Alien Encounters

Domenick Ammirati on openings at Lomex and O’Flaherty’s

At the opening of “HRGNYC,” featuring work by H. R. Giger. Photo: Alex Gvojic.

GAMBLING CAME TO NEW YORK at just the right moment. Yes, for a long time we have had the ponies, and yes, technically, it has been legal to bet on sports at a few physical locations around the state since 2019. But as of January 8, 2022, gambling on sports became legal in the Empire State via smartphone app, making it as easy for its residents to lose their life savings as it is to swipe a fatefully wrong direction on Tinder. The timing was no fluke: The NFL playoffs began the following weekend. Artforum readers may be unfamiliar with so-called American football, but for reference, you could say that the pastime exists at the intersection of art and technology. It also happens to be highly popular around the United States. The average franchise in the league—your Chicago Yellow Jackets, your Phoenix Velociraptors—is worth $3.5 billion, per a Forbes estimate from last year. That’s Gagosian money.

The widespread introduction of gambling in the state—and in a slow wave across the country—is timely in a larger sense as well. The wildfire spread of the Omicron variant and its January peak reinvigorated a practice to which we have all recently become habituated: risk assessment as a way of life. For nearly two years now every trip out of the house has required us to do a mental risk-reward calculation, one based on an ever-shifting set of facts and roughly gauged probabilities. The chances of contracting the virus from surface contact are exceedingly small, so I can stop bleaching my Fresh Direct. My child is unvaccinated; should I take them to visit their grandparents for the holidays? A well-fitted KN-95 offers a high degree of protection for myself and others, but this cloth mask complements my ensemble! Every time we leave the house and don’t get sick, we’ve beaten the system. And so we survivors are ideal marks for the Vegas sharps.

Last Thursday night, the gleeful and chaotic O’Flaherty’s held a dinner at John’s on Twelfth in the East Village in celebration of its exhibition by the oft-overlooked Ashley Bickerton. It feels wrong to call O’Flaherty’s a gallery, since the business model of the proprietor, Jamian Juliano-Villani, appears to be to lose money; they timed the show to coincide with a more proper appearance by Bickerton at Lehmann Maupin. Bickerton famously left New York for Bali in 1993—“too many damn social obligations,” he told an interviewer in 2017—and he did not come back for his shows. But he did make an appearance: in an actually charming moment, he and a curly-haired child, presumably his own, FaceTimed a bleachy shaft of light halfway around the world into the dank back room of an old Italian restaurant lit by mountainous candles and the glittering eyes of the downtown galère.

Ashley Bickerton, borne aloft. Photo by author.

Though Bickerton’s absence had longstanding roots, it inevitably alluded to our questions of staying or going, including any one might have had about attending the dinner that very evening. The place was packed, a hundred people easily; a dearth of chairs caused some literal lap-sitting. The risk of being present was getting Covid, the reward spending some intoxicated hours with people I haven’t seen in many months. Post-Omicron, I appear to be among the last people who even bother with such bookmaking. But my wager was that pretty much everyone in the room had already gotten sick in December. Thus I scheduled my worry for the following day, when I would have hours of entertainment confounding the symptoms of a hangover with the unlikely immediate onset of C19. I figured if I was going to get sick, I would do it O’Flaherty’s style, so I made sure to drink from at least five different people’s wine glasses. Several days later, it appears I have not gotten Covid. I beat the house yet again.

THE PANDEMIC IS, of course, only reinforcing other tendencies long and short running that have made gamblers of all of us. Way before the pandemic brought shock and awe, the financialization of everything softened us up with a carpet bombing of the new universal equivalent: data. Then in 2020, any illusions we had of certainty, predictability, a fixed metaphysical ground evaporated, and with them notions of a social safety net in the United States. Might as well cash in the stimulus check and dump the chips on the table. The GameStop saga was only a year ago, though it feels like several, given that society has since moved on from diamond hands to investment opportunities in NFTs and cryptocurrency. Both went overnight from niche to mainstream; last fall, Crypto.com premiered a commercial starring the bland, eminently OK American icon Matt Damon hawking whatever it is they do. The ad airs repeatedly before movies and during sports broadcasts, where it courts masculinity with an image of the resourceful (did you see The Martian?) and intelligent (did you see Good Will Hunting?) and muscular (did you see those Bourne movies?) cinema star praising explorers since time immemorial for their boldness, so that couch potatoes can feel like they are climbing Everest or inventing the airplane or colonizing the New World when they set up a crypto wallet. “Fortune favors the brave,” Damon intones over an image what appears to be Mars, in a royalty-free invocation of the dick-swelling psychic warlord of the moment, Elon Musk.

