Thursday, January 27, 2011

Christian Philipp Müller at Murray Guy

It seems worth taking for granted that art is an eminently social (and institutional) thing. This is to say that if you care about contemporary art, then sooner or later you're going to have to pay attention to the way that the values of artists, teachers, and viewers are worked out institutionally, that is, the way art schools, museums, and galleries express people's ideas about what matters. Physical and social factors that affect how a neighborhood, gallery, or neighborhood of galleries is built end up affecting the art object and the art-viewing experience in ways which, while at times arbitrary, are rarely uninteresting.

This is basically the business that Swiss artist Christian Philipp Müller is in. The subject of his work, 31 in Chelsea, now on view at Murray Guy through February 19th, is the physical and social factors that shape an area that houses a sizable fraction of the contemporary art galleries operating in New York City. The piece gets its name from the thirty-one metal cash boxes (one for each day of the exhibition) placed on a low table in the center of the gallery, each of which contains clippings from posters, magazine advertisements, and a small thin moleskin of scribbled quotations about the neighborhood from people the artist has encountered. In addition to this, further quotations are printed on pieces of printer paper and arranged in the shape of a calendar on the opposite wall.

Müller's portrait, then, is a communal and social one, and a major feature of it is the general condition of disconnection and alienation that seems to color life in Chelsea. This seems altogether fair. Between galleries in the neighborhood and anything, well, not having directly to do with galleries, commerce is reliably scarce, almost to the point of exclusivity. Elevator operators might ask someone who doesn't look like he or she belongs there who they're visiting on the night of an opening. A couple of times, I've seen men in sooty white sneakers and ill-fitting coats firmly turned away (Ed. Note to self: buy new sneakers). There are marinated eggplant and goat cheese sandwiches available at one of the restaurants on 10th Ave. that I really liked having for lunch when I interned at Magnan Metz. I doubt anyone living in the housing project a few blocks away has tried them.

Like Chelsea's galleries, the boxes are squarely closed off from one another, their arrangement seemingly arbitrary and artificial. The quotes themselves seem at once cosmopolitan and naive, with splenetic rants about the High Line Park from natives mixed with lines from the websites of chic bars and newly-developed high rises. The rhythm is disjointed and uneven. One doubts that any of the people quoted were neighbors or friends. The tone of the resulting portrait--quite gray--is not far from the experience of actually visiting galleries in this neighborhood. Seeing Chelsea through Müller's eyes one is forced to suspend (perhaps anachronistic) ideas about how life in many contemporary neighborhoods (in New York and beyond) is really lived.

I was able to catch the performance segment of Müller's piece at 1OAK the week before last:

In the altogether likely event that you're not exhilarated by the above clip, I would highly recommend giving the show an in-person look.

Murray Guy is located at 453 W 17th St (on the North side of the street, between 9th and 10th Aves), Unit No. 3SW.

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