Left: Matthew Monahan, Lara Schnitger, Thomas Houseago, David Kordansky, and Amy Bessone. Right: Ivan Golinko, Michele O'Marah, and Violet Hopkins. (Photos: Tamara Sussman)
My faithful photographer and I arrive ridiculously early at the opening reception for the group exhibition “Both Ends Burning.” The show, at David Kordansky Gallery, is a reunion of sorts for four Los Angeles-based artistsAmy Bessone, Thomas Houseago, Matthew Monahan, and Lara Schnitgerwho all met, circa 1994, at De Ateliers in Amsterdam. This is the first local gallery exhibition for them (though Schnitger appeared in “Thing” at the Hammer earlier this year), and anticipation runs high. Walking into the densely installed gallery, I immediately sense the show’s confrontational tone, first in Schnitger’s tensile fabric sculpture Return of the Dodo, 2005, a yellow-plaid-and-fur monstrosity stationed at the gallery entrance, and then in Houseago’s massive acephalic plaster Giant, 2005. Kordansky is antsy, apprehensivein other words, his usual self. The young gallery owner is a study in contradictions, by turns charming and acerbic, confident and paranoid, funny and dead serious. Perhaps the tone of this assertive exhibit reflects his frequently evangelical sense of purpose. As we arrive, his mission involves carrying in cases of Budweiser.
A beer or two later, and an hour into the opening, the gallery is nearly emptyeven the artists have yet to show. (This is the only opening in Chinatown on this night, but there is a “bash” at the Hammer Museum, miles away in Westwood.) We goof around during the relative calm, posing Kordansky for a corny photograph in front of Giant, the gallerist mimicking the sculpture’s crossed arms. (Kordansky will later apologize to the artist for this “cheesy” photo op.) A young girl with a video camera earnestly documents the exhibition. Meanwhile I chat with Christopher Williams and MoCA curator Ann Goldstein, who shares some photos from her cell phone (Chris taking a photograph, Wim Delvoye with his dogs, andno connectiondog poop outside the couple’s own front door), and we all acknowledge the complicated layers of mediation at this seeming nonevent.
Much to Kordansky’s relief, the artistsand a wave of other peopleeventually show up. The “crazy” October heatmid nineties on this particular dayis still baking the evening air. Monahan, looking carefully disheveled like his sculptures made of crumpled drawings, and Houseago, a big, gregarious English dude, seem very warm, both in terms of demeanor and body temperature (they’re wearing jackets). Painter Olivia Booth succinctly describes the steamy gallery as a “Swedish lodge.” The space is now thick with humanity, including gallerists from Chinatown (next-door neighbor Daniel Hug and China Art Objects’ Steve Hanson) and abroad (Christian Nagel and Modern Art Inc.’s Stuart Shave), Kordansky’s former gallery partner Ivan Golinko, writer/performer Malik Gaines, collector Blake Bryne, and MoCA curators Michael Darling and Ari Wiseman, who is organizing a 2006 “Focus” exhibition of Monahan’s work. Also on hand are local artists Mark Grotjahn (who shows with Monahan and Schnitger at Anton Kern in New York), Kim Fisher, Michele O’Marah, Jeff Ono, Mindy Shapero, and Anna Sew Hoy. Kordansky works the dense crowd, handing out the handsome exhibition catalogue (the gallery’s first) and hot pink wristbands for the after party atbig shockerMountain bar.
Outside the gallery, I talk to gallery artists Will Fowler, Patrick Hill, Violet Hopkins, Mark Flores, and the inevitable scene-stealer William Jones, who excitedly describes his recent for-hire photography work on the set of a Vena Virago film for, um, mature audiences, using ever-more-arcane slang terms to describe his female subjects’ “alien” anatomies. As the crowd reaches critical mass, the Budweiser runs out: It’s time to move on to Mountain. Everyone is screaming in conversation as guest DJ Hopkins cranks some rather noxious ’80s “classics” (“Poison Arrow” indeed), and a very relieved Kordansky celebrates a successful opening with the artists, letting his guard down, if only for one brief, sweaty moment.
