By KURT MCVEY November, 2022
For professional and aspiring self-described poets, poetry is life. For general fans of art and culture, poetry and the poets who live and breathe the form can enter and exit the theater of everyday life, even in New York City, in sporadic, fleeting fits and stops. Weeks, sometimes months can go by without deploying those delightfully pretentious little finger snaps.
It is refreshing, even invigorating when the poetry is good, profound when it’s great, and life-saving when it arrives like an unannounced but very welcome guest or better yet, a much-needed friend. Performance art, a frequent cousin or intertwined bedfellow of poetry, though certainly capable of standing apart, is similar in this regard. Great performance art can be as illuminating, if not more transcendent than material art objects, so tethered as they are to the market, to big money, to big egos and big spaces. Like poetry, performance art, sometimes relegated to the step-child margins of the art world considering its intangible nature, though inherently human, is best when the immediate impact is clear and visceral, captivating, perhaps even shocking, but with time and mutual endurance, revealing a deeper, often surprising message layered beyond the conspicuous thematic epidermis. It was with great pleasure, therefore, that I found myself running a surprise gauntlet of excellent poetry and performance art last week, sometimes backed or wallpapered by art with a capital “A.”
For the uninitiated, Mandie Erickson does a lot. Maybe too much for one person. She’s always on; on the pulse, on the move, on the phone, on edge, you name it. Mandie mostly does PR. Her mother, Karen, makes jewelry under the brand name Erickson Beamon. This jewelry; inventive, elaborate, decadent, often stunning, can be seen in magazines, runways and on various red carpets draped across a multitude of diverse décolleté, largely of the A-list and sassy variety and for many years now. Mandie and her mother also run a showroom, a vast space on the threshold of Chelsea and Hell’s Kitchen where editors and stylists pull clothing and accessories to suit their high-fashion needs. Mandie has been running her PR company, Seventh House PR, out of this space and working alongside her mother in the enduring Showroom Seven for decades now. They argue. They show tremendous unconditional love and support to each other and to a far-reaching, thoroughly embedded community. They ruffle each other’s feathers. They get it done. Mandie grew up in Manhattan. She went to the Rudolf Steiner School on the Upper East Side and likes to mention that. She has a lot of friends in New York who went to this school and are equally ambitious, weird, successful and interconnected. She met everyone, was at everything, and now knows everybody, even if you don’t know Mandie.
For the last several months, Showroom Seven has been hosting an ongoing meditation series, usually once or twice a month but always on a Monday evening at 7pm in the showroom’s open-floor flow space. Though Mandie and Karen have hosted guests pulling from more specific disciplines, their most obvious, ongoing humble star speaker is David Sauvage, who for years referred to himself as an empath, but realized, much like the word meditation itself, that such a moniker can be a bit inaccessible if not off-putting. The truth is, Sauvage is an empath, in that he is noticeably more sensitive, attuned, self-aware, and practiced than most humans in this regard, though he would say it’s not a competition. This becomes clear across several events while he’s calmly but curtly haranguing noisy, fidgety, mostly secular guests from different age groups, lifestyles, and other rote and significant identifiers, each pushing through “the Mondays'' after surviving the “Sunday Scaries,” let alone daily life in New York. David has perfected, or is still attempting to perfect, if one can, a certain meditation by any other name. When busy, cynical, sometimes self-obsessed New Yorkers hear meditation, their ego may want to profess and declare, whether internally or externally, how friggin busy their schedule-meets-body is, how little precious bandwidth their brain has, how voracious or unrelenting their imagination can be, what books, articles, TV shows, exercise, phone calls, emails, podcasts and films they need to catch up on, how demanding their anxieties or urgent their worries, how palpable their fears. In letting oneself off the hook from the shame that comes with the likely, inevitable emergence of these distractions during an attempted act of meditation, or rather in this case, just being, not talking, texting, planning or scrolling, an insane New Yorker might find themself actually meditating as opposed to unraveling.
