Humor and the Abject

View Original

"Aggressive" Three-Course Sunday Supporting the Arts Meal: Christine Navin at Catbox Contemporary, Libby Rothfeld at Bureau, Ana Fabrega at Starr Bar

A couple of years ago, a very obnoxious and drug-addled party boy I'll call "Stanley" informed me that he had an "aggressive night" planned for himself. Because I was familiar with his cocaine-fueled club ragers and tendency to blast Todd Terje from his stereo upon returning home at 4:30am on a Tuesday, I'll admit that I was intrigued by what he perceived to be "aggressive." 

"It means I've got three different events in one night," he explained. "A three-course meal." 

Stanley and I no longer cross paths, but whenever I am supposed to attend three or more things in one evening, I've become fond of referring to it as an aggressive night. And because it's New York and people refuse to adhere to rational work-week-conscious event planning, I found myself faced with one yesterday, a Sunday. I didn't take any drugs and I was home by a little after 10pm, so I felt fantastic this morning. Part of why I felt fantastic was how great the three things I attended were, and I'd like to tell you about my own aggressive three-course meal of Supporting the Arts. 

See this content in the original post

Appetizer: Christine Navin's "The Empire State Building Has No Roof" at Catbox Contemporary

The evening began very early, around 4pm. Over Instagram, artist Philip Hinge had invited me to a "little" opening at his apartment in Ridgewood from 3-6pm. Artist Christine Navin, whom I'd met along with Hinge when I taught at VCU and they were MFA candidates there, was debuting a solo exhibition titled "The Empire State Building Has No Roof." The gallery program is called Catbox Contemporary, and I didn't think to look that up before arriving. I am glad that I didn't. 

Upon arrival at Hinge's house, I wandered down the narrow entry hallway filled with his paintings. In his living room, a dozen or so folks were standing around sipping La Croixs and Budweisers (not mixed, you heathen). Many of Hinges's pieces--as well as works by Mike Schreiber, Jennifer Sullivan, and Brandi Twilley that he got through trades--adorned the room, which was slightly confusing because I'd thought this was supposed to be an exhibition of Navin's work. One of the chairs on the ceiling in the image below, which were part of his 2016 solo show "Darkzone Martyrium" at now-defunct gallery GCA in Buswhick (founder Mike Schreiber now co-runs Bible with Tom Koehler in Chinatown), sat hilariously in the corner of the living room. 

Philip Hinge's "Darkzone Martyrium" at GCA in Brooklyn, 2016.

Hinge offered me a beer and then walked me over to a carpeted cat tower near his couch. Suddenly, I got the joke. Catbox Contemporary is a miniature gallery inside of the nesting boxes of the cat tower. It is so preposterous that it is impossible to be upset about it. As I began to look at it, artist Patrick Mohundro popped over to say a quick hello and goodbye. 

"Sorry that I can't stay long," he said. "I'm incredibly allergic to cats." 

"Aerial" view of Christine Navin's "The Empire State Building Has No Roof" at Catbox Contemporary, Ridgewood, NY, 2017.

I praised Mohundro for supporting the arts regardless, and bid him farewell. Inside of the cat tower, Navin had installed a knockout shrunken solo show. Two toy SUVs had been sawed in half, fused together, and coated in a thick, plaster-like substance. A "large" monochrome painting hung on one wall, and a video of a flickering fire place looped on the screen of what I think was a deconstructed smartphone. Its cables were slathered with the same material as the SUVs, giving them simultaneously a hilarious Dr Seuss-like presence and an ability to fade into the white of the space despite their clunky size. 

Exterior view of Navin's works in Catbox Contemporary's new "expansion." 

"We've just added an expansion," Hinge told me in complete seriousness.

A lower nesting level had also recently been "white-walled" and now acted as a second showroom. Therein, Navin had installed two monochrome paintings identical to the first. When I asked her about them, she explained that they were 3D-printed using an open-source file website, though they were detailed scans of a painting she herself had made several years ago. Users on the site upload schematics for prints and trade them freely. Navin mentioned that a few other users had downloaded her painting to make their own prints and that, due to the high-resolution at which she'd scanned it, they could hypothetically print them at relatively massive scales. One attendee asked Navin if the printing process was expensive, and she hinted that she'd been hooked up by someone who works at a university outside of New York. I smiled as I thought of the works being transported in a miniature Sprinter van by miniature art handlers. 

The insanely bright can lights make "documenting" works inside of Catbox Contemporary an interesting undertaking. 

From Christine Navin's "Takeout Series" (2013), both graphite and paper on plexi, 18 x 26".