Left: San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom, Dede Wilsey, and Pierre de Meuron. Right: A scene from the midnight Cirque du Soleil performance. (All photos: Thomas John Gibbons Images.)
The new de Young Museum, a smart, sexy, copper-clad edifice by Herzog & de Meuron, has international eyes on an institution that’s historically been more comfortable catering to its local community than to the global entity known as the “art world.” With the exception of conceptually-inflected new photos by Catherine Wagner, the opening exhibitions—an ancient Egypt crowd pleaser, Jasper Johns prints—weren’t designed to engender critical dialogue. It was the building itself, with its metallic façade and twisty, asymmetrical tower, that was thought-provoking. An opening weekend that featured a black-tie gala and thirty-one continuous hours of free admission to the general populace revealed that this is a museum still in the process of getting comfortable in its understatedly glamorous skin.
Both partiesthe gala and the thirty-one-hour free-for-alltested the limits of the building’s allure, and its capacity. The tickets to the black-tie affair, at $250 a pop, were so popular that the museum had to go back to the printers for more (the event was reportedly attended by three thousand people). The throngs were skewed to the local sixty-something opera-and-symphony set and their junior-socialite spawn. As far as I could tell, there were more gentlemen in kilts (an “ironic” gesture toward formal wear) than international jet-setters.
Desperate for a cocktail, I waited in the long lines at the libation stations, overhearing office gossip, finance chat, and one elderly gentleman with an apparently overactive hearing aid who complained that the rather subdued salsa band was “loud enough to be in a stadium.” Full glass of vodka in hand, I squeezed into the darkened main atrium, which was dominated by a large, rather Op art Gerhard Richter photo mural.
I spotted Okwui Enwezor of Documenta 11 fame, who recently assumed the role of dean and vice president of the San Francisco Art Institute. He seemed to be polling responses to the installation of the museum’s collection, which includes crafts, textiles, and artworks from Oceania, Mesoamerica, and Africa as well as American painting and sculpture dating from the eighteenth century to the present. The curators have mixed things up, in many instances installing works from different time periods and locales in the same gallery. Before I could weigh in on this eclecticism, Jacques Herzog sidled past. He seemed a bit prickly. That morning, in an interview in the museum’s swanky auditorium with architecture maven Aaron Betsky (whose silver hair was slicked back in a manner that made him a dead ringer for David Ross, his former boss at SF MoMA), Herzog wasn’t shy about expressing his unorthodox views on how art should be integrated with architectureessentially hinting that architects should be as active as curators in the installation process. He also expressed his disdain for parties—though, at the gala, he attributed his less-than-vivacious demeanor to health concerns. “Every time I come to America I get the fluit’s the air conditioning,” he said.
Left: Former mayor Willie Brown with Dede Wilsey. Middle: The new de Young museum. Right: Actor Peter Coyote.
I headed off to find some hors d’oeuvres, passing Ed Ruscha, who was chatting with former Monkee Michael Nesmith. Ruscha is one of the artists commissioned to make new work for the reopened museum, and his contributiontwo new panels added to his 1983 painting A Particular Kind of Heaven, which was already in the museum’s collectionwas prominently displayed in the main hall. While waiting in another long line for marinated calamari with San Francisco artists Enrique Chagoya and Kara Maria, I spotted Kiki Smith, who’d also contributed a specially-commissioned piece—a sculpture called Near, which hung from the ceiling in the Contemporary Arts and Crafts Gallery. She was wandering around alone in an empty gallery with a piece of fruit. “This is a little too much for me,” she said of the crowds. “I just want to eat my apple.” Meanwhile, Dede Wilsey, the firecracker fundraiser who pretty much made the building happen (and the wicked witch in her stepson Sean’s recent memoir), held court wearing acres of pale green ruffles and an emerald-and-diamond necklace of similar scale that had rival matrons tittering about her need of bodyguards.