“Fortune favors the brave.”

The strange appearance of paintings, prints, and sculptures by genius Swiss pervert H. R. Giger at Lomex gallery in TriBeCa would seem thoroughly unrelated to these developments, aside from evergreen yet musty complaints about art having become a mere financial instrument (and perhaps some further remarks on the crisis of masculinity). In fact, if you have any respect for either technique or originality, the show is kind of great. Giger’s technoeroticism is right for the mood and, despite any potential commercial appeal, repellent; it’s too disturbing to have become kitsch. As a small, youngish gallery, Lomex’s balance sheet is likely always teeter-tottering; pulling off a show by someone as famous and possibly lucrative as Giger seems like a brilliant parlay with limited reputational downside. Fortune favors the brave. For its part, O’Flaherty’s sobered up a few days after the Bickerton opening, looked in its wallet, and sent out an Instagram plea for a patron, or as the gallery hilariously put it, a “sugar daddy.” May I also suggest Seeking Arrangement?

The coup de grâce of Giger’s exhibition is not the gleaming black-fiberglass version of the throne he originally designed for Alejandro Jodorowsky’s doomed version of Dune; rather, it is a simple piece of aluminum. In 1998, the one-eyed NYC nightclub baron Peter Gatien commissioned Giger to design a VIP room for his famous club, Limelight. It was a comeback moment for Gatien, whom authorities had recently failed to convict on MDMA-related racketeering charges, and whose nightspots had been poxed by the infamous 1996 murder and dismemberment of a drug dealer by his party maestro Michael Alig. Giger outfitted the VIP room with his typical regalia—sexy/dangerous femaliens with exposed skeletons, a fake fetus frozen in a block of ice, one of those skull-ornamented Harkonnen thrones, and so on. Gatien’s comeback was short-lived, however: He was summarily slammed with another indictment, this time on tax-evasion charges, which brought about his ultimate downfall. The Limelight shuttered for the last time in 2003, at which point it became a shopping mall.

Lomex’s H. R. Giger coin. Photo: Alex Gvojic.

The most enjoyable wrinkle in this tale is that Limelight minted a thousand coins that would admit one’s party to the Giger room regardless of who they were. The story goes that the artist’s studio wanted to make sure that some of his fans and other weirdos could make it past the velvet ropes, and so the quarter-size tokens were distributed to a motley assortment of characters. Capitalizing on this colorful nugget of New York nightlife trivia, Lomex and its partner in the exhibition, Kaleidoscope, asked artistic jack-of-all-trades Visitor Design to remint the coin to hand out at the opening. Clearly the gesture toward a club-kid nirvana is yet another recent nostalgic nod to the ’90s and its presumed livelier, simpler times; and in fact Lomex threw a big, well-DJ’d bash the night of their opening. (My risk-reward equation for the evening factored in the freezing cold temperatures and led me to stay home.) At the same time, it invokes the grand class-scrambling vision of New York as a place of shoulder-rubbing and ass-bumping that Samuel R. Delany famously celebrated—and mourned—in his 1999 book Times Square Red, Times Square Blue. The reminting also doubles down on the coin’s conflation of social and financial currency, medieval and neoliberal orders. As a creative act, it works even better in the art world—and the world possessed by social media more generally—wherein, lacking other means, one attempts, amid increasingly stratified conditions, to convert cachet into cash. You can’t buy cool, but can you sell it? Like the original, Lomex’s Giger coin bears a legless xenomorph, coiled and ready to strike. It’s unclear what flashing one of them will get you into.