Artist Brian Belott is a clown. In an interview last year with ARTNEWS, Bill Powers asked him if it was more difficult to stick to his absurdist roots now that he's represented by Gavin Brown's Enterprise. Belott replied:
"No, I need to follow that instinct and foil sensible things. I believe that our world is very open to clowns: [Jeff] Koons is a clown. [Mike] Kelley’s a clown. Duchamp is a clown. Joe Bradley is a clown. Sometimes clowns can turn people off, because they think of the classic image with the guy wearing a red nose... But that’s not what I’m talking about. My definition of a clown is someone allergic to normality."
My first in-person encounter with Belott was a few years back when I was one of the artists running Essex Flowers gallery at its original location in the basement of a commercial flower show on Delancey Street. We'd been invited to do a Cultural Partner booth at the 2014 NADA New York art fair, and they were offering us a steeply discounted rate to have the space. After multiple bouts of infighting about what it meant for the artist-run project space to participate in an art fair, everybody more or less begrudgingly agreed that we should do it--as long as what we did was weird. If I'm remembering correctly, it was artist Van Hanos, who was also part of the Essex Flowers collective at that point, who originally suggested that we offer the space as a solo booth to Belott. While I didn't know Belott personally at that point, I'd seen "that video" he'd posted long ago to YouTube.
As an art/comedy nerd, I was excited at the prospect of working with Belott. The decision to turn the booth over to him was a solid one, as he presented a chaotic suite of works that got mentions in virtually every piece about the fair that year. Hung salon-style with a desk covered in hundreds of additional pieces, the tiny booth stood out. While NADA is certainly more experimental than Frieze, it's still an art fair. Most galleries are trying to sell work and their installations are, as a result, somewhat conservative. Belott didn't seem at all concerned with making sales, and if I think we might have sold one or two pieces total for around $100 apiece. Obviously, we lost money doing the booth, but it still felt to everyone involved like a rousing success.
One morning over the weekend, in the hour before the fair opened to the public, the NADA staff was giving a tour to a group of school children. When they got to Belott's work, the kids totally flipped out. He just happened to be on-site, and bounded over like an oversized first-grader and started gabbing with the them. They all sat in a circle around the booth and he pulled pens and paper out of his backpack and handed them out to the group. As they started scribbling and making doodles on their own pieces of paper, he began pulling works down from the booth wall and then passed those out, encouraging the kids to add to them. They gleefully doodled all over the artworks, and Belott started trading pieces.
"You can have these," he said. The kids lit up.
The staff from NADA had a minor meltdown about works leaving the fair without sales being reported, but ultimately maintained a sense of humor and the kids walked out with original works by Belott.
Over the years, I've kept in touch with Belott. We had the opportunity to perform on the same bill in 2015 at Andrew Kuo and Scott Reeder's "It Gets Beta" exhibition that took over Marlborough Gallery's Chelsea and Broome St locations. It was a New York edition of Scott and Tyson Reeder's ongoing "Club Nutz" comedy series. I did some standup and Belott did an anarchic performance piece. Eric Warheim was in the audience and I thought I was gonna throw up while I was doing my set.
This past summer, I got to write a review of his exhibition "Dr. Kid President Jr." at Gavin Brown's Enterprise in Harlem for Art in America. It was one of my favorite shows of 2017, featuring hundreds of children's artworks he'd pulled from the collection of educator Rhoda Kellogg. Belott created dozens of new works himself and installed a secular shrine to the creativity of children. Within the show was an active classroom where public school students from around Harlem came for art classes taught by a who's-who list of New York artists. The work the kids produced was added to the exhibition, and then the gallery threw a big reception for them and their families. Belott's got an infectious and genuine kid's spirit, and he absolutely adores and admires their self-expression through art.
A couple of weeks ago, Belott called me to ask if I would want to participate in a new piece that he'd be debuting as part of Performa 17 at Abrons Playhouse in early November. Of course, I accepted. It's called People Pie Pool and features tons of different performers. From Performa's description:
For People Pie Pool Brian Belott immerses himself into the rebellious legacy of DADA, American standup comedy, the history of slapstick and vaudeville, He choreographs a comedy of simultaneity, paying homage to the work of Kurt Schwitters, the Marx Brothers, Andy Kaufman, Lenny Bruce and many others. Belott’s motley cast will include visual artists, comedians, property lawyers, SAT tutors, musicians, bingo players, tap dance teachers, basketball teams, sword swallowers and other assorted exhibitionists.
I'm very much looking forward to performing, and without revealing any of the tricks that he's got up his sleeve, I will also say that I am incredibly stressed out about it. What he's organized is going to be a chaotic medley and I hope that I can keep up. Tickets are available through Abrons Art Center, and there are two performances this weekend. It's going to be a wild ride, and I hope that you'll join us.
Brian Belott's People Pie Pool will be presented at 8:30pm on Friday, November 10th and Saturday, November 11th at Abrons Playhouse, 466 Grand St, New York, NY 10002. Tickets here.