Honest Opinions

     Re: Opening at The Void. Early morning in Brooklyn Navy Yards: In a sleepy haze I grab my phone.  There is an email from a curator friend of mine who lives in Europe visiting New York, “Meet us there, darling?”  Not sure how I feel about going to a place that exhibits glorified skater art in my opinion, but I think it could be fun and I should meet him while he is in town.  “Why not?”  I tell myself to keep an open mind and have a good time. I’m grumpy, but not hung over, luckily. I reply to his email, still in bed: “See you there, sweetie.” 

            Later that day an actress friend of mine is in town and drops by for lunch to catch up. She is on her way to Texas to be in the new Wes Anderson American Express commercial. It just so happens she is going to the opening at The Void as well. She tells me her friend is running the place and I should meet her.  I think okay why not.  I could do a show there; I used to skate in junior high and grew up in California, I’m still young.  I instantly start building the exhibition up in my head.  I’m already imaging my show and how it would be transgressive; a good career move, brilliant and funny. Actress leaves me to go and change and we agree to meet up later at the gallery downtown.

            I arrive at The Void. The opening is kicking off with too many people, most, if not all of whom I’ve never seen at an opening or art gig before. “Am I out of the loop?”

I think to myself, how many “Art Worlds” are there? Which one, if any, am I still part of?  I feel totally isolated in the first five minutes.  Pretty standard, even if it’s your own vernissage.

            I get a glass of white wine in a plastic cup to take the exhibition in with. I won’t even describe it here, because for some reason whenever I describe bad art to people, it always sounds better than it is. I guess it is the car salesman in me, even a lemon, has its qualities.  I go through so that I can say I like this one painting, as a point of conversation, and maybe this other smaller drawing of a half-pipe.  Defensively eyeing the works, to maintain tactful small talk if necessary at some point in the evening. 

I’m now entering that awkward moment at an opening, where I have been floating around enough that I should have run into someone who knows me, or wants to schmooze with me, and I start to feel like I should leave or escape.   “Why do openings force you to stand for two hours?”  It is a very similar feeling to being the new kid at school. I used to walk around at lunchtime to appear like I was going somewhere or meeting someone. I didn’t want it to be discovered that I had no social circle yet, the loner.  Sitting at lunch alone in high school was instant loser status. 

            The scene at The Void is a bit bathetic for my conservative taste, men dressing like sixteen year olds aspiring to be on the cover of Thrasher magazine, older women in jumps suits and Prada heels, and normal people trying too hard, for reasons that are lost on me. What are all these people hoping for? No one is looking at the so-called art works, only each other and the next conversation starts before the other finished.  A bit like Sartre’s play No Exit, but actually I can see the exit.  “Why can’t I just have a good time?”

            I think I’ve had three glasses of crappy wine and I can taste the plastic on my lips and the effeminate bartender is starting to get excited to refill my cup.  Not a good sign.  Actress appears to be a no show and curator, maybe came and left early.  I’m feeling like a fish out of water.  I am just about to leave, and next wave of latecomers arrive.  I discard my cup.

            Curator barrages me with kisses, a French dandy with beautiful shoes, I guess John Lobb and a vintage Claiborne suit, strawberry blonde mane of hair. He must be 50 by now. Curator has a posse of art people, the usual suspects, abstract painter, diamond dealer, and famous artist’s daughter.  I am not alone.

The gallery’s press photographer photographs us and things change from my perspective, because I’m finally getting some attention. I tell the photographer to please not misspell my name, she takes it as an amateur move, and tells me not to worry, the right people will be tagged for the gallery’s website.  Her way of basically telling me I’m not important. If I have to tell her my name, and the correct spelling, I must not be as famous I think, or hope. 

            The curator introduces me to a famous artist in a tuxedo. This artist is someone that means something for me to meet, because he’s big.  At art school I was told that my work was similar to famous artist’s work in a bad way.  Famous artist asks my name, and he says he loves my work, and this makes me really happy. I nervously adjust my tie, and wished I still smoked, rushing away to get another drink.  Have I finally made it, am I successful?

            Actress arrives, paparazzi flashes, she bee-lines to me. She looks totally different than at lunchtime, much hotter.  I am re-photographed and this time asked how to correctly spell my last name sycophantically by photographer with giant black mole on chin.  I’ve made the cut now.  Good thing I had on brand new red espadrilles.

