PRINT December 2008

John Kelsey

PLAYING WITH DOLLS is a pastime for sissies and shut-ins, and, as artists from Hans Bellmer to Todd Haynes have shown, it is also a hands-on means of objectifying the terrors and traumas of one’s time, whether in psychotherapy or in the gallery. Indeed, as the credit crunch hits the headlines and now the city, the moment seems right for this series of hilariously downsized allegories of subjective and economic crisis, and what genre more fitting than schlock horror? In his first solo exhibition in Gotham, “Bohemian Monsters,” at Broadway 1602, Daniel McDonald peopled miniature yet epic tableaux with mummies, zombies, and other mass-produced “action figures” bought on eBay and surgically restyled by the artist, in order to depict the lower depths of the art-world food chain—a downtown pressure-cooked by gentrification and the crackdown on “quality of life” crimes and terror, first under Giuliani and then Bloomberg.

McDonald, who also makes jewelry under the name Mended Veil, is brilliant in small scale. Obsessive, DIY craftsmanship and an arch, conceptual approach to found objects inform the artist’s move from gothic costume jewelry to these new, intricate sculptures, which condense two decades of Lower Manhattan’s mutant history into tightly arranged scenes that play out at comic book speed. Goodbye (The Wolfman and Frankenstein), 2008, presents a hipster werewolf clutching a bouquet of roses, in the act of kicking down the door of a cramped apartment where a little Jack Pierson–style text work spells out GOODB . . . on the wall, and a mini Y props open the window. A second figure, holding an E, is already up on the roof, about to jump. In An Experiment in Self-Medication (Doctor Jekyll as Mr. Hyde), 2008, a solitary figure wearing a paintsmeared lab coat guzzles alcohol in a studio strewn with bottles. The scene is itself bottled—an allegory of addiction trapped under a bell jar. There is a perversity in McDonald’s reduced scales and self-enclosed forms that calls to mind certain works by Duchamp, such as Belle Haleine, Eau de Voilette, 1921, a small sculpture based on a readymade perfume bottle, and Boîte-en-valise, 1935–41, whereby the artist carefully reproduced his own works as a miniature, foldout career retrospective inside a small suitcase. Playing on a confusion between artistic subjectivity and the ready-made commodity, McDonald’s project underlines the living-dead status of products and selves that outlast their expiration dates, while foregrounding a hobbyist’s approach to making objects—self-sufficient, self-sustaining, never in a hurry. You can imagine McDonald producing this show at home, in front of the TV, in an apartment not unlike the ones he fabricates in miniature. In his case, the joke is in how the hobbyist’s detached and retiring attitude collides with the end-of-the-rope urgencies that dramatize his sculptures.

McDonald experienced the previous economic recession as codirector of American Fine Arts gallery in New York, where he and other Cooper Union grads joined forces with dealer Colin de Land to form Art Club 2000, a collective whose mid-1990s work portrayed an urban youth scene striking ironic and critical poses against the backdrop of SoHo’s collapse and the rise of the megastore. Soon all the good nightclubs would be closed down. In that context, DIY was both a mode of humble resistance and a real necessity for those interested in keeping some version of bohemian self-invention alive in the city. It was the era of club kids, Wu-Tang Clan, Tommy Hilfiger, Alleged Gallery, Narcotics Anonymous, and other mutant formations. This time around, however, McDonald shows us the impotence and absurdity of stereotypically underground lifestyles in the face of unstoppable urban development. In Demolition of Affordable Housing (The Phantom of the Opera), 2007, a dandyish ghoul stands paralyzed next to a tiny typewriter and a bin full of even tinier crumpled pages, while a toy crane stands ready to raze his crumbling, claustrophobic world. These are not only images of the artist destroyed by madness, starving, hysterical, etc. These are metaphors for bohemia in the process of being disappeared by the far darker forces of global finance. In Forced to Sell Artwork from Personal Collection in Order to Offset Living Expenses (The Wicked Witch of the West), 2008, a green-faced collector-hag creeps into a gallery with the obvious intention of selling back an artwork that also happens to be her own Warhol celebrity portrait. “Bohemian Monsters” presents the new downtown: a creaking ruin, now fractured into a series of isolated freak-outs and cooped-up crisis couples, trapped in airless art studios and overpriced apartments that resemble B-horror sets.

During the Great Depression, films such as Frankenstein and Freaks resonated with common fears of disaster and misfortune, and for Western consumers living through the cold war period, Hollywood B movies in the sci-fi and horror genres tapped popular anxieties about the bomb and Soviet invasion. Referencing these histories in “Bohemian Monsters,” McDonald reflects a contemporary dread particular to New York: a feeling that what we once imagined as the “artist’s life” is no longer possible here, or only possible as a sort of “bad,” no-budget movie. He also orchestrates a couple of crowd scenes: Available Space (Various Figures), 2008, depicts a horde of mutant/monster creative types lined up in the street outside a padlocked door bearing the words ALTERNATIVE SPACE; Artists Under Consideration, 2008, appropriately installed in the gallery’s office, is a gruesome filing cabinet overflowing with corpses and CVs—a bohemian graveyard. Strung like rotten pearls on a very thin thread, the figures in these scenes populate the dark side of what we call the creative network, spooked by the possibility that they could soon find themselves as uselessly adrift in this world as yesterday’s hedge-fund managers and other, less privileged sectors of the global multitude.

We’ve carried the notion of the freedom-seeking outsider into these times, but find no proper space in which to live it. Given the spiraling of the global financial crisis, artists may find it necessary to elaborate other, more cunning (and therapeutic) relations to their own crisis, and to the real estate they haunt. If the credit-driven economy is a fiction that no longer functions, art, too, will have to put dysfunction back into play. It will get smaller, weirder, and more monstrous.

John Kelsey is a contributing editor of Artforum