anonymous commenter called it “a total shit show,” and another saluted the NYPD for “finally doing [its] job.”
Whether you hate it or love it — whether the images of last week’s mayhem make you roll your eyes or trigger your FOMO — O’Flaherty’s achieved a succès de scandale in scorning the logic of most commercial galleries, which offer compact exhibitions in sleek environments or gargantuan “summer group shows” under the guise of thin thematic labels like “painting.”
“It is a totally unique different model. We’re like a methy kunsthalle,” Juliano-Villani said. “It works because we just want to do good shows, we don’t care if they make money, and we’re not trying to compete with galleries or trying to represent people.” That model could come under threat after August 10, when The Patriot is scheduled to close, if O’Flaherty’s can’t hold on to its space.
Prior to housing O’Flaherty’s, the storefront was home to a dance studio for nearly a decade, from 2011 to 2020. GOH Productions (GOH) shared the space with the East Village Dance Project and Movement Research, with the nonprofit Moving For Life joining as a tenant in 2018. “We nurtured hundreds of young and old dancers and artists in our 10 years in the space,” Bonnie Sue Stein, a community organizer and executive director of GOH, told Hyperallergic. The studio shuttered in December 2020, as COVID-19 put strains on in-person events.
Hyperallergic’s attempts to reach a spokesperson for the co-op at 55 Avenue C were unsuccessful. A search for the address on NYC’s Building Information System yields a list of grievances dating back to 2001, from alleged safety code standard violations to a complaint that someone built a chicken coop near a second-floor window.
“Whoever is reading this article, if you know of a really shitty ground floor in the East Village, please let us know,” Juliano-Villani said.