a review of Nick DeMarco, PplSft and drinking art at Important Projects

By Zoe Brezsny

©Important Projects
I’ve been to many art openings, but this was the first time I’ve had to drive to the suburbs and walk past a tricycle and plastic children’s toys to get to the gallery. I was going to Important Projects, an artist cooperative run by Jason Benson, Joel Dean, and Sean Buckelew out of a house in Oakland’s Rockridge neighborhood. I ambled down a leafy tree-lined street until all of a sudden: I was there. Two men who looked like boys sipped cocktails on the porch, their hair identically parted and slicked back, their clothes in the style of Mexican bullfighters.

My general experience of conceptual art in the Bay Area goes as follows: enter a gallery, be surveyed and then ignored by a crowd of sleekly dressed hipsters, take in the art with an acute awareness of my improper gallery attire and etiquette—and then run.

Naturally, I expected the usual drill to unfold at Important Projects. I steeled myself for the icy-eyed stares and lofty postmodern art talk spoken out of blue-lipsticked mouths. But instead I was confronted by a shocking scene: loose-limbed, happy people, gesticulating wildly and yelling across the gallery, greeting me like an old friend.

The exhibition space was on the second floor. It consisted of a large room, a communal area for people to socialize, and two small rooms, Gallery I and II. Hardwood floors, starkly painted white walls and fluorescents created a sterile, minimal environment that was in sharp contrast to the warmly lit coziness of the house’s lower level.

I was formally greeted. One of the co-founders and curators of Important Projects, Joel Dean, waved a flask of cotton-candy-colored liquid in my direction from Gallery II as he wavered back and forth, obviously a little tipsy. I didn’t know whether to be alarmed or entertained.

It looked like a drunken hipster frat party instead of a gauntlet of all-knowing judges. But then I remembered: the gift of free alcohol was a central element of one of the exhibits. Gallery II was featuring “Cocktails 3,” which invited art patrons to pour themselves as many free drinks as they wanted, even to the point of getting totally plastered. The description of the exhibit from the event page read: “‘Cocktails 3’ will consist of an undecided quantity of vessels filled with undisclosed, artist-selected liquids. Using the equipment provided, patrons may create personalized cocktails.”

Suddenly Joel was by my side, giving me a brief history of the exhibit. “‘Cocktails’ originally premiered in New York, created by the artist group PplSft,” he said with a smile. “You can talk to them tonight if you’d like. Their liquids are guaranteed food-safe and intoxicating.” It was an interesting explanation, but when I turned to ask a question, he was gone, leaving me to stare uneasily at the exhibit on my own, drink in hand.

It could be scary
©Important Projects
Two huge plastic buckets dominated the gallery. One contained water and the other lemonade. Various smaller containers were arranged on a table, each one filled with a brightly colored liquid. Some of them looked disturbingly like Drano bottles with their labels peeled off. They had been recast as “whiskey,” “orange soda,” “vodka,” and so on; the options were plentiful. Men and women continuously returned here to ladle more of their own artistic alcoholic creations into the plastic flasks provided. As if by magic, the uncomfortable ambiance of art shows was lifted, the stiff pretensions gone. Here was art, life, and digestion fused together. I couldn’t help but think this could result in disaster.

After a while I drifted into Gallery I, which was showing ”As Is,” the work of Nick DeMarco, an artist and designer based in Brooklyn, NY. I wasn’t surprised to find that people were studying it without the overly serious faces and pursed mouths that I am so used to seeing at exhibitions. Instead, eager explorers were crouched low on the ground to see the art from different angles. They were pressing their faces up close to the pieces on the wall. Or maybe they were just drunk.

The only clue given to me about Demarco’s work was the description at the entrance to the gallery. It read, “Buy $3 bottle of water. Give man $1.75, tell him to keep the change. Moonwalk out while flashing a peace sign, slip on a banana peel and die.”

 “Is that supposed to look like a New Yorker cartoon?” a young man slurred, wearing a gaudy gold chain necklace and 90’s garb. He was gazing at a primitive drawing of a person with a long serpentine neck, arms folded and slumped against a sketch of a wall. The little figure laughed at us attempting to make meaning out of him and his elongated neck.

