Waking on a slow summer Saturday….out to the already damp streets to bring in Coffee….the heat of the day is already a covenant and the sultry air even now, even this early, pulsating a little with that expectancy. Mary likes the time of the morning to read and prepare for the day, I on the other hand cannot wait to meet its humid blaze head on and find myself in the elevator facing the quizzical stares from my neighbors who misinterpret my sun creamed determination as ill-tempered when it is simply enthusiasm to be out in the streets.
These are now overly familiar and I feel a little like a cat with very specific routes and paths to be followed. In the years that we have lived here, the city has changed, it moves at a restless pace sometimes beyond all recognition, while we remain the same – or at least feel the same. This is particularly true if I ride down the west side of Manhattan and see the development called Hudson Yards, then Chelsea, the High Line and the Meat Packing District. A life time ago when we lived down town I would get up early on a Saturday and ride in the opposite direction, uptown through this same route and in those days the drag queens and drug addicts would still be wandering through the tight cobbled lanes like residual spirits from a Dickens novel. If you are imagining glamour then you would be disappointed, these were frighteningly messy – their outward disheveled appearance making you fearful of further asocial capabilities, the possibility of sudden, irrational confrontation somehow never seemed far away and I avoided them despite my natural curiosity. We miss them and mourn equally for this part of the city now populated by visitors from Jersey and empty apartments owned by wealthy absent investors.
The weekend is a place for entertainment and food. The diversions are primarily artistic and we plot our route through the New York gallery guides. Today, because of the heat and its accomplice, the potential for rain, the list became shorter and less ambitious and by early afternoon we see only a handful of shows, one standing out because if its awfulness. This is occasionally a good sign, but not in this case. Alex Israel is an artist from Los Angeles who has based his practice parodying the celebrity world he grew up around, he may not describe his intent so simplistically, but that’s what it is. The bad news is that this has been done many times before and more successfully, so much so that this common perspective leads us to marvel whenever we encounter LA’s other side, its intellect and good taste. With Alex Israel the problem is Warhol. His work is presented as a self-portrait; the artist as a celebrity, films of himself in dark sunglasses interviewing the almost famous, a deadpan Warholian character resembling Pee Wee Herman a little in a suit and bowtie. How some of the interviewee’s play along! We suppose the joke is at their expenses, their eagerness to talk about themselves while indifferent to the cruelty of the context. Its extraordinary depressing on several layers. The work consists of predictable devices, film, a backdrop for a talk show, a wall opening shaped with his already familiar profile – an exercise in branding – his “paintings” are also shaped in this manner, instantly recognizable. Apparently this instant association is critical for this current art market but I am wary of populist models, of the cynicism below the surface and the obviousness of its commerciality.
The disquiet was tempered thanks to birthday celebrations, I vow to be positive, but it doesn’t last long. In the evening we dined out in the Metropolitan Museum overlooking the malachite canopies of Central Park where the broad winged birds of prey swoop and dive, I see that I’m the sole diner interested in their progress; we are mutually indifferent to our hunting gathering instincts. A lovely meal, but better still when it was over, we walked through an almost empty museum, the cleaning staff pausing to observe us, the new exhibits, guiding to rest rooms and exits and I don’t understand how I sometimes feel nothing looking at these historical wonders inside glass cases and under spot lights. There is a rare sense of bonhomie with the residual diners as we search for the way out of this near empty space but I don’t get drawn in to their laughter.
I’m happy to walk back home from the Met in the still warm evening, down along the asperous path that runs alongside the park. Several years ago I walked this way and noticed movement over my right shoulder and found I was being followed by a raccoon high on the wall, it sped forward and scurried into a trash can. Moments later I saw a pretty young woman approach the can to throw some litter and I stopped her and said there is a raccoon in there – I received an eye roll and contemptuous shrug as if to say that that must be the worst pick up line she had even heard. It was one of those memorable moments where I was struck by the cities inequity, why be nice? and then it occurred to me that someone like this must be plagued constantly in order to have such an inhumane response. I wonder why oppressiveness and critique are such natural and necessary components of living in this city, I felt sudden inner regret about my trite assessment of Alex Israel, I feel sure he is a decent person and his galleries are all highly respectable and genuinely sincere. It is not so much the contemporary art practices that annoy but the growing sense of corruption in the world generally, morally and fiscally, the storing and packaging, the back room deals and the deceit of a world craving transparency but never really delivering it, we find it impossible to know what to believe or who to trust.