Just when I think nothing can shift the blasé viewpoints of die-hard New Yorkers, (even if they all do indeed come from somewhere else) I observe those cultured, refined, urbane beings can actually get excited about something. In this case it’s art week! After six weeks of being totally shut down the private galleries of NYC all re-open in the same time slot. For some time previous, conversations circulate about what is to be shown, who is hot and who not, which galleries have the most interesting stables, what to wear and how many viewings can be fitted in, in one evening, and where to dine afterward. There are many hundreds of galleries concentrated in Chelsea alone let alone those in the Upper East side, the Lower East, Tribeca, Noho, Soho and Greenwich Village and time is invested in poring through guides and websites to make decisions on what must not be missed.
Then on opening night, Chelsea’s usually deserted streets after dark (there’s barely anything but galleries or anything for sale but art for many blocks so everything is usually shut tight by 6pm) are jammed with people gallery hopping, promenading, hanging out, and strutting through as many venues as can be fitted in, not to mention the cars, stretch limos, and small buses disgorging passengers wherever they can. Suddenly the area under and beyond the middle Highline becomes like Grand Central Station.
In Chelsea, not only are the big-name galleries at street level with their high-profile shows packed out but the six or so levels above house more minor galleries also re-opening with shows by their artist stable. Everyone wants as much foot-traffic as possible – that way a good show may catch attention and perhaps a mention somewhere. Some of those buildings more resembled poked ant hills with the lifts working overtime and folk heading up and down the staircases. Everyone in a hurry. Interestingly, few galleries offer wine, or even water, or if they do, it’s hard to find and often simply dished out to regular clients in a back office or behind a high-fronted desk, rarely up in front. There are simply too many to supply so, familiar faces only, it seems. The other thing of interest is people watching. There were some spectacular outfits, often on the men. I caught this one just before he strode out of sight. Only the shoes were not pink. There were several more all in white….
Very few men wore socks, and the prevailing very narrowly cut trousers were either tailored short or turned up so that bare ankles were displayed. Not a great night for such adornment (or lack therof) as it was pouring with rain. There were incredibly impressive shoes on some women – making me wonder how walking might be possible along with the full length coats that swept the ground, and rainwater along with it. Lots of curious longish skirts in transparent fabric of some sort with a short opaque skirt beneath – because of the truncating effect only those with very long legs got away with them. Trousers for women were loose or very, very wide. Jeans were super skinny with the ubiquitous artistically torn knees and only on students of both sexes, while many men sported, or is it sprouted, beards while their elaborate haircuts had clearly taken a considerable investment of time, and probably dollars. Louche and hip. However, it was the art we really wanted to see.
Matthew Marks is the blue-chip gallery on W24th Street. They were showing Ron Nagle so it was impossible to not be there for what was one of the week’s major events. It was Dave Hickey who said, “If Faberge had lived in California, loved hot rods and surfboards and had been blessed with an impudent art-historical wit, on his best day he couldn’t compete with Nagle”. So true. And what a show it was. Three spacious rooms, very high ceilings and white walls more suited to large scale sculpture than works no bigger than 10cm in any direction. But the very professional install worked beautifully. Every piece had its own specially made glass vitrine or its individual wall niche lined with blonde wood, where again it was behind glass. I’m not sure how many pieces, but somewhere around 25 mostly new works and very consistent with, yet another step beyond, what we have seen earlier from him. That is, they are compact, and somehow compressed with lots happening in their small areas. Surfaces contrast with his familiar stucco-like surfaces often as base or background, (and often from some synthetic material like polyurethane ) side-sprayed or dusted with a contrasting colour so that the subdued texture is emphasised and played up. Those stucco surfaces remain from his youthful time in L.A. where the sides of buildings are often sprayed stucco – but there they are mostly putty and dung-coloured. These sing and shout in plum purple and corn yellow or cherry pink and lime green – but there any resemblance to nature ends as these works are aggregated and condensed radiating their sort-of toxic glow behind, and contrasted with, the superb shiny bits. These, sliding and oozing across and down the stucco are thicker and way more unctuous that I have seen before. Their radio-active waste glow or a deep plunge-into black sport a shine high enough to see your face in and the gathered threatening droplets atop vertical surfaces look fluidly weighty enough to plummet downward and flop off at any second. There was only one vestigial handle that I spotted (“I’m done with cups”) and some other appendices are new or reassigned and used differently than earlier – hand modelled twists and loops that often suggest the erotic or the scatological and occasionally a half-melted, over-handled chocolate-coated biscuit. What hasn’t changed one bit is his love of the punning title. He told me he “pays for good ones” and it’s his daughter Lucy who usually thinks up the best. Titles such as Mutha Fakir, Moniker Lewinsky, Boston Scrambler and Beirut Canal are typical.
Then there is the book. A couple of years ago when I saw him in San Francisco he gave me a copy, telling me to treasure it as the private publisher would not release any more copies than the 200 given to Nagle. The rest were in the publisher’s basement, somewhere in Texas. Matthew Marks himself apparently exerted pressure and the book is now available through the gallery and probably very shortly via the internet. It’s definitive; the full story plus many personal and work images and far more authoritative than anything published earlier. Any Nagle fan needs a copy – Ron was signing copies flat out on opening night. There he was in pale pink jacket and fedora, thoroughly enjoying himself and ruminating on the sell-out show. “This has been a very long time coming…” We tried to hold a conversation but had to give up and he was whisked away in a fancy limo for a dinner somewhere out of Chelsea. He’s at the top of his game now and we can only wish him the very best. He is one of those responsible, along with Grayson Perry, AiWeiwei, maybe Ed De Waal and a re-found interest in process, that has placed ceramics among the media that can be used for art with a capital ‘A,’ via his celebrated role in The Encyclopedic Palace at the 55th Venice Biennale. His eyes sparkle in any discussion around that elevation of status, as clay is what he has always used, albeit tiny amounts, and little else. He trained with Voulkos, surfed with Price, fought with Marguerite Wildenhain and rubbed shoulders with San Francisco’s counter-culture of the 70s and 80s as well as writing and playing music for movies and concerts from student days to the present. He hasn’t changed and still lives on top of a hill in Bernal Heights with a view across much of the Mission District (although he now drives a much smaller and cooler car with his pale green Renault). Following are some images I took in his NYC show but as lighting was not particularly conducive to keeping colours true I recommend readers who got this far go instead to Matthew Marks on the internet and view images there. Colour is way better, and truer, there.