The “Midnight Surprise” promised in the invitation turned out to be a Cirque du Soleil troupe performing in front of the Richter piecetwo Speedo-clad musclemen in copper body paint engaging in sinuous acrobatics, followed by a shirtless juggler. What would Gerhard think?
I headed back the following evening, post-midnight, to check out the free-admission scene. Despite the hour, the line looked to be a good mile long, but the vibe in the queue was pleasant enough, staving off worries of an Altamont-style melee of crazed art-lovers. There was a range of just plain folk, people still in their formalwear from the previous night, drag queens, drunk teens, art students, night clubbers, and insomniacs. Inside, the lights, which had been elegantly dimmed the night before, were up full, and there were DJs and rituals performed by members of the local Santeria community—not something you often see at art museum fêtes. When I left, at half past two, the line still snaked deep into Golden Gate Park, an auspicious indicator that the de Young had far exceeded the weekend box office projection of forty thousand visitors. Now they just have to keep ‘em coming back.
Left and right: Scenes from Pierre Huyghe's A Journey That Wasn't shoot. (Photos: Public Art Fund/Tom Powel Imaging)
It goes without saying that one must suffer for one’s art, but some of us prefer to suffer for other people’s art. And so it was that on Friday night a few hundred hardy, masochistic souls, myself among them, showed up in a downpour at Central Park’s (roofless) Wollman Rink, where a sequence for Pierre Huyghe’s film A Journey That Wasn’t was being shot. The film, which will debut at the 2006 Whitney Biennial (it’s not just for Americans anymore!), centers around a trip that Huyghe and some fellow artists took to Antarctica earlier this year. Having heard stories that the changes wrought by global warming were creating new topographies and strange flora and fauna in the region, Huyghe was intent upon locating a mythical creature said to live on an unnamed island in the Antarctic Circle. The Wollman Rink event, organized by the Public Art Fund in collaboration with the Whitney, was to be a theatrical evocation of the voyage, and footage of the performance would be incorporated into the film. The audience had been informed that Huyghe’s cameras would be trained on them, too. In other words, they’d be extras as well as spectatorsa taxonomic slipperiness that analogizes the project’s polyvalent status as a journey, a performance, a film, and a text narrative (publishedfull disclosurein last summer’s Artforum).
Pleased as I was to have the chance to step into one of Huyghe’s halls of mirrors, I was dismayed at the prospect of seeing myself, on a screen at the Whitney, dressed in a clear plastic hooded ponchonot a good look, unless you’re going for a Hobbit-by-way-of-Helmut-Lang effect. But so inclement was the weather that I donned one of the dreaded garments, which bedraggled Public Art Fund staffers were handing out. It was an otherworldly scene: The rink (a TRUMP property, as bombastic logos everywhere proclaimed) had been transformed into a shallow lake, dotted with faux icebergs and ringed by klieg lights, with skyscrapers rising through the mist behind them. Off to one side, beneath a canopy (not a part of the original set design but necessitated, to the artist’s reported chagrin, by the rain), an orchestra was cacophonously tuning. In front of this set were bleachers, which were already stuffed with people, all huddled in their plastic ponchos like so many futuristic Frodos. There were parents with children, young couples, a deputy mayor or two, and numerous art-worldersincluding Dia’s Lynne Cooke, the Fogg Art Museum’s Linda Norden, Marian Goodman Gallery director Rose Lord, and Whitney director Adam Weinberg and curators Donna DeSalvo and Chrissie Iles (who is co-organizing the 2006 Biennial with Philippe Vergne). Crew members rushed about, muttering into walkie-talkies.
Since the bleachers were full, I found shelter in an open-sided tent nearby. Tom Ecclesexecutive director of Bard’s Center for Curatorial Studies and, until recently, director of the Public Art Fundmade a short speech, welcoming the audience and telling them “not to act.” Then the lights began to pulse, cameramen waded into the water, and the orchestra struck up an atonal tune (composed by Joshua Cody and based on data derived from the topography of the Antarctic island where Huyghe and company set up camp). Fog started to billow from a machine a few feet from me. Lots of fog. At first, it eddied delicately, but soon became so thick that I wondered if the machine was malfunctioning. As the music crescendoed, my vision became totally occluded; just as I began to have trouble breathing, the orchestra quieted and somebody yelled “Cut!”