Sauvage speaks with a soothing Mr. Rogers gentleness mixed with a staid verbal acuity and broad lexicon that recalls the late psychonaut guru, Terrence McKenna, though less nasally, a bit less musically and less stream of consciousness, though quite poetic in its intention and delivery. My last encounter with The Simplest Meditation in the World, as Sauvage calls it in his compact companion book, eventually brought me into an extremely specific, highly poetic state. This is that face-to-face communion that can happen between an adult and newborn; where a wide-eyed babe, perhaps a few months old, far from speech, but removed just enough from the womb and freed from hunger, fear, tiredness, a need to purge or want of a parent, perhaps swaddled in a blanket and content, stares out at the world in exploratory, ocular-auditory wonder. A hovering, observant adult might admire this child actively exuding a preternatural or precocious brightness, built off the tell of an instinct to observe and take in its surroundings. In this mutual state, one familiar to many perhaps, there is a shared projected peace, a sense of optimism, a transference of a certain primordial, angelic joy. I try to go there when I can now. When looking at art or listening to poetry, I try to exist within this conceptual conduit, as the babe, the adult, or the voyeur, either way hyper-present, appreciative, in and outside of time.
Trauma is the word. The premiere zeitgeisty bingo magic word of the second decade of the 21st century; a century kicked off by crashing, seemingly immortal towers, an ever-crashing or potentially crashing economy, a crashing collective immune system, a crashing sense of institutional trust, of human connectivity and togetherness, a crashing sense of patriotism, of optimism for the future. On November 7th, Sauvage’s latest talk was built around this theme. What is trauma exactly and what can we do to move beyond it, get rid of it, maybe heal from it or at least cope or get a grip on it until it can be called something else? Trauma is the word.
I met Junyi Liu, a young Chinese-born artist now living and working in New York, at the SPRING/BREAK Art Show back in September of this year, in the artist Colleen Barry’s booth. Mandie introduced me to Colleen and her husband Will St. John earlier this year, a few weeks before staging their happening joint exhibition, Ride the Tiger, at Chelsea’s Caelum Gallery. Junyi paints, but her irreverent performance art videos, which often mirror or supplement the paintings, primed for TikTok attention spans and the generation that wields them, intrigued me the most. In the clips she dresses up in vintage costume, looks like fetishized Goldilocks or ‘50s housewives wielding butcher knives in hilarious and intimidating Kubrickian stone-face. Like Junyi herself, these videos are funny, colorful, youthful, spicy, smart, maybe dangerous, and like many artists, expresses a mix of the brazenly transparent and ferociously guarded.
Shortly after meeting Junyi at SPRING/BREAK, I invited her to the NYC Superfine! Art Fair, which took place in the Essex Street Market this Fall. The fair is put on by long-time friends and though the art isn’t exactly Blue Chip quality, the fair’s production is always top notch and the people are genuinely kind. We breezed through the fair, using it largely as an opportunity to get to know each other a little better, discuss art, painting, and how artists can break into a more rarefied realm of figuration. What separates good if not great figurative painters from the derivative, metastasizing masses, from the art schoolers and strike-a-pose Instagrammers?
Before parting ways street-level at the corner of Delancey and Essex, while sharing some concluding thoughts and performance art ideas with Junyi, I felt a troubling spray of human saliva waft down over me like some toxic, depressing cartoon rain cloud. Just a few feet away, a man, probably in his fifties, stood staring at me, not so much with the Kubrick stare, but one witnessed-or rather experienced-far too often on the streets of New York City. The permanently shocked, traumatized adult inverse of the swaddled, clean-slate babe. It’s an unfortunate way to be seen, to cry for help, to express one’s own trauma, anger or grievance; spitting on another human being, completely unprovoked. Not so much a hocked loogie, but a sort of arching umbrella, as if he were watering me, a privileged human house plant. I was reminded here that there is a price to pay for actually seeing, in that the hurt and hurting can tell. Futile words were exchanged, heatedly, sadly. Blows were not. An unfortunate end to a fun art fair evening.
