Three places in the Art world – “Denim” at 80WSE

When I think back on Denim, the exhibition curated by David Rimanelli, NYU visiting assistant professor of art history and Artforum contributing editor,  February 2 – March 12,  at the University’s 80WSE gallery, a couple of images, a film and a bowl of chocolate coated raisins leap to mind.  And then I think of the people. Context is king.

The first of the images happens to be one of the late Karlheinz Weinberger’s gelatin silver prints, a set of which took up an entire large wall in the first interior gallery. Titled Männlicher Akt, the image in question  dates from around 1975, and depicts a somewhat hairy 20’s something male nude, glancing offhandedly towards the camera/viewer. His tattooed arms and hands frame a slouched torso and his flaccid, ample cock and balls rest within the V of his thighs,  which spread to straddle the platform, covered with a striped fabric, on which he sits.

I had just come from the large  gallery 1, its picture window looking west across Washington Square, where the growing darkness of the winter evening seemed to mimic the sky-to-midnight blue shadings of Jack Pierson’s or for mercy, a more than 30 square foot folded pigment print from 2009.  This piece fairly dominated a room in which Tom Burr’s construction Slacks, from 2008, and Rob Pruitt’s pair of blue jeans and concrete benches from his 2006 Esprit du Corps provided counterpoint.

The gallery’s press release had offered the following:

Jack Pierson's "or for mercy" 2009

“Denim’s cult status as a rebel uniform emerged in the public mind largely through classic Hollywood cinema—for instance, Marlon Brando in The Wild One, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, and Marilyn Monroe in The Misfits, and later as the preferred style for certain subcultures, for example gay subculture, as can be seen in Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising and Kustom Kar Kommandos; or, returning to Hollywood, William Friedkin’s controversial Cruising.

“In DENIM, these cinematic references commingle with denim’s “high-art” associations, which have become ingrained through the ‘60s image of the “artist-worker,” exemplified by minimalists like Robert Morris, or by Carl Andre, habitually attired in overalls. Andy Warhol is a key figure in this respect, both in his own sartorial inclinations but particularly in his art and films.”

Rimanelli’s exhibition seemed to trade on these juxtapositions while implying and perhaps provoking a series of questions using our familiar relationship a fabric as a point of reference, or, if you prefer, departure.  Hell, the jeans encasing Burr’s bent kneed concrete represented the only real denim in the show.  Meanwhile Warhol, represented at the gallery by his early film Blow Job, (1964), and a framed 1971 record jacket sleeve for the Rolling Stones’ album Sticky Fingers, complete, we’re told, with working zipper, made his cameo count with only a practical picture of pants on a commercial art product and a hint of no pants in action.  Warhol at NYU?  What a way to make the most of your Lady Gaga moment.

A concern with fashion, in fact, both actual and artistic/cultural, lay just below the surface in this runway of art featuring work in many media from 11 artists and ranging over the last half century. That would place the work in response to the “emergence” referenced in the press release, but squarely inside the “ingraining.” Said to have been originally inspired in part by the guns prominent in the Export performance artist’s work of the late 60’ and 70’s, the show veered instead towards the spectacle of artists’ depictions of our meta erotic fascination with what we wear and how we let it represent us.  Thus we have Valie Export’s gelatin silver image Genital Panic, 1969, from the Action Pants series, in which she has photographed herself with her crotch partially exposed while holding a rifle – a proto Patty Hearst.

Talking ‘bout a revolution, well, you know, the press release mentions that, too:

“The artists in DENIM explore the multifarious connotations of a material that began its life as a fabric for work clothes, but has become, over the past few decades, a material for fashion, both instant and high-end couture. For Rimanelli, denim not only refers to fashion but also functions as a psychic material, sheathing ideas that range from the erotic to the implicitly revolutionary.”

Multifarious connotations sheathing ideas?  Sounds erotically revolutionary to me. But then again so do work clothes, at least in this context. Standing among the elements of Mike Smith’s single channel video installation Secret Horror, 1980, I found myself dipping in to the bowl of chocolate covered raisins and coffee beans, thoughtfully provided as part of the piece.  Yes, Virginia, you can eat art, even as you begin counting the patrons at the opening decked out in denim,  and beginning with yours truly.

After all, ain’t it the people with their romantic hopes and dreams of better living through cotton and commerce that make all this worthwhile? Mind the gap, and while we’re counting, recall that old perhaps apocryphal slogan of the French Situationists from roughly the same time period referenced in the emergence and the ingraining: “Désirs érotiques saper les fondements de l’ordre établi <Erotic desires undermine the basis of the established order>.”

I slipped in through the curtain cordoning off the gallery screening Blow Job from the one containing Secret Horror. I tuned in to the small gestures of both the movie and the mostly student/academic crowd. In the few times I’ve visited 80WSE, I’ve become impressed with it as a jewel box for quirky and provocative little exhibitions introducing the younger artists now making their way through the academy to Denim, Stuart Sherman and the like, even as it adds its soft spoken voice to the loud and crowded New York art circus. Now it stands to serve in turn, in its current annual MFA show, as these student artists’ portal opening on to this fabulous fashion city’s art scene.

Wandering back to the first interior gallery, I encountered the publicist Deborah Hughes and the two women from her firm helping her handle PR for the opening. All exuded a cool and casual elegance in their no-nonsense pony tails, figure flattering sweaters, and heeled boots under, you guessed it, well fitted designer jeans. These women service the real fashion world and their presence and their attire (their uniform; their work clothes, actually) seemed to point many of the questions the show begged to ask. If anything comes between them and their <you name the designer>, it would truly have to be a work of art.

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