            Actress wants to look at the art, very enthusiastic, positive and wants my honest opinions. I’m happy to walk through and pretend to be interested in the works. She is really into them, these paintings of famous skateboarders from the 70’s and their dogs.  Here I am describing it and now it sounds good.  Actress wonders how much they cost.  For some reason she assumes I know the price of everything, she thinks they must be like three thousand to five thousand dollars, no? I try to hide my sarcasm and say I doubt it, more like fifty thousand to take a stab in the dark.  She is stunned, and feels embarrassed because she realizes that I’m probably correct. I say these places like The Void, wouldn’t waste their time on cheaper works of art.  I tell her I like the one of Tony Hawk and his Labradoodle, reminds me of Picabia, which I don’t believe myself, and whose art she doesn’t know.  I’m just trying to be positive.  I mean I might be represented by this place by the end of the night.  Maybe they can sell my work and I can finally make some money.

            New owner of The Void comes up to actress and me, ignoring my presence, but very excited by the turn out of people.  She seems almost surprised. Actress introduces me and she is very friendly and gives me the spiel about the artist and his works, checklist in hand.  She says: “I hope we sell something tonight!”  It always stresses me out when gallerists reveal how much luck and lottery is involved in the business side of art, especially at the opening.  I smile and say: “I love the Tony Hawk portrait.”  

I tell the gallerist that my curator friend writes for the “gossip” section of Art in the U.S.A.  I point him out from across the room.  Now I climb a rung of importance on the ladder. We go over to curator who is still talking to famous artist in tuxedo and smoking inside.  On the way over gallerist mentions to me that her personal assistant is dating famous artist, that is why he is here at the opening.    Actress is happy that I’m making introductions with curator, suddenly the opening is almost over and I’m invited to a little dinner with gallerist, actress and two other people at the restaurant called the Frown, I am told it is just around the corner in the Bowery.    

Somehow the gallerist is not going to dinner with artist whose exhibition we are at, and where I am told most things, i.e. sales happen for the artist. Oh well, better for me.  I remember a solo exhibition I had uptown where the dealer did the same thing, basically so he didn’t have to pick up the check for dinner.  It was weird to be celebrating my one-man show in Manhattan with friends and family only to have my stepfather pay the dinner tab.  A lot of artist friends at the opening asked me if I had quit my day job.

            On the way out of the gallery I run into curator and posse, they ask me to dinner, and assume I will come. Of course I feel guilty because I’m about to blow them off for dinner at the Frown.  I think they would do the same. They’ll understand. But before it gets awkward actress sweetly calls my name. She waves me over to gallerist’s posse and like High School I change cliques for dinner and head to the Frown. 

Gallerist and posse have a Maybach with driver parked outside waiting, but we all opt to walk to restaurant passing a newly built 7-Eleven on our way. I think how the Bowery has changed, what a different place NYC and the art world has become in last fourteen years.  Here I am going to a place that has great Bibb lettuce, when in the 80’s people came for the heroin.  Smog’s song Bowery starts to play in my head.

We finally get a table at the Frown; I’m feeling quite peckish and very thirsty.  I let the others take the lead with ordering. I’m an invitee and not paying, and I want to make that clear through my body language and food and beverage choices.  Sadly no one orders a cocktail or even a glass of wine. An order for sparkling water goes in sealing the fate of this dry dinner.  I guess a Maybach limo doesn’t equate to a 1985 Lynch-Bage Pauillac with dinner.  The ordering continues, three salads and a side of steamed vegetable. Finally I order and go for a salad as well to be part of the group and break protocol to order a steak tartar.  This will be the first and hopefully only time I have a steak tartar without a glass of wine. 

            Conversation continues after that pesky thing called ordering food is taken care of.  I’m sat next to a guy who is one of those “artists” that make work, but no one takes too seriously because they are rich and collect other artists’ work.  An art collector who makes art. 

He looks to be a lot older than me and starts to qualify my position in the Art World. Normal array of questions: who and where do I show, do I have a separate studio, day job? What’s your last name again?  This is why Bacchus created wine, right? To get through dinner parties, with people like this, that hate people like you? First courses arrive, salad and water.  I’ve noticed how elitist people don’t really look you in the face, and your questions have to be one-word answers. They are always looking over your shoulder for someone more important or of their own character.