Ten days later, on September 28th, looking to soothe the negative energy that sullied our last encounter, I invited Junyi to the opening of 1.5, Eli Klein Gallery’s group exhibition celebrating the Gallery’s 15-year journey in contemporary Asian art. Could be some good connections for Junyi and likely some worthy art. In February, earlier this year, a former employee of Eli Klein Gallery, Christina Yuna Lee, who worked at the space from 2010-2014, was murdered in her Chinatown apartment by a deranged homeless man, who was repeatedly released onto the New York streets despite multiple felonies. He followed her into her apartment late at night as the building’s front door closed behind her, lurked up six-flights of stairs out of sight, busted into her apartment, and stabbed Lee 40 times with her own kitchen knife. She was found in the tub. The man was caught shortly after, hiding under her bed.
Back in June, Eli Klein Gallery hosted a group exhibition of nine femme-identifying artists in honor of Lee, with her voice, penetrate earth’s floor. While moving through the gallery with Junyi in late September for the opening of 1.5, despite the joy and camaraderie felt between the artists and art lovers, or the earlier, cleansing, celebratory summer show, I couldn’t help but reflect on the traumatic impact this baffling and egregious act of violence had on the gallery, the Asian community in New York, or how it further illuminated the tenuous nature of health and safety on the streets of this wild city. The threshold between clean, beautified safe spaces for the long spectrum of the seemingly well-meaning and high-functioning, filled usually with expensive non-utilitarian objects, and then raw, dehumanizing violence, is paper thin.
On November 7th, Junyi DM’d me. She was having a bad day. It just so happened Mr. Sauvage was hosting his meditation evening, the one built around trauma, just a couple hours later. Junyi and I met up in Hudson Yards beside the morbidly defunct $200 million dollar sculpture, Vessel, which was closed indefinitely in the summer of 2021 after a series of suicides. Four to be exact. Criticized upon its release for a litany of valid reasons, Vessel remains a strange, alienating, copper honeycomb totem to trauma; a brutal, glittering monument of sadness. People can often be seen buzzing or loitering within Vessel’s shadowy ground floor. Who are these people, exactly? Security? Maintenance? Outsiders may marvel at this three-dimensional labyrinthian ode to the maddening rat race that is gross capitalism in New York City; this grounded, Dante-esque, hive-like alien-queen mothership big enough to fill the real and metaphysical gap between the ghostly uber-rich and the scrambling hoard, an inverted heavy-metal Christmas tree, always just in time for the holidays. Vessel has made its way out of mainstream media consciousness, the last work of art to be openly criticized in the press before Alex Katz’ current show at the Guggenheim. Or was it the rhinos? Tourists, City People, have only a half choice to be drawn to it, photograph it from without, meet, talk, or graze in its shadow. Why not lean in?
Within Showroom Seven, with Junyi to my right, her pants covered in paint, a very fidgety man sitting to her right, and just a few minutes into Sauvage’s session, an intriguing woman in a brimmed, circular red shoebox hat and a matching, silk red shimmering kimono cape entered in true, fabulously late New York fashion. I learned later that this was Leiti Hsu, the “Dining Dominatrix,” host of the “Dream Dinner Party.” Once Sauvage’s session ended, after participants soaked up some of David’s wisdom, after reflecting on our own respective traumas or the trauma of others, Junyi and Leiti accompanied me to the grand opening of Ms. Kim’s Lounge & Private Karaoke, a new client of Mandie’s, hoping to inject a little joy and silliness into our evening. Upon entering, and being greeted with a glass of champagne, we were met with screeching, ear-shattering bachelorette party vocals, noxious, like audio-mustard gas, which I suppose is to be expected. Luckily, a private, muted karaoke room was vacant in the back and we conversed at length until they turned the lights on and politely kicked us out.