Left: Linda Norden, associate curator of contemporary art at the Fogg Art Museum, and Artforum's Scott Rothkopf, cocurators of last year's Huyghe + Corbusier: Harvard Project. Right: A scene from the shoot.
I stumbled, coughing, out of the tent. Pushing through the crowd, I overheard someone saying, “Did you get a load of the penguin?” Penguin? I thought. I spied a colleague, who asked, “Did you see the penguin?” I told him I hadn’t seen anything and moved on, eventually running into another coworker, who said, “So I heard you didn’t see the penguin.” It occurred to mestanding as I was in the rain at Donald Trump’s ice skating rink among people who could speak of nothing but penguinsthat I might be in the grip of a hallucination. But it developed that indeed, a penguinan animatronic, albino penguin, to be precise, representing the aforementioned mystery creature of the snowy wasteshad made an appearance during the take.
I was looking for Huyghe, but he proved as elusive as his avian quarry. I did find Eccles, and spoke with him about the project, his last for the Public Art Fund. For him, A Journey That Wasn’t has been a gratifying swan song, the “grandest statement yet” in the Fund’s recent series of performative projects (with Alison Smith’s The Muster being another example). “We’re right in the orchestra pit of the city here,” he said. The film’s scenic designer, artist Marc Ganzglass, took a less exalted view, commenting, “We’ve been out here eighteen hours a day, all week, in this monster rain. It’s been a battle.” Others I talked to noted that, while the rain was good for the film’s atmospherics, it was bad for the orchestra’s instruments and for morale. But the hardest part was over and, Ganzglass correctly noted, “It looks great.” He also advised me, as the crew geared up for the second take, to look for the penguin atop the tallest iceberg, which I didkeeping my distance from the fog machine. Expecting a sort of Abominable Snowman with vestigial wings, I was touched to see a cute little thing, resembling an animatronic marshmallow Peep, waddling into view. Clearly, it was more afraid of us than we were of it. And given our outfits, who could blame it?
Left: Whitney Director Adam Weinberg (facing away), Raymond Pettibon, Melva Bucksbaum, and Raymond Learsy. Right: Artist Zak Smith.
Slumped on a bench behind the check-in desk at the Whitney Museum of American Art, 2004 Bucksbaum Award winner Raymond Pettibon and his small-but-perfectly-formed entourage appeared to be less than fully engaged by the Tuesday evening reception. And despite the $100,000 paycheck and solo show attached to the still fairly new biannual prize (currently the largest of its kind), it was an oddly subdued affair. The select gathering of perhaps fifty people included museum director Adam Weinberg, curators Chrissie Iles and Shamim M. Momin, trustee and award funder Melva Bucksbaum, and dealers Shaun Regen, David Zwirner, and Clarissa Dalrymple. Oh, and artist Zak Smith, a natural Pettibon fan. But many others appeared to have been put off by the miserable weather, the approach of Yom Kippur, or both.
The work itself was typical of the Hermosa Beach, California residentonce a denizen of the underground LA punk scenes whose entry to the mainstream was made official with a profile in the New York Times Magazine. On view were drawings combining surf and baseball influences with a parade of literary references that reach from the Bible through Henry James to Mickey Spillane. Fans will love them; others may find themselves lost (though perhaps pleasurably so) in a labyrinth of pictorial and textual feints. Also included is an animated video, the artist’s second, that draws on a familiar vocabulary of curling waves, onrushing trains, and desperate characters. But the results are less satisfying than his work on paper, perhaps because of his newness to the medium. Sidling out half an hour before the official end of the event, Pettibon and company evidently had their own ideas about a more fulfilling destinationmost likely the nearby dinner at Neue Gallery’s Café Sabarsky, the guest list for which had apparently been whittled down to about one hundred of the reclusive artist’s closest friends.