One of DeMarco’s pieces was a digital print that depicted a soda bottle whose label indicated it was a can of paint: “Premium Ceiling Flat.” Upon closer observation, I realized that there was a paint can inside the plastic soda bottle; it was so seamlessly photoshopped in that it looked like it was just the label. The wavy edges of the print itself were most likely done to enhance the optical illusion. This made me think of the photoshopped nature of the whole event, let alone the art hanging on the walls. Was I really experiencing this or was it all just a clever act?
Everything's an Illusion
Exhibition Photo: ©Zoe Brezsny
Demarco also had a sculptural installation. A plastic drink cup was filled with fake ice that looked incredibly real. The garnish on top wasn’t a slice of lime or lemon, but rather a shiny CDR disc perfectly cut to hug the plastic cup’s rim. A cocked straw emerged, ready to be drunk from.

I wasn’t sure how or from where he came, but Joel Dean popped up again with a few more useful bits of information. “Apparently Nick found a man in New York who makes fake ice for a living!” he said, eyeing the fake ice with admiration. “Isn’t it great?” Before I could reply, he vanished like some sort of postmodern apparition. Deprived of his curatorial authority, I lost confidence in my understanding of the piece.

I wish I could provide a postmodern analysis crammed with phrases like “internalized repetition” and “ideological valences” and “remapped vicissitudes.” But I’ll refrain. Instead, I’ll simply speculate that the piece was a digital mixed drink with nothing in it. It was aesthetically pleasing, a futuristic creation, and yet it was a beverage with no real apparent substance. It could possibly be a commentary on today’s reliance and obsession with technology, even as it referenced the emptiness that comes along with a culture addicted to machines. Demarco’s drink was beautiful to look at but there was only fake ice inside. No actual drink graced the plastic cup.

As I turned away from this cold work of beauty and prepared to move on, Joel Dean was there again, as if he had never left my side. I have met him on numerous occasions and have always found him professional, gracious, and reserved, but by this time in the evening he had downed a good deal of art. Wobbling on his feet, he grabbed hold of the arm of his girlfriend, artist Bailey Hikawa, to avoid knocking into one of Demarco’s pieces.

His mood was quite cheerful though. He confided in me that this was the biggest turnout Important Projects had ever seen. It was true. The main room was flooded with jubilant hipsters, rubbing shoulders and spilling drinks. Bailey asked the question that I too was thinking: Does alcohol make it more possible for people to enjoy art? The prospect of cheap, hard liquor and sugary sweet juices in buckets, with no measurements to track your intake, was a successful if not dangerous lure.

Still, I kept on wondering if this was all a put-on for art, as if art were a person who enjoyed a good joke. People were acknowledging their zonked state and even making comments about how inappropriate they were acting for a gallery setting. Was this postmodern drunkenness? Bailey told me that the curators had decided to leave Gallery II completely untouched. The ruined floor, covered with sticky pools of Coke, vermouth, and vodka, would become the second stage of “Cocktails 3.” When Joel Dean suddenly announced, “the curator is wasted,” I understood that he was just another facet of the conceptual piece. His erratic behavior only furthered my appreciation of the evening? The performance? The art?

“Cocktails 3” could be a commentary on our own awkwardness and pretensions, and raise questions about society’s dependence on alcohol to alleviate those problems. It could also be just an excuse for a bunch of twenty-something-year-olds to get hammered. As I heard the cry of “We’re all going to the White Horse bar,” I decided to slip out before the evening turned sour.

Later I found out the contemporary art piece had ended with a trip to the emergency room. A nearly-blacked-out Joel Dean had grabbed a knife by the blade and cut his hand badly. I imagined him returning home from the ER and surveying the aftermath of the event in the daylight. Perhaps it was all an act; perhaps the curator was fooling his audience. Maybe he got drunk with self-aware assuredness to better become one with the art of the night. Will we ever know the truth? Sometimes, though, life becomes larger than art and you’re left with a bandaged hand and a gallery filled with empty Drano bottles.
The beginning of the end?
Exhibition Photo: ©Zoe Brezsny
©Zoe Brezsny & CCA Arts Review

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