On Wednesday, November 16th, at Tibet House on West 15th Street, Mandie’s good friend, Arden Wohl, a filmmaker, poet, activist, and general Renaissance woman who is heavily involved with The Poetry Project (founded in 1966), curated and hosted a stellar evening of serious, writerly heavy-hitters, part of an ongoing poetry series called Spanner in the Works/Plan B. The next event in this excellent series is scheduled for November 30th. This particular hump-day evening featured author David Rimanelli, writer and editor of PIN-UP Magazine and proponent of “Radical Optimism” Emmanuel Olunkwa, actor and model bobbi salvör menuez, writer, historian, and don’t call her an influencer Sarah Hoover, Lebanese-American poet and independent scholar Rachelle Rahmé, poetry-meets-music guitar duo American Anymen + Marini Pickering, writer, painter, and musician Neda Zahraie, artist and poet Kevin Tobin, and author of Whore of New York: a Confession, Liara Roux, who shared a concluding lesbian dream-fantasy about perusing a gritty New York on a cinematic date with an out of the closet, hot-butch cigarette-smoking Hillary Clinton that went on a bit too long, but was admittedly hilarious, prodding and quite inventive.
There were lots of interesting people in the audience, like Diana Arnold, a poet with a new collection coming out, If/When (Kelsay books). Arnold, a gregarious and theatrical star server for close to two decades in many of Manhattan’s best restaurants, was once called the “best waitress in New York'' by New York Magazine. She’s now a full time poet and performer, with one-woman shows coming up at Parkside Lounge and the Bowery Poetry Club. Especially compelling onstage was poet Monique Erickson, Mandie’s own sister, who shared a detail-driven, no-holds-barred confessional about motherhood, marriage, sex, and other subjects often reserved for the behind closed doors arena. Like Monique herself it would seem, the words were totally unflinching. The audience was flanked by over a dozen large-scale works by renowned artist Mayumi Oda, often referred to as the Matisse of Japan. The exhibition, Sarasvati’s Gift: The Art & Life of a Modern Buddhist Revolutionary, featuring numerous Buddhist deities rendered with a fine contemporary-impressionist touch, are pulled from various cultural traditions and pushed through Oda’s unique filter. The show’s up through February 10th.
On Thursday, the very next evening, perennial wild-child Jennifer Elster, also connected to Mandie, our urban-Atlas-Arachne-publicist, opened her latest exhibition, Take Heed, at a 4,000 square-foot gallery space in Tribeca, currently housing her mobile gallery project, The Development. Elster, much like the aforementioned Arden Wohl, is a polymath and quite connected, though of a different but nearby generation and perhaps owing to a different species of creative, though they might share the same genus. Take Heed is quite clearly the greatest answer to the ongoing contagion of cry-for-help activists, usually young and culturally, environmentally, politically, spiritually traumatized, vandalizing famous, undoubtedly priceless works of art in the name of climate and economic awareness and other nodes of social justice.
Elster, whether in film, music, poetry, photography, performance art, or in her raw as raw meat paintings, has been screaming, both literally and through these various mediums, at the top of her lungs 4 Non Blondes-style for years now about a lot of these same concerns.
“These kids are splattering Van Goghs, I’m splattering this space with things people should be thinking about and considering,” she told me a couple weeks before the opening at 75 Leonard Street. Much of the art world maligns the acts of these protesters, noses turned way up, and yes, it is hard to take someone who superglued their own head to anything, seriously. But the question, and these protesters are begging, begs to be taken seriously. Elster knows this and has known this. Back in 2016, Elster laid out her deflated, hollow, dead-playing military green, industrial gas mask and biohazard suit in front of Jeffrey Deitch’s former Wooster Street gallery, which was showing Ai Weiwei: Laundromat at the time, a multimedia commentary on the global refugee crisis, designed by the artist while under soft, secret detention in Beijing in 2011. Elster reminds us again that there have long been performative confrontations to art, and the crises continue.
