Life Lessons from a Gallery Tour


All art was modern once. This is sometimes difficult for me to remember when, for instance, I stand in front of Monet’s Haystack series at the Art Institute of Chicago. To me, it seems perfectly natural for them to be touted as masterpieces in one of the world’s great museums. However, this was not always the case. Even Monet was rejected from inclusion the Royal Academy’s show in 1871, his works too  “edgy” for their taste.

I tend – like many people – to dismiss modern art outright. However, I used to do the same with country music, which I now rather like, so modern art and I might still have a chance at reconciling our differences. Therefore, it was with this hope-for-the-best-but-expect-the-worst attitude that I joined a lovely group of women (you know who you are) for a guided tour of a handful of Chelsea galleries.

Enter our guide, the knowledgeable and gregarious Rafael Risemberg. Holding a PhD in Arts Education, Rafael runs the small company New York Gallery Tours, which offers both regularly scheduled Saturday public tours as well as private gallery tours.

The lovely ladies and I met Rafael at the Sean Kelly Gallery to see a computer art installation by Anthony McCall. Before the art experience could begin, however, Rafael wanted to explain what we were to see over the course of our afternoon in Chelsea. By visiting the over 300 galleries that call Chelsea home and the hundreds of exhibits that come on and off their walls on a regular basis, Rafael had compiled a list of seven of what he considered to be the best shows in Chelsea at that moment. He explained that the art that you find in a museum is decades old at the very least, but the art of the gallery world is new. Not only is it new, it is meant to provoke, to challenge your very notion of what is art.

Gallery #1: Sean Kelly Gallery

Feeling fortified by the feeling of being “in the now” and with an expectation of the avant garde, it was now time for our first gallery show. Pulling aside a heavy black curtain, I immediately started the awkward, stutter-step walk that I employ when the lights suddenly go out and I don’t know if I’m going to run into an ottoman or a doorjamb. Arms outstretched in the black void, I hear Rafael say, “Don’t worry, you’ve got nothing to run into but other people.” OK, ottoman-free zone. Eyes finally adjusted to the darkness, I see two clear shapes projected onto the wall. One shape – what would be a circle, except a piece is missing – is larger than the other. Well, wouldn’t you know it, that diminutive neighbor actually is the missing piece of the larger pie. I stare transfixed as the size of the shapes slowly alter, moving in tandem, one always completing the other. Meanwhile, the light from the projectors is infused with a misty haze that causes the beam to look 3-dimensional. Our trusty guide assures us that the chemicals used to create the mist aren’t toxic, but I’m not sure I believe him. I reach out to try and touch the misty beam like a stoner contemplating the deeper meaning of a toothbrush. I blame the mist.


Installation View, Leaving (with Two-Minute Silence); Alexander McCall show at Sean Kelly Gallery; Photo by Jason Wyche.

Gallery #2: Bruce Silverstein Gallery

On to Gallery #2, otherwise known as the Bruce Silverstein Gallery. No trippy mood mist here, but there is the futuristic digital “appropriation art” of the German artist, Martin Denker. Drawn from images across the interwebs, my first impression is that these works look like sticker collections, only digital. Rafael explains that the artist is trying to create a response to the barrage of images from technology that has overrun society. If I messed that up, which I most likely did, I apologize. Whatever the message, walking around the gallery, the bright colors and Where’s Waldo-like fun of trying to identify objects within the clutter made this an enjoyable stop.


6.3DayChemicalHighway by Martin Denker

Gallery #3: Barbara Gladstone Gallery

Barbara Gladstone Gallery had a show that I like to call “Blue Collar Lunch,” but was actually Lunch Break by Sharon Lockhart. Visiting the Bath Ironworks factory in Maine, Lockhart attempted to capture the identity and culture of the salt-of-the-earth-like workers through portraits of lunchboxes, (one man’s lunchbox is another one’s picnic basket), glimpses of the cafeteria (Dan’s Delicious Devil Dogs are just $1.00), and the most depressing lunch break in 1/8 time (with the drone of the factory in real time overhead). Poignant? To be sure. Depressing? Debatable. Very well done? Indeed. Through her beautiful photography, Lockhart made it all feel quite real. As one of the lovely ladies remarked: “Like a contemporary Norman Rockwell.”


