“This is Jeffrey at his finest,” announced Steve Powers, a.k.a. ESPO, assessing the Italian dinner served up in honor of the Dreamland Artist Club, Powers’s urban beautification project which, for the past two years, has recruited mostly New York-based artists to create signage for Coney Island businesses, concession stands, and arcade games. To celebrate, Jeffrey Deitch and non-profit Creative Time teamed up to throw a real “island party” in Brooklyn. Held in the sprawling Gargiulo’s restaurant (whose outdoor mosaics and plaster fountains have a new addition, Dreamland’s crowning achievement: A 130-foot-long mural by São Paolo artist duo Os Gemeos), the festivities included a fez-wearing tiki band and three performances by the World Famousand elaborately headdressedPontani Sisters. “This song goes out to all the tiki girls in the audience, all the mermaids, all the sea goddesses,” purred the marimba man into the microphone before the Pontani trio hit the floor in leopard-print turbans (one of three sets of headgear, including the pièce de résistance: masks of Sinatra, Sammy Davis, Jr., and Dean Martin haloed in white ostrich feathers). Table-hopping began almost as soon as the antipasti-, calamari-, and tortellini-stocked buffet opened, with Anne Pasternak, artist and ex-Warhol assistant Ronnie Cutrone, and Jeffrey himself playing musical chairs in the empty seat to my right.
With tortas on their way, cocurator Alexa Coyne took me down Surf Avenue and through the arcades to see the freshly painted art signs. Os Gemeos’s mural adorning the rear wall of the restaurant, painted over the course of three weeks in May, is this year’s most ogled addition. (The artists, Brazilian twins, reportedly didn’t even pause for meals.) The mural, a “Coney Island fantasy scene” according to Coyneincluding, of course, an ascending mermaidwas entirely created using tiny aerosol cans called “aliens” that had to be specially imported from the West Coast (thin, spidery lines define the graffiti style known as Pixãcao in São Paolo). Next door to that fairground landmark, the Coney Island Museum, Powers and gang have opened the Dreamland Artist Clubhouse, which functions as a sign shop, information center, and hangout. “It’s mental,” mused Coyne, who has spent so much time in Coney Island recently that she began to have nightmares her ashes would be scattered there. “It’s like having a contemporary art gallery on Coney Island.” By now the dinner guests were drifting over to the brightly lit clubhouse and the evening fair-goers were growing curious. Stopping in front of Powers’s “ass, gas, and cash” lightbox, one football-jerseyed local asked Powers what was inside.
“It’s a sign shop.”
“You have, like, t-shirts?” the man asked, searching.
“No, we make signs.”
“Will you make me a sign?”
Powers was thrilled. “It’s a situationist comedy,” he said, half to me, half to no one in particular. Indeed, interaction with the Coney Island community is the project’s first mission. “At first people thought it was a scam,” but now, Powers attests, “they know we’re here for a duration. They know we’re a presence here.”
“Party in the sign shop!” exclaimed Peter Eleey, last year’s project producer, as more people wandered in and gawked at artist Matt Wright’s grocery store-inspired paper signs wheat-pasted to the clubhouse walls and ceiling. Powers scrambled on top of a cartoonishly larger-than-life “counter” (Wright and Powers plan to keep the shop/information booth open for business through Labor Day) and began taking photos of the crowd, while artist Mimi Gross stepped inside with her granddaughter Sara, who was grasping an enormous bouquet of helium balloons snagged from the waning festa italiana back at Gargiulo’s.
With midnight approaching and a long train ride back to Manhattan ahead, I realized I had better try my hand at winning some of the Dreamland art prizes at the arcades before it got too late. I fumbled through the prize list to see what I should try for. To my disappointment, the handsome Sol LeWitt silk scarves at the “Balloon Water Race” were all gone. But I did score a limited-edition stuffed toy by Los Angeles duo Dogg + Bone after a heated test of water gun marksmanship pitted me against an extended family of bedraggled day-trippers and a couple of fellow art-hungry dinner guests. After losing to a mom who took home a jumbo stuffed Stitch (Disney’s huggable surfing extraterrestrial), I finally won a round. The attendant, sizing me up, automatically reached for the “art” prizes and handed me a “Doggpony”a dog with a pony’s head. I wasn’t even given the chance to turn down Stitch.