Take Heed features new work, but also calls back to previous works from past solo exhibitions by the artist, specifically The Retrospective of an Extroverted Recluse (2016) and The Wake the F*ck Up Show (2018). Elster is trying to “put a pin in doom” she told me, which could serve as an alternate title. She and these “kids” are meeting, disparately, in this awkward art singularity conundrum. At this point, artists are traumatized by the notion of trauma itself. They’ve had enough. Unlike the protesters who have gone after Vermeer and Klimt (many of the pieces were protected by museum glass), Elster is still creating, though she is attacking, almost destroying the canvas with an obvious disdain for the commercial art object. She’s destroying Art as it is.
Walking around the Armory show this Fall, so much of the conversation, post compounded representation, is about the “elevated decorative,” as if to say, “You are wealthy. This will still go over your couch. You will not be as challenged. You’ve paid your dues, yet you will still have something to talk about.” For artists like Elster, meaning, not factory made cogs in the institutional art complex, the exact aloof, gaslighting corporate complex these young protesters are raging against, she feels the wider, macro pain and trauma of the world deeply. And like these kids, these art-foster kids, petulant, feebly rebellious, still painfully peeling the superglue off their limbs and foreheads, will be largely ignored by this machine, a machine that trades in gross sales figures, exclusive salon reports of Blue Chip corporate succession, hermetically sealed beauty and the commodification of trauma, the selling of trauma, as opposed to the healing of it. Just listen, actually listen to the young artists themselves at this point, if not me.
Elster’s most impactful moment during the opening came with her last performance of the evening. Accompanied by a young solo guitarist and keyboard player, Elster reinvigorated her Downtown punk jam, which shares the title of The Wake the F*ck Up Show (think the love-child of Henry Rollins and Tinker Bell) and rocked out in a hybrid of poetry, spoken word, and frenetic performance art, pausing frequently to share extremely human, often hilarious musings about the writing process, ancillary anxieties, often connecting the dots to the cyclical nature of art and war. The ultimate, supreme hyper-metal moment, was the grand finale of this jam, with dozens of people, ``broken people,” via Elster’s poetic projectile at one point, gathered in a half circle around her while backed by a large-scale image of a dragged-out David Bowie (styled by Elster, shot by John Scarisbrick in 1995), nestled, teased and tangled in an intricate web of black fabric, as if to catch hapless selfie-takers drawn in by the ongoing commodification of Bowie’s legacy. Finally, Elster stepped out from her minimal band and asked each watcher-turned participant, musically, confrontationally, “Is death finite?” “Is. Death. Finite?” “IS. DEATH. FINITE?” Watching each person come up with a “Yes” or “No” or sometimes a fumbling “I don’t know” after being put on the spot was simply amazing. Words here will struggle to attest, but great performance art always has a “had to be there" quality. Luckily, Take Heed will run through January 5th, 2023, with another live event scheduled for December 15th. The artist will most certainly be present. The Development can and will serve as a true safe space for the young and old alike; a proactive bridge between the potential fine art Campbell Soup assailants of the recent past and near future and those who want to protect and preserve all that is priceless.
On Friday, I was lucky enough to be invited to Leiti Hsu’s Dream Dinner Party at Gospel, a nightclub on Lafayette Street, which hosted several past iterations, courtesy of the Dining Dominatrix herself. Guests, post-modern new age “Burner” types, the kind that go to Art Basel and ignore the art, usually very attractive, make up most of the guest list. That being said, there were moments of true human authenticity mixed in with dancers of the hot bondage variety, sort of classed-up House of Yes regulars. There was a live jazz band, a sensual reading by author Diana Hawk from her new, sexy YA novel, as beautiful as it seems, a fiercely sensual dance performance by Kyla Ernst-Alper that left me palpitating, and trace whispers of food and tequila.
