"The Best Art In The World"
Jennifer Elster: Take Heed
Through January 5, 2023
By ANTHONY HADEN-GUEST, December 2022
Take Heed, an unusual show of work by Jennifer Elster, occupies The Development Gallery, a sizeable street level space at 75 Leonard, which exemplifies the post-industrial chic of the Cast Iron District, its slender columns with Corinthian capitals reaching up to fat pipes swaddled in silver paper on the perforated ceiling. Elster’s art is hung or pasted on the brick walls, stands upon plinths, and is laid flat on the floor and it is variegated, including brushy black abstractions, pieces in which the brushwork has been morphed into a sign, such as a question mark, and pieces in which real life materials have been embedded, Dada fashion, such as a heap of covid masks on one plinth and a single white mask with WATCH OUT, hand-scrawled across it, upon another.
There are also large photographs, often of a person projecting intense, unhappinesss, such as the attention grabber when you enter the space, a photograph of an extravagantly emoting man at the center of a webbing of black rags beside a hand-scrawled warning: GET AWAY FROM ME. Such truculent or fearful signage crackles throughout. Oblongs of brown cardboard which are stuck onto walls, onto plinths or which stick out of see thru plastic boxes carry such messaging as BEWARE OF REALITY, WAKE THE FUCK UP, WHAT’S REALLY GOING ON and the double-hang of WE HAVE LOST ALL HOLD and THEY ARE ONLY PRETENDING THEY HAVEN’T.
A few are obscure, such as KA-KA KILLED – which Elster clarified by making a throaty death rattle – but most have a pitchdark clarity, such as HUMAN PRUNING IS UNDER WAY and IN THE FUTURE INDIVIDUALS WILL OWN NUCLEAR WARFARE. Highly various ways and means of art-making, yes, but the same sensibility throbs throughout. The Development Gallery is Elster’s gallery and Take Heed is her painfully timely show.
Back story. Elster was born in New York. “My father was worked on a tugboat,” she says. “He would take trips to places like Panama. Two weeks on and two weeks off.” She grew up on the Upper West Side. “We lived in a dangerous building. There was a lot of desperation around. And I was at the most dangerous school too. I was always navigating.” But she figured out her priorities early. “The first thing I wanted was a Polaroid camera,” she says. “And I got it.” At what age? “About 8 or 9,” she said. “I still have those Polaroids”. A few years on she had become an obsessive free style dancer. “At MK, Tunnel, all the places that people used to go in the 80s. Keith Haring would literally watch me dance for hours” she says.
Elster went on to NYU, taking a job at the Conde Nast magazine, Mademoiselle, to put herself through school. There she showed a knack for styling, became sittings editor, and the connections she made there continued to offer her assignments after she had left to do her own work, one being from John Scarisbrick, a Swedish photographer with whom she shared an agent. “He said I have a shoot with Bowie”. Did she want to do it? Yes.
The shoot was for 1.Outside, a Conceptual album, and in 1995 Elster spent a week in London, transforming Bowie into five characters. The screaming man who confronts the door is one of them, Ramona. “The piece that he’s wearing in the shoot is a cut piece that I made,” Elster says. I put the bullet belt on there and the armor. And the album came out. It was very exciting and awesome. It was that part of my life.”
A darker part of her and the world’s life lay ahead: 9/11. “At that time I was living in Battery City,” Elster said. “When the World Trade Center got attacked, I lived across the street.” She brought out a Polaroid. “This is where I lived” she said. “This is my terrace and these are the Towers. Imagine, I am this close. The closest residential building. I saw a plane coming right at me. Because a plane is so big. When it’s this close it’s coming right at you. I saw it with my eyes! Not on TV, with my eyes. You’re looking at a plane coming right at you. That’s a very weird sensation. I saw the plane come right at me and go into the tower. And then it explodes.”
She stiffened, as if still on full alert.
“I saw the Towers go down, I saw people jumping out. I saw everything. Our electricity and plumbing and everything went down. I said out loud it’s a terrorist attack. I don’ t think I ever said the word terrorist before. I never thought about terrorists, nothing. And I said Goodbye to my life. I was there with my husband, Lewis, and I said Okay, well! This is it! This is how we’re going to die. And I said Goodbye! We laid in bed. We were right across the street but somehow our building survived,” Elster says. They watched a storm of rubble falling from the sky. “Parts of people’s desks kept landing on the terrace,” Elster says. “Debris from collapsed offices. And ash.” The terrace, she says, looked as if there’d been a fall of snow.
In the following hours Elster, her husband, and others in the building were taken across the river to New Jersey. She walked across the gallery, swept a bunch of newspapers off a plinth and brought them back. “I grabbed some papers there. It wasn’t like The New York Times,” he said. These were the newspapers that were being given out on the street, pretty much, to inform people ... The New York Post, The Daily News, Extra ... This was something I saved because I felt it was part of that moment.”
They returned, somewhat covertly, to the city the following day. “We snuck past all the checkpoints to get back to our apartment because we had our dog there,” she said. Elster feels she was well prepared for the 9/11 experience. “As a teenager in a very dangerous neighbourhood you had to watch out or you would get ... damaged,” she said. And that watchfulness intensified in adult life. Elster pointed to a World War II gasmask hanging on the wall. “I bought that in 1995,” she said.
Why, I asked? “Why? Exactly! Because I was already concerned about what was going on,” she said. She bought it in a surplus store on Canal Street, along with some military clothing. Framed photographs on the wall are self-portraits which show her wearing both. “In 2016 I took out the warfare stuff and I did that series. That’s a huge span of time that I’ve been concerned. So 9/ll did something to my nervous system. It changes the way that you see. It exacerbated my worries about how bad things could get in the world. Living through it like that frames and shapes the way you see the present and the future from that moment on. These things can happen.”
Take Heed is, okay, a screamy show. It’s about dealing with budding nukes, creeping AI, accelerating climate changes as it’s about obliviousness, denial, rebuilding in hurricane zones. And Covid has been a great dress rehearsal for this. “People aren’t great at adapting to change. They freak out, they get scared, and just want to go back go to their normal lives, But it's much more powerful to be fluid. Things change. Things happen, things continue to happen. Just be fluid with it." WM
Anthony Haden-Guest (born 2 February 1937) is a British writer, reporter, cartoonist, art critic, poet, and socialite who lives in New York City and London. He is a frequent contributor to major magazines and has had several books published including TRUE COLORS: The Real Life of the Art World and The Last Party, Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night.
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