The sheer density of galleries in Chelsea attracts the art viewer who wants to see 15 shows in the space of an hour. Certainly this works for me from time to time, but occasionally the sheer volume of art in the neighborhood can be distracting. By contrast, the Lower East Side has the distinct advantage of offering a half-dozen leisurely gallery visits in that same chunk of time, and little in the way of interruption. And all the nearby bars and restaurants don’t hurt, either.
Given the number of relocated Chelsea galleries in the area, there’s no point in trying to compare quality between the neighborhoods — contemporary art looks the same anywhere. With that said, I’ve had mixed feelings about what I’ve seen recently in both locales. The LES’s trendy Rivington Arms exhibits the underwhelming videos and prints of Natsuki Uruma. Interested in internalized suffering, the artist describes the show’s centerpiece and projected video v.o.y.a.g.e., as economically lyrical and akin to a haiku, though her observations about how the piece functions don’t have much connection with what I saw. The visually dense music video featuring two girls on a raft against various backgrounds literalizing a “personal journey” spoke with neither simple clarity nor poetic elegance.
In a much more invested body of work currently at DCKT Contemporary on the Bowery, L.A. post-punk legend Exene Cervenka examines the number 46 after it appears by chance in one of her collages. Using old black-and-white photographs and other found materials, the pieces themselves are generally well put together, an accomplished if mildly familiar update to their Dada roots. At points, however, it becomes a little tiresome to read copious arrangements of “the spirits are alive and well”, a phrase the artist presumably fell upon after noticing an unremarkable coincidence: in Psalm 46 of the King James version of the bible, a translation rumored to have been penned by William Shakespeare, the word “shake” appears 46 words from the beginning and “spear” 46 words from the end. It seems rather unlikely the spirits intended to reveal themselves by means of senseless parsing but then again, so what? As objects, a fair number of the works stand up, so in those cases some allowance for nonsensical rationale can be made.
Meanwhile, those who enjoyed Matthew Brannon’s text-based letterpress installation at the Whitney Biennial this year will likely view his latest exhibition in Chelsea’s Friedrich Petzel favorably. A carved Ryan Johnson-like Styrofoam light bulb hangs from his constructed ceiling, leading to a series of panels and prints featuring purchasable objects like high heels, sushi, typewriters, wine, etc, some inscribed with even-toned text about consumption, sex, humiliation etc. As individual works, some — even those about desire — are so banal they barely register, while others evoke a feeling of futility so powerful that even those less successful pieces seem significant in their failure. For this alone Brannon’s The Question is a Compliment may be the exhibition to see this month, even if it means suffering Chelsea to view it. The viewing experience may not be quite as enjoyable as it is on the Lower East Side, but by the time July roles around, a new crop of art will be up, and we can take our chances.