In fall of 2013, I was invited to be a guest in the Painting & Printmaking MFA critique class at VCU. Navin was showing some of her drawings, the works for which she was best known at the time. She's a tireless and calculated draftsperson and can do things with graphite that seem borderline illegal. The images above are drawings based on Chinese takeout food one could get in the online game Second Life. While I don't recall specifics of the critique, I do remember having a spirited conversation about the comedy inherent in physically rendering with such devotion a throwaway, pixelated food animation from a video game. Since leaving VCU, she's been living and working in New York and focusing on much more tactile and sculptural approaches to her work. There hasn't really been anything that she's done that hasn't wowed me, and it's exciting to see her prowess consistently evident across new explorations in myriad media. Regardless of the tools she's using, Navin is able to trick them into doing things they're not designed to. 

This thing is impossible to photograph. 

"The Empire State Building Has No Roof" was a great appetizer--small but satisfying, a point of conversation, and it primed me for more. 

Dinner: Libby Rothfeld's "Noon and Afternoon" at Bureau

From Libby Rothfeld's "Noon and Afternoon" at Bureau. Photo: Andrea McGinty.

Following such a fun appetizer, I needed something big and savory. I can't believe I just typed that. Anyways, I bounced into the city to see Libby Rothfeld's solo exhibition "Noon and Afternoon" at Bureau. Easily one of my favorite spaces, Bureau is a reliable spot to see ambitious solo shows by compelling artists. Their roster includes sinister sculptor Lionel Maunz, heady research guru Ellie Ga, and adored painter Julia Rommel. This is Rothfeld's first solo exhibition with the gallery, following a two-person show, "AAa:Quien," with Erica Baum the space hosted earlier this year. From the website, it looks like she's now represented by Bureau, which is awesome for Rothfeld. Gallery owner Gabrielle Giattino is highly respected in New York and is known for putting her artists' visions ahead of market trends. It's energizing to see Rothfeld's work put into context with Bureau's stable--she is a relentless and thoughtful maker and she brings a new, youthful punch to the crew. 

From Libby Rothfeld's "Noon and Afternoon" at Bureau. Photo: Andrea McGinty (who wanted me to let everybody know that these were shot on her phone and that some guy kept stepping into the frames while she was trying to take pictures).

Rothfeld's show unfolded nicely through Bureau's long space, beginning with a large, desk-like sculpture at the entrance that one might mistake as a "funky" decorating decision on the part of Giattino. Works guided attendees into the larger back room and the mixture of wall and floor pieces felt perfectly-fabricated for the gallery's unique wooden floor and science fiction-worthy bright lighting. Part of Bureau's charm is its aesthetic and how artists respond to it; Maunz can make the space feel claustrophobic and cold, Rommel can make it feel like an airy, inviting chapel. While this work isn't some dramatic departure from Rothfeld's general aesthetics, it's clear that she worked diligently on new pieces with the site in mind. 

Incorporated throughout the many works are what might be deemed arbitrary objects: generic clothing in plastic bags, plastic water bottles filled to various levels, random papers, symbolic scribbles, adhesive tape, or middle-of-the-road fashion men's hats. These similar compositions of objectst are spread out upon chipped and scraped laminate surfaces, suggesting a new ritual importance and material sanctity. Because the elements are so banal though, it gives one pause. Why is this art? That's not a jab--rather, the very everyday-ness of Rothfeld's visual vocabulary serves to call into question the almost religious importance we've imbued into more traditional art materials. How is a surface coated in laminate any different than one coated in oil paint, really? If intention is the vehicle that marks something as Capital A art, who cares what the make or model is? 

Some of the most perplexingly rewarding works are a series of handmade masks giving a truncated history of the evolution of Homo sapiens. They stare blankly from the walls, surveilling the work and its audience. But the more I glanced between the masks, the objects in the room, and the scores of folks who'd shown up to celebrate the opening, I started to chuckle. It's worth considering just how far-removed we actually are from our more ape-like ancestors. Sure, we've got fashion and mass-produced, portable hydration, but we also toil away the bulk of our existence denying ourselves primal experiences in favor of hammering out nonsense at desks in exchange for currency that's purely symbolic. Rothfeld's work conjures the word "banal" because we are banal. 

From Libby Rothfeld's "Noon and Afternoon" at Bureau. Photo: Andrea McGinty

I'm looking forward to a second visit to "Noon and Afternoon" so that I can take in the works in a more contemplative environment. It's a pleasantly dense show, and I don't know that I've even scratched the surface in terms of what it's all about in this writing. If anybody wants to join me and nerd out together at it, hit me up. 

Dessert: Ana Fabrega's "Sundays with Ana" at Starr Bar

Appropriately satiated following Rothfeld's opening, I needed something sweet. When it comes to art and art-adjacent events, this means I wanted some LOLs. And there are few better places to find LOLs than wherever it is that comedian Ana Fabrega is hanging out. 