Left: Elyse Goldberg and Julie Saul. Middle: David Hershkovits. Right: Lorne Michaels. (Middle and right photos: Patrick McMullan/PMc)
Skeptical that wienerschnitzel would enliven the sullen Pettibon posse, I headed for the former wild west of Tribeca and the canteen that kicked off its transformation to the thirty-something haven it is today. The Odeon’s twenty-fifth anniversary bash could hardly have offered more of a contrast to the Whitney event. The venerable downtown culinary establishment was already crammed and bouncing at nine o’clock. “There’s, like, nine zillion people here. I’m having the time of my life!” one wild-eyed guest bellowed into his cell phone. A last-minute RSVP had left me steeling myself for velvet-rope negotiations, but I needn’t have worried; despite a bevy of list holders and some of the meatiest bouncers I’ve seen in a while, I breezed in unchallenged. Immediately whipping past me in the opposite direction was novelist Donna Tartt and suddenly I was in the middle of an aging but active crowd that could have been plucked straight from the pages of Bright Lights, Big City. (I kept an eye out for Jay McInerney but, sadly, can’t report a personal sighting.)
A marquee that extended onto West Broadway almost doubled the available partying space, and it took some minutes to complete an initial circuit. Flashbulbs popped, mirror-balls spun, and the DJ dropped another pop hit. I spotted dealers Elyse Goldberg (of James Cohan Gallery) and Julie Saul (of the eponymous gallery)two familiar art-world faces in a sea of who-knows-who interspersed with longtime downtown scenesters and Page Six stalwarts: Candace Bushnell, Fred Schneider, Lorne Michaels, Paper’s David Hershkovits and Kim Hastreiter, and Isaac Mizrahi. Goldberg explained to me that she’d been a regular at the restaurant for years. “Odeon never goes out of style,” she raved. “You can sit there for hours, unbothered, while looking for ex-lovers or big shots in the mirrors that hang above your head at forty-five degree angles . . . It was originally a cafeteria, cheap food for starving artists, an oasis in an otherwise desolate area. Hard to imagine now, especially with that chichi Bouley coffee-and-croissant white box across the street.”
Goldberg introduced me to filmmaker Bette Gordon, another regular who regards the eatery as “her local,” and Charlie Ahearn, director of the old-school hip-hop classic Wild Style, who filled me in on his current projects, which include a new series of short films to be screened on MTV. A few minutes later, a grizzled but ebullient Anthony Haden-Guest rolled up and introduced himself with a bow so low that he almost ended up face down on the floor. The quickest glance around registered any number of ludicrous outfits and ill-advised dance moveswhich, after the glumness at the Whitney, was something of a tonic. As I made my exit, Chris Noth, a.k.a. Sex and the City’s Mr. Big, walked in, and the evening was complete.
Left: The staff of Ballroom Marfa with the artists of “You Are Here.” Right: A view of the Chinati Foundation's outdoor dinner for 1,500. (Photos: Alberto Halpern)
We woke up Saturday morning in motel beds, adobe guesthouses, and dew-damp tents to find that the freak cold front had passed and the skies over Marfa, Texas, were back to their regular shade of blinding blue. Lone Star hangover or no, we were determined to catch all we could of the nutty blur that was the Chinati Foundation’s nineteenth annual Open House weekend. Boots on. Find burrito and coffee. Hit the streets.
The first weekend in October was not always the “Marfa Gras” it is now. Before Chinati founder Donald Judd’s death in 1994, Open House brought to this one-stoplight town each year Don’s favorite bagpiper and maybe a few score of his old friends. The event slowly gathered steam until 2000, when Chinati unveiled a massive and much adored Dan Flavin installation. In the five years since, every media outlet from W to the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times has anointed Marfa a hip art destination; accordingly, Open House has spilled over the foundation’s gate and into town. Chinati still picks the date, mails the invites, and lines up the biggest actsthis year, the marquee names included artists John Chamberlain, Tony Feher, and Maureen Gallace, as well as Yo La Tengo, in a performance presented jointly with Chinati’s new neighbors Ballroom Marfabut they’re not the only dance in town anymore.
