Crowds poured in and out of a new strip of galleries lining Twenty-seventh Street last Thursday on the site of downtown impresario Peter Gatien’s late Tunnel nightclub. Gone are the days of Michael Alig’s lunch box–toting club kids and events like Kurfew’s gay chickenfest Saturdays or Funkmaster Flex’s Sunday hip-hop nights, where the likes of the Notorious B.I.G., Jay-Z, and DMX partied with the plebs back before rap’s royals cloistered themselves in VIP rooms. These days it’s fresh art going down at John Connelly Presents, Clementine Gallery, Foxy Production, Wallspace, Oliver Kamm/5BE Gallery, and Derek Eller Gallery that brought the kids back to this cobblestoned stretch of far west Chelsea. Only a stone’s throw from their old turf, the building, with its idiosyncratic spaces, offers more square footage and street-level access to these emerging art world forces (all members of the New Art Dealers Alliance).
At Clementine, Otabenga Jones and Associates (a Houston artist collective comprised of Robert A. Pruitt, Jabari Anderson, Jamal Cyrus, and Kenya Evans) seemed to give a nod to the venue’s history with their critiques of hip-hop and corporate branding (I particularly liked a cowrie shell–encrusted Kangol cap) while at Foxy, Jacob Ciocci of collective Paper Rad gleefully appropriated some of the club kids’ infantile theatrics in an installation jam-packed with toys and video clips from the ’80s and ’90s. Two monitors housed in wooden boxes screened clips from the animatronics-crammed 1984 fantasy classic The NeverEnding Story and oozed liquid fog. “I never saw the movie when I was little,” Ciocci explained. “But everyone told me it reminded them of my work and I finally saw it this year. It had a big impact on me.” Ushered inside Ciocci’s Inspiration Superhighway box (the press release namechecks Joseph Cornell) along with three Japanese girls, I spent fifteen giddy minutes in Ciocci’s parallel universe of talking toys, cartoons, electro beats, and flashing lights. Pressed together atop a child-size cot fitted with Russ Troll Doll sheets, we were informed that “it all began in the seventh grade when I began seeing invisible boxes” and instructed to pull aside a curtain, revealing a wall-to-wall altar of monitors plastered with plastic toys. “Sugoi! [Super!]” gasped one of my boxmates.
Squirming through the sidewalk spillover (preternaturally warm weather made it feel like a block party) and spotting curators Bob Nickas and Shamim Momin among the fray, I arrived at John Connelly Presents along with artists Paul Chan, Jesse Bransford, and Peter Coffin (nobly navigating the throngs on crutches due to a broken foot). For the new space’s inaugural show, the gallery’s stable of post-Pop provocateurs took aim at the ends of modernism: Michael Phelan and Jonah Freeman rendered Stella’s concentric geometries in Home Depot materials like melamine and rope while Scott Hug and Michael Magnan erected a Buren-striped cylindrical folly lined with USA Today celebrity headshots. Curving through the gallery’s S-shaped floor plan (before its nightclub days the space functioned as a train station) I encountered the venerable AA Bronson and NADA art fair director Heather Hubbs in the project room before stumbling back into the streetside swarm.
The afterparty was held two blocks north at Secret. (The name reminded me of the glittery Trapper Keeper stickers Kirsten Stoltmann had used to adorn a self-portrait at Wallspace.) I immediately bumped into the neon-windbreaker-wearing Paper Rad artists (including Ciocci’s sister) along with a cluster of fans in matching acid colors. Ciocci, down to a puffy-paint T-shirt, explained his attire succinctly: “I go to a lot of thrift stores.” Jeffrey Deitch and John Connelly artists laid claim to the back room (Terence Koh, musician Phiiliip, Hug, and Magnan), though for another faction it seemed like the real party lay farther backin the club’s powder room. Connelly was a consummate host, moving effortlessly from guest to guest in a sharp black suit, while Foxy Production’s Michael Gillespie and John Thomson shared time with Ciocci and Stoltmann. I ran into Rhizome.org director Lauren Cornell with Cory Arcangel, whom she introduced (with an eye roll and air quotes) as a “Nintendo artist,” a tag that induced a quick thumbs down from the monkeying appropriator of “old” new media. On my way out of the club, I brushed up against graffiti artist Steve Powers (aka ESPO), arriving late and passing for a comic book gangster in a big-and-tall cream suit and matching fedora. It looked like the party was about to be injected with new life, but I was already half out the doorand besides, it was way past Kurfew.