An East Village townhouse, tucked away on 7th Street, featured last weekend a two-night pop-up art show inspired by “Alice in Wonderland.” With paintings by Mari Gior, curated by Marina Dojchinov, “Down the Rabbit Hole” offered respite from the world’s ugliness, but just as in Alice’s Wonderland, that escape brought its own conflicts and contradictions.
To get to East 7th Street, I walked through Tompkins Square Park. The first time I came there, in the fall of 1993, the park was full of nodders, people who were so strung out on heroin that they were slipping into half-consciousness on benches. Now I encountered a parking lot of strollers up against the fence of one of the park’s many playgrounds, full of brand new equipment, bouncing toddlers, and affluent parents. I passed the statue of “Temperance” and found the park finally lived up to the statue’s admonition.
It took me a moment to find the slim, white door on 7th Street. Despite its transformation, the neighborhood is still mostly old tenement buildings, although from the street you can see chandeliers through windows, hanging from refurbished tin ceilings. Old brick facades that once lent themselves to broke artists and broker families now house Bose sound systems, Ligne Roset sofas, and Eames recliners. This temporary gallery space was a man’s home, so devoid of homeyness that he could lend it for two nights to an art show, tucking all personal accoutrements behind two, third-floor doors.
One of the great things about the New York art scene is that art and artists inhabit whatever space they can find. Art patron’s townhouse? Sure. Empty loft space? No problem. Abandoned school on its way to Building Department condemnation? Perfect place to hang a show. When I was a kid attending art shows in the 1990s, this work would have hung in decrepit tenements or lofts with 14-day eviction notices taped up on the exterior door, and the artists would have been waiting for their drug dealers in the back.
When Artists Seem More Important Than Their Art
“Down the Rabbit Hole” was hung full of pretty pictures. But art is not about pretty pictures anymore — it’s about pretty artists. Painter Mari Gior featured prominently in her creation, as did curator Marina Dojchinov. They stepped out into the pop-up gallery in red and black, respectively, calling to mind the Queen of Hearts, otherwise missing on canvas.
Gior wore her dark hair long, snaking down her back, a red minidress with a plunging sweetheart neckline and a full skirt that looked like it could be a dance costume (Gior is also a dancer). Dojchinov wore a black, sparkling evening gown, looking as serious as her international curatorial resume. Together, they stood for photos before the artwork.
Posing for pictures in light that captured the bling of jewels and shine of bronzer seemed to be more essential than meeting and mixing with the crowd, which was on phones anyway — heads bent, worshiping so much more fully and adoringly through screen than beneath yellow track light. Everyone preferred to log on and like, rather than to say so in person.
The “Alice in Wonderland” theme called to mind that precocious little girl who continues to capture imaginations. Alice was not the focus in this case, although her dream was. The star of the show was the white rabbit, bunny face and ears on a girl’s lithe body. The sad bunny with no agency — looked at, pitied, desired — hung on the wall in a triptych. The small paintings emphasized the diminutive, out-of-the-way feel of this space and of the ideas.
The Bunny Who Stole the Show
The artist and curator took endless photos posed before portraits of anime bunny girls in muted grays and pinks. Streaks of paint and blended outlines gave the work a distinctly dirty feel. But the dirt, like the colors, was muted. The bunnies were sad and stoic, like lost girls without their own faces, who exist only to be seen.
Dojchinov said Gior is “known for her bunny series … and it’s this abstract amazing work, and basically she will create a bunny head on a female form.” The white rabbit is not a new theme, though Gior addressed it slightly differently. Instead of Alice as the one who is lost, Alice knows her way, has landed in the dreamscape right on time, and it’s the nameless white rabbit who is lost, not late, because she has nowhere to go. Gior’s white rabbit has no identity outside of the story.
In fact, if a viewer did not know the story of Alice, the white rabbit bunny pictures would be more like video game avatars with no story, only skin. They are sex objects for a lover who, like Baudrillard, finds himself most attracted to a woman who appears bored. The bunny’s body language conveys emotion, but the bunny faces are all the same. Maybe Gior is saying we’re all in hiding behind our image, but if so, she must prefer it that way because image, not substance, is what comes through.
Speaking to the “Art Uncovered” podcast, Dojchinov said her concept of the show is “aimed at changing the art game. We didn’t want to replicate a traditional gallery show, so instead we went one step further and took over an entire building. … I see a trend in the art world in kind of coming away from the usual openings, when you go and you just look at art and you walk around, and Mari has so many interesting elements to her work.”
That work is primarily abstract, although the work on the first floor of the townhouse seemed oddly out of place with the rest of the series. These were bright, color block-style paintings, and at first I thought they were part of the home’s decor, and not part of the show. The best work was also the most iconic: It was the bunnies.
Life Inside the NYC Bubble
I came to New York for the art. Way back at the 20th century’s fin de siecle, art was the driver for everything I did. I worked a day job so I could afford to make art, to consume it, to be consumed by it. I went to college and grad school to learn to better my craft.
New York was the center of it, and art was why I wanted to be here. Artists are always essential components of their work, in some form or another, but here, on 7th Street, the art was more an advertisement for the artists. Without Gior and Dojchinov, the art was uninhabited by meaning or matter.
The New York City liberal bubble is almost bulletproof, and nowhere is that more evident that at a little art show in the East Village. On the top level of the townhouse, I spoke to other patrons of art, lovers of free wine and a good view. Political perspectives were assumed.
I asked people what they thought of cancel culture, Me Too, and impeachment. Two people had never heard of cancel culture. Another guy admitted he didn’t think men could be women either, but he figured it was best just not to talk about it. Regarding Me Too, the guys I talked to said they kept running back through their past to try to recall any Me Too-able misstep. Everyone, of course, hated Trump.
I ran into an editor I knew who made sure we were out of earshot by anyone else before he opened up about his feelings on the current political realm. “It’s like a video game,” he said, “it’s like space invaders for these people. It doesn’t matter what happens so long as they get the most points.”
That could be said, too, of this new iteration of the art scene. It all devolves into a game, where likes and accolades are more important and more essential than anything the art conveys or has to say, than any feeling it elicits in viewers. It’s hard to say, but maybe it was always this way, and it was just more fun when I was inside the bubble.