Conversation moves from how great the food is (lettuce) to art (Bansky) and what makes a great artist important, market prices.  I’m keeping quiet, and like the ordering of food I let everyone else lead.  It’s pretty amazing who they focus on, basically the artist du jour.  No one that is historically important, only successful in dinner party’s companion’s opinion because of market, not work.  Successful artist is what Marx said: “history repeats itself once as tragedy then as farce.”  Again, I’m being honed in on by actress to tell the rest of the table what I think. To really give my “honest” opinion.  I’m getting a little bored and annoyed. I start thinking why no wine?  To me art means something, artists can do whatever they want, and success is 90% luck and 10% talent.  I should say something; the people they are focusing on are charlatans and have nothing to say artistically.  They are clique of painters, who look better than the work they make. It’s embarrassing to think this is what most people think success as an artist means.  I realize that three names keep getting put out by the gallerist, people she doesn’t represent, but loves! More and more I think I should give my honest opinion, but keep telling myself, behave. Finally there is no escape, a name is volleyed directly at me: “What do you think of popular artist’s work?”  I have a responsibility, I mean; I am the real deal, a real artist so I gave her my Honest Opinion. 

            I go into a tirade on how market doesn’t determine an artist’s value. How that popular artist’s work is vapid. “Why does she like it?”  The gallerist answers my question with a question. If popular artist’s work isn’t important whose work is?  I reply with an attempt at levity, by saying myself.  Dead silence. The table is growing tense and way too serious; this is why Bibb lettuce and sparkling water doesn’t constitute a supper in my opinion. Actress is regretting that she invited me into this sacred gathering.  I’m thinking that I should answer her question of artistic validity seriously.  I say “Gordon Matta-Clark.”  “He’s quite important, historically and very relevant at this moment.  Relational Aesthetics before that French guy coined the term.”  Gallerist stares blankly at my face, and says, “Never heard of him.”  Big surprise when earlier in the conversation she was very embarrassed that she did know what the acronym NADA stood for, much more unsure of herself because of that lack of useless information, than not knowing Matta-Clark’s work.  At that moment when I thought things couldn’t get any worse, popular artist, the one I had been giving my honest opinion about walks in the Frown, and gallerist calls out his name, looking me in the eye at the same time beckoning him over.  The hair on the back of my neck stands up, adrenaline starts to pulse.  Collector as artist sitting next to me asks if I’m going to fight. I imagine I’m in the Cedar bar, but the Bibb lettuce on my plate brings me back to reality.

            Next thing I know gallerist is introducing me to popular artist (who is very fat and has a double chin). He shakes my hand and I say my name first and last.  He only uses his first.  He tells us how he is so happy to be out of SoHo and finally living on the Bowery in an apartment that the Old Museum gave him after his last solo show. Popular artist tells the table that the last two years on Prince Street in a 10,000 square ft loft were similar to a prison sentence. SoHo, the maximum security prison with boutique hotels and Chanel.  They all feel bad for him.  He leaves and rejoins his posse.  Everybody at the table hates me at this point.  Popular artist is a nice guy, and I’m a dick. Who doesn’t loathe SoHo?  Luckily dinner finishes quickly and I am not offered a ride home in the Maybach.  I’m definetly not going to have a show at The Void, and I think to myself, what was I thinking- telling them my honest opinion.

            I get a cigar to smoke walking home and I see that the Bowery has another bloody 7-Eleven down the road, a Starbucks, and Whole foods. Up the block people are queuing at a restaurant with the company name from the Road Runner cartoons, is that new? I look down an alley to see a speakeasy like place also packed with people, handlebar mustaches, waxed hair, bespoke suits, and bartenders that could be in a Spaghetti Western. Do I need a beard?  I pass a twenty-something hipster diner overflowing with models and Europeans in leather pants. Downstairs in the diner is a club called Plaid where art types hang out.  I see the Old Museum and all the new blue-chip galleries lining the street. Gentrification has a homogenizing effect, custom wood, metal chairs, Parisian “new” atmosphere, and menus that tout local produce, and cuisine that peasants created to survive cruel winters, now being plated at $35.00 dollars a main course. At least I didn’t have to pay for dinner tonight. I see the subway entrance to Brooklyn.

My grandfather died
A Bowery (bum?)
My grandfather died
Son of an Irishman
On the Bowery
Oh on the Bowery

My father tried
To find his bones
And to his trials I added my own
My grandfather left
My father twice
Second time was on his wife’s advice
Straight back to the Bowery
Straight back to the Bowery

Well I’m new here. Where can a fella eat?
I’m new here. Where can a fella sleep?
I’m new here, and I’ve got a pit in my gut
On the Bowery
Oh on the Bowery

And when he came up from the river of methadone
He took his last breath on the Bowery
He took his last breath on the Bowery

Lyrics from Smog’s song Bowery

Jay Batlle 2012