Law and Disorder

Lauren O'Neill-Butler on an evening at downtown art nonprofits

New York

Left: Machine Dazzle. Right: Critic Peter Schjeldahl and White Columns director Matthew Higgs. (All photos: Ryan McNamara)

SINK OR SWIM. Since art nonprofits (and downtown art nonprofits in particular) have dealt with those looming conditions for ages, it felt only natural that last Tuesday night, during several events feting such institutions, conversations about community would trump those about the economic downturn. White Columns celebrated its prestigious history with the opening of “40 Years/40 Projects,” and the Sylvia Rivera Law Project held its fourth annual “Small Works for Big Change” auction at the Leslie/Lohman Gay Art Foundation. The latter, a benefit that is supported by donations and volunteers, raises funds for free legal services for low-income transgender and intersex people. Pressed to catch the 7:30 PM SRLP fashion show, and hoping to make a pit stop at the Swiss Institute for Marlo Pascual’s opening, time and space seemed to collapse as I rode a wave of giddy, infectious cheer, post–season of giving, pre–Obama inauguration.

First up was White Columns, where ever-gracious curator Amie Scally pointed out a few highlights––a 1970 New York Times review by Peter Schjeldahl, Lovett/Codagnone’s 1995 video Samurai Love, and the newspaper exhibition catalogue from the 2004 “Gloria” show. Did it come as a surprise to see the august critic and artists meandering around the galleries? Not really. Maybe it was all the ephemera going to my head, but already the art world seemed a little smaller, more tightly knit—1970s redux. Salvaged from basement archives, the show includes a 1988 checklist from Cady Noland’s exhibition, with works priced at two and four hundred dollars. Amid chatter about those now-bargain-basement prices, director Matthew Higgs elaborated on the archive’s poor condition, as we gazed fondly at the three remaining documents from Kim Gordon’s 1981 show and discussed the potential for a panel featuring all of the White Columns directors—a disparate clan, to be sure. Clocking the time—nearly 7 PM—on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’s Perfect Lovers, I squeezed through the by-then-bustling crowd and caught a taxi to SoHo.

Left: Swiss Institute director Gianni Jetzer and artist Marlo Pascual. Right: Artists John Lovett and Alessandro Codagnone.

At the Swiss Institute, wistful new works by fresh-faced Pascual were reminiscent of her show last year at White Columns––everything comes full circle. The hallways were crowded and the elevator packed, but the large main gallery, featuring a mammoth steel sculpture by Pierre Vadi and Christian Dupraz, was relatively empty, perhaps because no one wanted to step on the frail, barely there glass rings on the floor (although by the looks of it, several already had). During a few quick New Year catch-ups, I tried to persuade friends to tag along to the final destination of the night––it was, after all, a good cause. “I don’t like art that has an obligation,” one asserted. “You killed Proposition 8!” I heard someone retort. And off we went.

En route to the benefit, as we navigated the nearly barren streets, my mind wandered back to the early ’70s again. (Last year, the auction was at Sara Meltzer Gallery, and the year before at Orchard; its flight to SoHo seemed perfectly timed.) This quasi-nostalgia was in full effect once I arrived at Leslie/Lohman, where a few hundred participants were having the loudest art party I’d ever seen. Tacked above the entrance desk, a large handmade sign—the sort familiar to protests and DIY celebrations––welcomed visitors to the auction, while T-shirts and posters for sale at prices from two to ten dollars suggested that no one would leave empty-handed.

“How bad do you want it?” someone screamed above the blaring hip-hop as I made my way toward the stage, shouldering through the sea of radical––and radically different––people. I tried to find out what “it” was––the art, the clothes, the drinks, or something more lubricious––but the show was just ending. Or at least, I thought it was, since the Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence were prancing around all night, selling raffle tickets for a two-hour “Kink Session.” Playing name-that-tune with some friends, I caught up with a few of the benefit’s organizers (full disclosure: I helped out over the summer) and checked the works lining the walls, taking second glances at Isabelle Woodley’s and Lisa Ross’s contributions. “I’m just relieved my work was bid on!” exclaimed another artist in the show, while one more told me he was just as relieved there were no bids yet. “Saving the best for last,” he said as I nodded, lip-synching to Madonna’s “Lucky Star.” It seemed hardly any time had passed before MC Jennifer Miller was screaming over the music for everyone to bid. On command, the pages appeared to fill up. During those fleeting moments, in the midst of joyful and jostling bodies, downtown seemed immune to the downturn.

Left: The Sisters of Perpetual Indulgence. Right: Artist Sharon Hayes.

Left: Artist Geoffrey Hendricks. Right: Artists Ginger Brooks Takahashi, Travis Boyer, and Jacob Robichaux.

Left: Artist Jaime Davidovich. Right: Artist Cheryl Donegan with son.

Left: Artist Ulrike Müller with Dia's Kristin Poor and Barbara Schroeder. Right: Artist Tuesday Smillie.

Left: One of the benefit's participants. Right: Tri-State Area's Michael O'Neill and Leidy Churchman.

Left: Artist Frank Majore. Right: Promoter Earl Dax (right).

Left: A benefit participant. Right: Artists Lucky DeBellevue, Marlo Pascual, Kimberly Brandt, and Walsh Hansen.

Left: Silvia Rivera Law Project's June Brown. Right: White Columns curator Amie Scally with Kunstverein Munich director Stefan Kalmar and Matthew Higgs.