Call it a Burning Man for the Riesling set. Last weekend galleries both perennial and ephemeral opened in every corner of Marfa, in garages, in an ancient grocery store, in buildings that were ruins only last year. “You just come and walk around and look at galleries,” the girl pouring coffee at the Marfa Book Company explained into a phone tucked under her chin. A black van cruised up Highland Avenue with the slogans GO JOHNNY CHAMBERLAIN! and FEHER #1, which set the sidewalk coffee drinkers to giggling. Sometime later a naked Texas Tech sculpture student Saran-wrapped himself to the awning of a furniture store.
Left: Artists Carol Bove and Adam McEwen after the opening at United Artists, Ltd. Right: Yo La Tengo on stage. (Photo: Alberto Halpern)
Well, it takes all kindsor, as Marge who clerks for the judge down at Marfa’s big pink courthouse is wont to say: “All God’s children were there.” In the Chamberlain orbit were Marc Glimcher and Andrea Boudonis of Pace Wildenstein and Pace director and Chinati board member Douglas Baxter, as well as Matthew Drutt of the Menil Collection. Whitney board member Beth Rudin de Woody was there, as was Feher’s dealers Chris D’Amelio and Lucien Terras. The Dia crowd, including founder Heiner Friedrich, director Michael Govan, and chairman of the board Leonard Riggio, was in town, too, no doubt gratified, or perhaps appalled, at what their early support of Judd’s lonely desert outpost had wrought. Friedrich beamed as he welcomed art pilgrims to view his collection of works from Andy Warhol’s “Last Supper” series; in a twist their creator would no doubt have appreciated, the larger-than-life Jesuses now beam blankly down from the wall of a former discount store.
Back at Chinati, Chamberlain’s complex and silly early foam works cried out to be squeezed; the artist himself, on the other hand, most certainly did not. The week before he’d given a comically gruff interview to The Big Bend Sentinel (“How did his crush car pieces come to be included in Chinati’s collection, the artist was asked. ‘Bribery!’ he barked.”), and he kept up the rascally swagger all weekend. Made to stand on stage Saturday afternoon and explain his work, Chamberlain was blunt: “All I do is make it,” he said. “If you can’t see it in what I’ve made, there’s nothing I can say.” That evening he showed up two hours late to a fireside chat organized by Judd’s children at the Block, Judd’s former residence, leaving the hand-picked crowd to crunch around the gravel yard downing nervous shots of Patron. Meanwhile, at the gutted Holiday Capri motel, Yo La Tengo performed for an enthusiastic crowd of college students and art-worlders from all over and Feher seemed to be everywhere, sharing a raspy laugh over the fan van. We were even allowed to touch the water bottles and webbed knots of weed-whacker line he’d hung in one of Chinati’s abandoned stables.
Left: Chinati Foundation exhibiting artist Tony Feher. Right: An installation view showing some of Heiner Friedrich's Warhol paintings. (Photos: Alberto Halpern)
On Saturday I wandered back over to Ballroom Marfa for a second, sober look at Larry Bamberg’s new work Sweet White Light of a Cream Colored Inevitable, just to confirm that the lurking yellow mound and its nagging flies hadn’t been some beer-fed fever dream. Equally haunting was Matthew Day Jackson’s mobile of a dismembered wooden eagle: I stared up at it to find a shriveled but defiant rattlesnake head staring right back. The sun fell on the railroad tracks somewhere even further west than Marfa, and I walked back downtown. At the new United Artists, Ltd., the clean lines of artworks by Carol Bove, Adam McEwen, and Seth Price basked in the golden light that came in through the former garage’s wide, west-facing door.
