Gross Worth

New York

Left: Collector Neil Frankel with curator Alison Gingeras. Right: Dealer Gavin Brown and Rachel Roberts. (All photos: David Velasco)

On a lovely summer evening, what could be nicer than strolling to the West Village, looking at art, and hopefully not being too vibed out by the self-absorbed crowd? Curated by Alison Gingeras, “Pretty Ugly” is a supersize group show sprawling between Gavin Brown’s Enterprise and Maccarone, fortresses of coolness where, according to the press release, “the fluidity of ‘pretty’ and ‘ugly’ will be played with and almost posit ‘pretty ugly’ as a third term which might apply to a vast range of artists and works, thereby fusing the two galleries into a single exhibition.”

This viewer spotted three categories: “Gross,” “Kitschy,” and “Weird Body Parts.” Some works were all of the above. Indeed, among the gross were the exalted Viennese male cutters Hermann Nitsch and Rudolf Schwarzkogler (whose photos documented a mummy’s nasty doings with a dead chicken), a fresh, juicy placenta (by Corey McCorkle), and Bruce LaBruce’s equally vibrant Blow Job with Pig Blood. Karen Kilimnik’s early scrawl DEATH TO PIGS! looked comparatively jaunty in a fancy frame. A kitschy John Currin tableau titled Equality in the Workplace shows a business meeting between a smarmy “suit” and a lady coworker whose boobs droop out of her blouse and onto the table like fleshy Slinkies. Lots of Hans Bellmer (weird doll body parts). Otto Dix’s ugly Germans. A Joel-Peter Witkin bod-mod torso with scarified “wings” in a punishing corset. A stunning Alice Neel painting of a spastic-looking Religious Girl.

Left: Artists John Currin and Rachel Feinstein. Right: Dealer Michele Maccarone with artist Ryan McKenna.

You know, jolie laide art. Like Sarah Jessica Parker. I couldn’t help but think of Gertrude Stein, who noticed how certain “irritating annoying” works of art can suddenly upgrade from “reject” to “classic”: “First all beauty in it is denied, then all beauty in it is accepted.” I paused before a “bust” composed of paint gobs, like a de Kooning sculpture with three red clown noses. “Early Paul McCarthy?” a cute artist-seeming guy chuckled appreciatively. (The work was by Glenn Brown, I later checked.)

Especially at Maccarone, the stuff was so poorly labeled it was like Art Jeopardy for the in-the-know. So user-unfriendly. I puzzled with newbies Roberta Smith and Jerry “I don’t know anything!” Saltz over a salon-style wall hung in a total jumble, crazy-makingly labeled by “rows.” We wanted to find out who did the fetching portrait of Michael Jackson and E.T. but couldn’t crack the code because most of the pieces were simply Untitled. Sheepishly, we discovered Michael Jackson and E.T. was one of the few exceptions, but attempting to extrapolate the unknown Untitleds from the forest of known Untitleds was like driving while attempting to read a map. Annoying and distracting (though not as dangerous).

In the gallery as luxury boutique, such user-unfriendly labeling sends the subtle message that information is for buyers only. It’s not “If you have to ask how much it is, you can’t afford it.” It’s “If you have to ask what it is, you don't belong here, you rube! Go hire a personal shopper—I mean, an art consultant!”

Left: Artists Brian Meola and Jack Pierson. Right: Artist Rob Pruitt.

On to the afterparty! “Hookerish” best described the sleek, cushy decor at Norwood, a members-only, Soho House–like (but cooler!) club targeting “tweedy, artistic types” willing to pay dues to frequent the Fourteenth Street townhouse that some Gawker commenter anointed “the Algonquin douche table.”

“Well, look at who’s here . . . ” I sat with David Rimanelli and Chivas Clem (whose “Pretty Ugly” piece was an homage to Ebony and Ivory “exotic” beauty: a regal African lady and Barbra Streisand, both working a tribal look.) We watched the crowd from the opening schmooze away, but now way more attractively lit: artists Currin (holding forth about James Bond), Rachel Feinstein, and Rob Pruitt; White Columns director Matthew Higgs; Interview editor Christopher Bollen. A droll Scottish guy—with a nice Jewish boyfriend—amused himself by trying on my Star of David necklace. Oy. The champagne flowed, literally, from those wide-mouthed, tippy glasses that always wind up dribbling down my arm. With a smile as abstract as the resin John McCracken plank in his gallery, Brown glided through the bar area, a wolf man in a crisp navy gingham shirt, meeting and not always greeting his guests: “He didn’t say hello to me!” I heard someone exclaim in the gloaming.

“Well, what do you expect from these people?” said another.

“But we were friends!”

Rhonda Lieberman

Left: Artist Chuck Close. Right: Artist Rita Ackermann and Marika Nuss.