As I walked west on 20th street approaching Jonathan Levine Gallery, I had a feeling this was not going to be a typical opening. True, the usual sights and sounds of a Saturday evening in Chelsea could still be spotted - throngs of bespectacled hipsters, name-dropping fashionistas; thirsty, unemployed art students. Forming a long queue by a freight elevator, they stood impatiently amongst a stoic masked performer in a crocheted camouflage bodysuit; clutching a banner (also crocheted) that read “Nobody Can Hurt Me Without My Permission”. In customary too-cool- for-school downtown fashion, the mysterious figure seemed to only attract stolen glances and the odd iPhone snapshot. As we reached the 9th floor, the doors opened to expel the mob at two solo shows: The End is Far by Polish-born, New York-based artist Olek and Tracy Had a Bad Sunday from Pop Art-inspired provocateur Parra.
This marks Olek’s second solo exhibition at the gallery. It also marks the end of a turbulent past couple years for the artist. In 2011, she was placed under house arrest after a disturbance with a male patron at a London bar. Subsequently, despite creatively and financially stifling circumstances, Olek found herself inspired by the ordeal, determined to fight for her creative and financial freedom. Granted permission to leave the UK between court appearances, 2012 became the most prolific year of the artist’s career to date, as she took on numerous international projects, public installations and commissions. She was part of the 40 Under 40: Craft Futures exhibition at the Smithsonian, for which her entire crocheted studio apartment was exhibited. During the rest of her travels, Olek collaborated with women across the globe, learning new techniques and experimenting with different materials.
The End is Far is a colorful testament to Olek’s reinvigorated spirit with a site-specific installation and live performance. She pushed herself into new territory by creating multi-layered crocheted sculptures like her humorous and girlish interpretation of a pair of boxing gloves entitled “Fight No. 01” (a jab at her barroom brawl, perhaps?). “Buddhism is Universal No. 01” is a peculiar juxtaposition featuring a plastic skeleton sitting in a Zen-like lotus pose, made with acrylic yarn and metallic ribbon. The still life “New Years Eve No. 01”, crocheted acrylic yarn and metallic ribbon on a bottle and plastic skull, is adorned with floral and skeletal motifs bringing to mind the festive Day of the Dead. During the opening reception, topless female performers donning masks, pasties and mermaid skirts, lounged in a fully furnished dining room installation accentuated with candelabras, overflowing fruit bowls and decadent wine goblets. Outside the installation in the center of the gallery floor, another masked mermaid playfully rocked to-and-fro on her swing. Viewers inched past to take in the bizarre scene and also survey the series of intricately crocheted panels displayed around her, emblazoned with wry slogans like “All We Need is Love & Money” and “Being Beautiful (On The Inside is What’s Important)”.
Making my way through the crowd I then came upon Tracy Had a Hard Sunday, the first solo exhibition at the gallery by Amsterdam-based, Dutch artist Parra. The series of new works - enigmatic paintings in a vibrant palette of highly saturated colors - are a logical foil to Olek’s feminine, camo-crocheted universe. The majority of the works exhibited are executed in shades of reds and blues featuring a recurring theme of stars and stripes and Parra’s distinctive hybrid, bird-like figures with features such as elongated, beak-shaped noses. His curvaceous nudes are portrayed in a variety of amusing and tawdry circumstances. Occasionally the artist will add his own stylized, hand-drawn typography to a piece. It’s evident that Parra’s sensibility is largely rooted in the Pop art movement and the experimental graphics of the 1960s. His dynamic, playful imagery references the street art of Keith Haring along with West Coast psychedelia. In addition to his paintings, a smattering of small-scale polyester sculptures was shown. Entitled “Lay Down... Lay It All Down”, they can be best described as bird/poodle creatures in high-heeled booties rendered in editions of red, black and white. And while there was a risk of drowning in a sea of primary colors, a wall of Parra’s small ink drawings served as a cool palette cleanser. Both thoughtful and witty, the black and white drawings called to mind Warhol’s “Before and After” series of reimagined newspaper advertisements.
I pass the artist himself as I exit the now sweltering room. Surrounded by fans young and old he happily pauses to autograph whatever paraphernalia they could gather. Lines to merely enter the galleries now fill the brightly lit hallway. Thankfully the slow elevator ride down to the street is quieter, especially when I look up to notice a familiar masked passenger, proudly toting her crocheted call to arms.
Words by Daniel Alonso. Photos via the gallery.