Every first Sunday, Fabrega hosts "Sundays with Ana" at Starr Bar in Buswhick. Not only does this free monthly kick ass every single time, it is also literally a block from my house. Fabrega concocts some outrageously ridiculous "theme" for each iteration, with the participating comedians adhering to it in varying degrees. Previous nights have focused on maps, why scarecrows are smiling assholes, the cowboy hat emoji, and the city of Grand Rapids, Michigan. A master of the lecture-as-comedy format, Fabrega prepares a sort of academic "talk" on the topic she's chosen, with tight tech accompaniment from Frank Flaherty, that she then weaves throughout the night between acts. These bits are site-specific, and it seems like outside of the series you wouldn't have a chance to hear her musings, at least at-length, on any of these topics. 

Ana Fabrega, bullshitting her way through the six "phases" of construction with Frank Flaherty running tech.

The theme for November was "Construction Phases," and Fabrega did not disappoint with her exceedingly elaborate misunderstandings of how and why buildings are created. She's become a total pro at Photoshop and the slideshow included meme-worthy takes on how to put together a construction team, the purpose of miniature model-building, and taxonomies of the supplies and equipment you'll need to be successful. I saw quite a few familiar faces in the packed room last night, but it also seemed like there were a lot of people who are relatively new audience members for Brooklyn comedy. Watching Fabrega, it's easy to understand why fresh faces always turn up despite the volume of performances she does every month. No matter which Brooklyn comic I speak with, every one of them thinks of Ana as one of those people that five years from now we'll be telling our normie friends we knew before she was famous. 

Comics Jaqueline Novak and Sam Jay unfortunately had to cancel at the last minute, but that meant more stage time for the rest of the lineup. Ike Ufomadu, who will be doing a run of his hilarious "Ike at Night" talk show for Under the Radar at the Public Theater in January, primarily did crowd work that had the audience screaming. I don't know the exact word to describe the persona he inhabits, but it's at once extremely likable and familiar while also mildly confrontational. He's the Uncanny Johnny Carson. He managed to guess that a man in the front row was from New Zealand just by looking at him, which became a hysterical callback everyone worked in throughout the night. The Kiwi, who'd just moved to New York, probably had one of the best nights of his life as the center of attention. 

Writer and comedian Ziwe Fumudoh, who is a bonafide celebrity on Twitter, kicked off her set with some theme-specific material after noting that it seemed, from Ana's invitation, that everyone was supposed to also be doing jokes about construction. She followed that bit with a more improvisational set, heckled the audience brilliantly and demanded to know if the Kiwi had every dated a Black person, and then talked about her new white boyfriend who I'm pretty sure was staring with good-humored mortification from the front row. 

Rachel Lenihan, a co-writer with Fabrega at The Chris Gethard Show, was somebody that I hadn't seen previously but immediately loved. She had tight, devastatingly awkward bits reminiscent of great one-liner comics like Steven Wright, but with a millennial twist. She did a 9/11 joke and despite getting laughs accused us of being the "wrong crowd" for the joke. It's incredibly tough to pull off the "I'm uncomfortable" vibe on stage without seeming like a try-hard, but Lenihan is one of those rare cases where it gels perfectly with her material. I'm looking forward to learning more about her. 

One of the best, most unique comics in New York right now, self-proclaimed "aspiring actress" Ruby McCollister, was a clear standout. I got to collaborate with McCollister a while back for a piece at Flux Factory with Lorelei Ramirez and Amy Zimmer, and I can't say enough good things about her work. She effortlessly inhabits a smoky-voiced, bygone-era Hollywood musical starlet desperate for love and respect from her audiences. She's going to be a guest soon on the Humor and the Abject podcast, and perhaps it will be the first time that I brave the waters of having guests do bits on air. 

Musician, performer, and comedian Jen Goma (Showtime GomaA Sunny Day in GlasgowRoman à Clef, amongst others) had come out for the evening just as an audience member. She's part of the Brooklyn comedy community and I've seen her perform her music at Lorelei Ramirez's monthly Not Dead Yet. But because there was a little time left in the run of show after McCollister, Fabrega invited Goma up to do some music. It was an excellent way to round out the show. Here's a recent track of Goma's to warm up your day. 

See this content in the original post

I left Starr Bar exhausted but in great spirits. While living in New York can feel positively overwhelming at times because of the terrifying amount of things one is expected to attend--and the FOMO that results when deciding to just chill for the night--it's great to push yourself to have an aggressive evening every once in a while. In one night, across three different boroughs, I caught a miniature art installation, a huge solo exhibition, and an electric comedy show. Besides the few beers that I bought at Starr Bar (they give 10% of all sales to the community-oriented May Day Space, after all), I spent practically no money. I'll probably need a couple of weeks before my next Three-Course Supporting the Arts Meal, but that's okay. Everything in moderation, right?