But as every year, the best show in Marfa was not at Ballroom co-founder Fairfax Dorn’s now annual house party, but at the packed lunch counters, the realtor’s stoop, or anywhere one could sit and watch the sparks jump the gap between Marfa’s opposing terminals of Is and Becoming. The gals at Sandy’s 7 to 11 were already gearing up for Halloween but took time out to decorate their store windows with posters of the Mona Lisa and American Gothic framed in orange tinsel. At Carmen’s Café, a table of out-of-towners waiting for their chips and chile traded flip sentences that began “I don’t think the locals appreciate…” or ended “…and that’s why Donald Judd came here.” Don himself watched the whole proceedings from one of Laura Wilson’s handsome photographs hung in the back of the bookstore, and he wasn’t telling. On the road out of town Sunday morning the rental cars stopped one by one at Elmgreen & Dragset’s new, and newly vandalized, Prada Marfa, now surrounded by a sea of tire-churned mud after last week’s rain. The graffiti had been painted over, the busted door re-hung and sealed up tight. New handbags, their bottoms slashed out, had been airlifted in to replace those the vandals had carried off. There’s a new alarm system now, too. When somebody breaks in, it calls New York.
Left: An installation view. Right: James Cohan, Maxa Zoller, Robin Cembalest, Yinka Shonibare, and Stephen Friedman.
The attendees at the Wednesday evening opening reception for “Yinka Shonibare Selects: Works from the Permanent Collection” at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum were distinguished by a preponderance of formal suits and pocket squares, silver hair and lorgnettes (alright, I made up that least detail, but it certainly wouldn’t have looked out of place). Clustered in the oak-paneled lobby, the well-heeled and well-behaved group made for a welcome change of pace from Chelsea’s beer-fueled mob scene. Museum director Paul Warwick Thompson and curatorial director Barbara Bloemink were both busy ushering trustees and other bigwigs around the boutique-ish Nancy and Edwin Marks Gallery (once the music room of the historic Andrew Carnegie mansion), in which Shonibare’s picks were on display, while other staffers hovered around, periodically directing visitors towards the labyrinthine tented passageway that led outside to the temporary washrooms, a reminder of the museum’s current woes (rumor has it that plans for a seventy-five-million dollar underground expansion, announced only in February, were recently cancelled, and their design triennial has been pushed back so far that now it would properly be called a quadrennial).
In a pleasant divergence from commercial convention, the post-reception dinner was also held at the museum, in a large, elegant space that might have been designed with just such a purpose in mind. Among those who strolled through “Extreme Textiles: Designing for High Performance,” another (comparatively sparse but oddly fascinating) current exhibition, to reach the event were Shonibare’s charming partner Maxa Zoller, his New York gallerist James Cohan and London gallerist Stephen Friedman, Cooper-Hewitt curator Elizabeth Chase and irrepressible Art News executive editor Robin Cembalest. After thanking those who needed thanking, Thompson presented gifts to Shonibare, Zoller, and Chase. Neatly wrapped in silver paper, they set the party babbling with curiosity. (Shonibare and Zoller each received a plate designed by Constantine Boym exclusively for the museum; Chase kept her present demurely under wraps).
Shonibare was born in London to Nigerian parents, grew up in Nigeria, returned to London at the age of seventeen, and has been based there ever since. Not only a finalist for the Turner Prize in 2004, he is also an MBEa Member of the British Empire. There’s a certain irony to an artist known for exploring themes of colonialism and migration being valorized by the very system he critique. Gleefully characterizing himself as a “cultural hybrid,” Shonibare had taken obvious pleasure in interacting, Fred Wilson-like, with an institution whose collection includes numerous items reflecting an era with very different attitudes towards exploration and the “exotic.”
Though gentle in comparison to Wilson’s overtly political rearrangements, Shonibare’s exhibition, a meditation on travel that includes objects from Europe, Asia, and America and that spans the past five centuries, incorporates some captivating items, including an extraordinary array of bird and insect cages, and (one of the artist’s personal favorites) a “match safe” depicting a man astride an ostrich. Teetering above it all on stilts are Shonibare’s own sculptures of the museum’s eccentric founding sisters, Sarah and Eleanor Hewitt, clad in late Victorian-style outfits crafted from the artist’s signature contemporary pseudo-African textiles. With several more sculptures and a new series of paintings on concurrent display in Chelsea, Shonibare himself seems to be enjoying a similarly elevated though comparably idiosyncratic perspective.