Photos: Coral Silverman
“I heard a rumor that one of the guys delivering beer knocked over and broke one of the sculptures,” says a young, attractive Bruce with a laugh. “Half of the art here I love, but the other half I hate with a passion.”
It’s five minutes into Brucennial’s opening night, and the massive space is almost at full capacity. One Bruce, the name of the members of the Bruce High Quality Foundation, is hurriedly washing windows, and a few others are stocking trashcans brimming with ice with Pabst Blue Ribbon, Budweiser and Bud Light.
The walls of the 10,000 square foot space are covered from floor to ceiling, curated with the careful attention of a compulsive hoarder. Drawings, paintings and sculptures nearly overlap, save for the narrow wall space between works onto which the artists’ names are scrawled in pencil. Familiar names such as Louise Bouregois and Marina Abramovic are found amongst a sea of unrecognizable. “I love that piece because it looks like bacon, and period blood,” a young woman declares to no one in particular.
Amidst the sensory overload, I am drawn to tube in the corner that appears to be a gigantic heating duct. Its mouth is covered in skin-like material, and the ground beneath it is a bed of sod. The object rustles, and a middle-aged man emerges, wearing Sperry top-siders, crisp jeans and a collegiate baseball cap. “Wow, it’s really amazing in there!” he beams, “I felt like I was in a robot’s womb, you gotta get in there!” I follow his orders and get in there. The silver walls are bathed in a purple light, and the audio sounds like it was captured from beneath a treadmills belt. I leave, and do not instruct anyone to get in there.
Uptown, the Whitney’s decades old, formerly taste making, currently out of touch, biennial is underway. Large works exist in large spaces. You find yourself thinking about thinking about art, in front of works of art that you aren’t thinking about. There’s momentary blast of textile and ceramic excitement, and a prolonged weirdness around the late David Foster Wallace’s manuscripts. Gone are the days when the Biennial cast light upon up-and-coming, often New York-based, artists. The median age is 50 going on 150, and a paltry 32% of the artists are women.
Downtown we have the Brucennial. Downtown we have an hour line, snaking around the block on the river-facing frontier of the Meatpacking District, in freezing weather. Downtown we have frostbite; downtown, we suffer, we loose digits and limbs for our art! Downtown we turn those amputated finger icicles into sculptures and downtown everyone loves it! Downtown we crawl upon our ice block stumps, past the construction site for the Whitney’s new location, into the last Brucennial.
“I think that’s Bruce! I think that’s THE Bruce!” I overhear one patron exclaim to her friend as Julian Schnabel waddles by, wearing sunglasses and drinking champagne directly out of a bottle. An older man resembling Jeffrey Deitch turn to her, laughing: “did you just ask if that was Bruce? There is no Bruce! We’re all Bruce – there’s a little bit of Bruce in everyone!” After he walks away, she whispers to her friend, “I’m pretty sure there is just one Bruce.”
Bruce High Quality Foundation’s visual bacchanalia is held (since it’s inception in 2008, or 2010 depending on who’s counting) at the same time as, and in dichotomous opposition to, the Whitney’s show. Despite its remove from the art world’s ivory tower, Brucennial has boasted pieces from some of contemporary art’s most acclaimed artists: Damian Hirst, Cindy Sherman, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Mike Kelley, Richard Prince, Andy Warhol, etc. The art dealer and independent curator Vito Schnabel (Julian Schnabel’s son) represents BHQF; besides him, the rest of the group’s identities are shrouded in relative mystery.
This is the fifth Brucennial, and it is the last. Titled “The Grand Finale,” the show was only open to submissions from women. The show’s gendered nature was not announced publicly, but stated in the e-mail call for submissions: “For The Last Brucennial, we will spotlight all women artists. We see The Last Brucennial as a chance to focus on this crucial energy within the wider community. We won’t focus on this aspect of the exhibition in advertising the show as we think it will speak for itself. But if you have recommendations for other women artists to include, definitely send them our way!”
Without insider knowledge, it is not difficult to detect strong ladycentrism. There’s a large, laminated photograph of a vagina on the floor (by Kathe Burkhart), rendered a doormat during the opening; there’s the painting of the vagina with its clitoris piercing (by Betty Tompkins); a collection of large, photographed close-ups of glistening public hair and tattooed vaginas by Marilyn Minter; and a cartoon of a nude woman in an all-male drawing class captioned: “Men cannot make positive contributions to the feminist movement; even well-intentioned men only replicate the dynamics of patriarchy.” There were rumors circulating that a diligent Bruce contacted the Guinness Book Of World Records and confirmed that the show, featuring more than 600 works, is the largest show women-only show that’s ever happened.
In an art world that is daunting and merciless for young artists, the opportunity to show work alongside some of contemporary art’s legends, and in front of important tastemakers (critics, collectors, curators, etc.), is powerful. The show, and collective, are a easy target for critique; Artnet’s infamous “Low Quality Douche Brigade” jab still holds an element of truth. Yet their ratio of accessible to visibility has earned them the position of being a crucial incubator for new talent, while operating outside of the virtually impenetrable network of galleries. Amid the hoopla surrounding the Whitney Biennial and the Armory Show, it’s a welcome, if not hectic and disorganized, respite.
At the rear of the space a group of Bruces are standing behind a folding table, blocking off a hallway. They’re wearing aviator sunglasses, shearling lined coats, bandanas, and a general air of Urban Cowboy meets Wet Hot American Summer. Blasting cacophonous metal, they’re throwing tee-shirts into the dense crowd, and pouring champagne into willing mouths. What would a ladies’ night be without a zealous display of boys gone wild?
In middle of a crowded interior room is a wooden statue of the skeleton of an antelope. For the first hour or two of the opening a naked man stood, bent over, inside of it, after which a naked woman replaced him. A middle aged man crouches down before her to take her photo. As he stands up, a young girl across from the room from him yell “Wait, don’t move!” He reluctantly goes back into picture-taking pose, while she takes a photo of him taking a photo.
After two and a half hours, three PBRs, one failed attempt at schmoozing with Heidi Klum, and two near panic attacks (both induced by Signe Pierce and Alli Coates short film “American Reflexxx”), I decide to break from the clockwise gallery current I’m caught in and take myself home. As I reenter the winter’s purgatory, I hear one of the security guards by the VIP holding pen softly sing: “What is art? / Baby don’t hurt me / Don’t hurt me / No more …”
If you haven’t seen the show yet, make not to miss it before it closes. Tomorrow will be its last day.
The Brucennial runs through April 4, 2014 from 12 – 6pm, at 837 Washington Street, New York NY 10011.