Dressed in a shimmering jellyfish costume and adorned with a Laura Kimpton “LOVE” necklace, Leiti, a consummate, flirtatious host known for giving guests “bumps” of caviar at these parties, was irreverent and open. She likes to make jokes, lots of jokes about poop, about (still) being single, about growing up with Taiwanese parents. But the poetry snuck up on me. Leiti, sitting on stage, a spotlight pouring through her veiled, phallic, tendrilled jellyfish mushroom hat, still jarring dinner guests with enough anal-ogies to make Freud and Philip Roth chuckle, suddenly slides into a more somber, but by no means alienating tone, somewhat apologetically, in order to speak about her mother, who died from cancer in 2019, just before COVID-19 did its thing. For Leiti, whose words can meander fractally, leaving the listener grasping for the point, does eventually arrive, late, but fashionable. Bound to the form of poetry, but by no means a slave to it, helps bring Leiti to a moving, communicative sweet spot. Poetry as lubricant. The party, for Leiti, imparted to this guest at least, is about being misunderstood; about putting together the perfect room of individuals to remedy this ongoing misunderstanding, this grasping for the point of it all. Great poetry can and should have a sense of a desperate, dire need to connect, and not that sort of monotonous, arbitrary affectation with nonsensical, disjointed stanzas that so much poetry thinks it needs, that so much art and bad performance has (this is what this form is and only this, so as to be recognized or validated as part of the form). Real originals can’t help but bleed out on stage, shivering like an exposed raw nerve and self-mutilating like a mama pelican vulning, feeding its hungry, needy children with its own abundant, overflowing life-force.
At the table, after Leiti’s poem, which much like Elster's, included funny, meta, improvisational asides, I mentioned to my painter friend, Miroslava Romanova, that I was impressed by Leiti’s vulnerability. Miroslava responded, surprisingly to me, in her Ukrainian accent, somewhat accusatory, “Why vulnerable?” I had to think about this. Why vulnerable indeed. This young woman, Leiti, on stage, talking about, or speaking directly to, rather, a dead parent in verse, her obvious poop fetish, ongoing layered metaphors concerning a certain Taiwanese anxiety over the inevitability of super-power domination, of actively manifesting a dream and owning that dream. Miroslava was right. Why this trope of vulnerability? Was Leiti not confident? Not lucid? Why not lead with confidence, like Leiti? I loved this lesson, unearthed like a gem from the banal, suffocating rough of convention.
“I have a fetish for story,” Leiti, the introverted jellyfish, would like to clarify, largely and understandably, to hold onto a healthy dating life. “It’s a fetish for topics that make people squirm, but in a funny, smart, elegant way somehow. I have a fetish for truth, for the elephant in the room.”
On Saturday afternoon, I found myself deep in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, east of the oily Monsignor McGolrick Park, buzzing the buzzer of 100 Sutton Studios, to watch Junyi film her three-act performance art video. An art consultant and curator, who often works with Eli Klein Gallery, whom Junyi and I met at Eli’s rooftop after-party for 1.5, was sitting on the couch in the studio space. Outside of the small crew and a handful of participating performers, this woman and I would be Junyi’s only audience for the filming. Like Elster, like Leiti, even like Monique, Mandie’s sister, you don’t really know someone until you see them perform in person. I was so moved by Junyi’s production and performance, which despite the help behind and on stage, she placed largely on her own shoulders. I was impressed by the obvious navigation of her own traumas; as a young Chinese woman in America, quite overwhelmed by the mounting, Orwellian human rights abuses back in the CCP motherland (now spilling over a crucial tipping point perhaps) as well as her own experience as a student and artist in America, struggling to pick up nuances in the English language and perhaps more importantly, social cues, cues by and towards men especially. These missed cues, largely outside of her control, have placed Junyi in more than one troubling if not traumatizing situation. Performance artists, especially women, wear it on their collective sleeve. If the body keeps the score, then this nexus of poetry and performance must assuredly be the ultimate vehicle for show and tell as we approach 2023. These forms are clearly best when operating at the crossroads of brilliant nuance and the unbridled Hammer of God, be it with a guitar, with a gas mask, with rope and fishnets, with caviar and a jellyfish hat, or with popping balloons and a prop kitchen knife. Hard to say, but if one is to believe in the quantum, exponential power of the so-called butterfly effect, then maybe those delightfully pretentious little finger snaps are enough. WM