First panel from Mike Dickey, Tinsmith, 2000 by Sharon Lockhart.

Gallery #4: Pavel Zoubok Gallery

Collage can be juvenile, or cluttered, or cheap. The collages of Matthew Cusick, on display at Pavel Zoubok Gallery, were anything but. Easily my favorite exhibit of the day, Cease to Exist attempted to capture the culture of 1970s California through a mishmash of vintage maps. This was my thought process…

“That looks like a painting of a golf course. But wait, that’s not paint. Oh cool, he cut up maps and meticulously       pieced them together to create a picture. Is that sand trap a map of Michigan?”

From far away these images succeeded in capturing the feeling of the Golden State: muscle cars, the swell of a cresting wave, golf courses, and even a portrait of Manson’s women. However, it was the detail provided by the maps that stole the show. A patchwork quilt of cartography, my mom found the location of her wedding reception amid the outline of a TransAm, while others found out they grew up a few miles apart from those same contours. The beautiful thing about this exhibit is that it succeeded where many a museum has failed: it enabled connections and interaction. People were not just taking in the images, they were processing them and giving back to the artistic experience. There were a thousand stories to be told in those collages, and you didn’t need an audio guide or wall plaque to tell them.


Kara’s Wave. By Matthew Cusick.

Gallery #5: Margaret Thatcher Projects

Margaret Thatcher Projects had paintings. Alas, these were no ordinary paintings. These were 3D paintings. Colorful Koosh balls of pure paint shoved through the canvas from the back. Round geodes with fissures of color, cracks exploding with oranges, blues, reds, yellows, and a million other hues. It took all of your effort to stop yourself from reaching out and squeezing them. It’s one of those you have to see it to believe it type of exhibits, and really, you should see it. Vadim Katznelson, check him out.


Like Green Plants by Vadim Katznelson.

Gallery #6: Daniel Reich Gallery

The Daniel Reich Gallery showcased the consumerist commentary of Christian Holstad. Wilted shopping carts expressed both the fatigue society feels from constantly buying things as well as the symbolic wind leaving our sails as the recession set in. There were also paintings that I refer to as “Trashcan Testimonials.” Essentially portraits of people, minus the people. Trying to convey the belief that you can tell a lot about a person by what they throw away. To be perfectly frank, I wasn’t that interested. However, we were shortly off to our final stop of the day.


The Road to Hell is Paved (Best Buy) by Christian Holstad.

Gallery #7: Pace Wildenstein

Pace Wildenstein is one of the more well known galleries in the world, and they were featuring the work of one of the “hot” artists in the world today. Rafael informed us that Zhang Huan got his start by covering himself in honey, going into an outhouse, letting the bees or some other flying critters swarm his face, and videotaped the experience. Wonder what the 1871 Royal Academy would have thought about that? Not being a big fan of bees myself, I was relieved to see that this exhibit lacked insects of any variety. It was a peaceful, almost stark, and seemed kind of normal for such an “edgy” artist – and this with a giant Buddha made of ash in the center of the gallery. The black and white paintings, drawn from scenes from the mythology of a 7th-century Chinese prophecy book, were given a greater amplitude of interestingness by the unexpected use of feathers. It seemed fitting to start with a strangely soothing computer art installation and end with a modern twist to centuries old religion.


Rulai by Zhang Huan.

And so concluded our gallery tour of Chelsea. We bid adieu to Rafael, who through his insight and clear passion for the work, had made the trip informative, provoking, and downright fun. The shows we had seen had done exactly as Rafael had promised: they had been new, they had provoked me and my coterie of lovely ladies in both good and bad ways, and they had challenged at least my definition of art.

However, the greatest thing that I took away from this excursion was this simple fact: I had enjoyed a day with modern art. I wasn’t angry. I didn’t feel cheated by having to pay for art that I didn’t think was worthy of being called art. Rather, I felt invigorated. There was a life lesson in there somewhere, keeping your mind open to new experiences or something, but all I could say was: “Well played, Modern Art. Until we meet again.”

One Response to “Life Lessons from a Gallery Tour”

  1. Robin Banks on January 29th, 2010

    What a wonderful post, easily one of the best things I have ever best on Museumist.

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