Christopher Finch: Good Girl, Bad Girl
by Shana Nys Dambrot
IndieBound files this dark confection of a detective novel under “urban life,” “mystery,” and “hard-boiled,” but that is not what makes it special. That list of tags ought rightfully to be augmented with “historical fiction,” “art world roman a clef,” and “semi-autobiography” -- because its main triumph is not in its casual mastery of the stylized pulp-noir genre it channels (although that is impressive) but rather in its successful grafting of that genre’s archetypes onto a story set entirely within the New York City art world of 1968. Finch is deft at interweaving into the story elements of political unrest on a national and local scale, the increasingly untenable class divide, the rising tide of radicalism in politics and in art, the sexual revolution, and the famous NYC garbage strikes -- all in the name of setting up an evocative backdrop and thorough social context for the vanities of the filthy, gilded art scene where the action, more or less literally, takes place.
And about this art scene of 1968. At the time, Christopher Finch was working as a popular art critic in New York, where he had moved after a time curating at the Walker Art Center. Although he is a talented visual artist as well, he is best known as an author -- but most of his stature as a writer has come from his critical analysis and his tour de force monographic and biographical essays on the giants of the mid- and late-20th century American art world, most recently Chuck Close. So when Finch places his considerable insights and access at the disposal of a protagonist who traded his policeman’s badge and career in the department’s art-fraud squad for a career as a downtown private investigator only to find himself embroiled in a thick plot swirling around his old haunts, it more than feels authentic -- it rings true. Add to that Finch’s witty deployment of real-life figures (Andy Warhol), locations (Max’s Kansas City), and actual events (the rise of performance art as a form of political protest) alongside composite and thinly-disguised characters and locations, and you have a novel that threatens to do double duty as expose and reportage. At least as much fun as unraveling the clues to the mystery unfolding on the pages, is the temptation to unravel what feels like the clues to the seedier mysteries of the art world’s most -- and least -- glamorous exploits.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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