Visiting Venus Over Manhattan up on 77th and Madison feels a little like discovering a glittering mausoleum. The gallery space is dark with spotlighted objects, and its walls are fake-raw: though the cement floor is filled with gashes and holes and the drywall is exposed, there’s not so much as a nick from the installation process, and the screws have been perfectly screwed. The floor has even been treated with that special gallery gloss.
In short, it’s impossible to forget you’re in rich-person land. The exhibition design decisions simply underscore the exhibition conceit: the show is a 21st-century remaking of Joris-Karl Huysmans’s 1884 novel A rebours (“Against the Grain”), a story about a millionaire and aesthete who, in his disdain for the bourgeois, attempts to create an ideal artistic world in the form of a tomb. Gallery owner, curator and collector Adam Lindemann plays the role of Jean des Esseintes, chronicling the character’s unusual erotic desires and tastes through art.
Lindemann, as des Esseintes, is an imperfect actor. In his desire to “push the envelope of bad taste” and thwart what’s fashionable, he comes out alternately hammy and truly eccentric. Much ado, for instance, was had over Lindemann’s ironic pairing of a Warhol portrait of Native American activist Russell Means with a late 18th-century reliquary from Brazil and a Jivaro shrunken head. The result, unfortunately, ends up being a little contrived, matching Lindemann’s concern that the show itself might read as an easy “trope.” Then there’s Walter Dahn Les Premiers jours du Printemps, a large figurative painting of a guy holding his dick. It’s the sort of run-of-the-mill shock-schlock we expect from the art world.
The best works in the show aren’t self-consciously arranged for bad taste, or pseudo-controversial, but are just plain weird. Thanks to the spotlights, Hope Atherton’s bronzed Untitled Sphinx and Jeff Koons’s crystal coffee table sculpture of him fucking his ex-wife both look as though they were beamed down from outer space. In both cases, that’s strange enough to be interesting. Piotr Uklanski’s hanging rug looks like an alien vagina, and Francesca Woodman’s portrait of herself hanging, arms splayed, from a door, suggests otherworldliness. Both works succeed precisely because they don’t look like they belong.
On the far end of the room, below a salon-hung wall of smaller works, rests a drawer full of Dash Snow’s crap from 2002. A rolled-up dollar bill, a needle, countless empty bottles of prescription drugs—it was the kind of ephemera you’d expect to see from an artist who, in 2009, died of a drug overdose. There’s nothing extraordinary about it—it’s just stuff—but it happens to be the stuff of the great-grandson of famed art collectors Dominique de Menil and John de Menil. One plutocrat’s trash is another plutocrat’s treasure.
As a depiction of an eccentric art collector, as enacted by an eccentric art collector, this show does pretty well. The nice thing about the novel, though, was that it was a critique of the bourgeoisie and a work of fiction. Lindemann’s show is art doing what it’s supposed to do—representing reality—and that’s a bitter pill to swallow.