Fillip 4 — Fall 2006

Inside Out
Caroline Busta

A half-century after Yves Klein emptied the gallery’s interior1 and decades after Robert Barry opened three shows by closing their place of exhibition,2 the commercial gallery might now be the most interesting and sincere space for arts discourse. In March of this past year, filmmaker and founding member of Thread Waxing Space,3 Miguel Abreu opened a gallery on the Lower East Side. For the inaugural show, Abreu juxtaposed two rarely screened films by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet with a new series of paintings by Blake Rayne. Like the handful of neighbouring art spaces, Miguel Abreu Gallery is commercial. Unlike the majority of art-related commerce in New York City, it functions foremost for the enrichment of its affiliated artists, curators, critics, and friends.

Historically, not-for-profit venues have made possible some of our most vital works of art. However, as arts funding increasingly emphasizes civic welfare over artistic autonomy, and as the resources used to establish and sustain such funding are often the product of the same capitalist practice against which much art positions itself, a small tide of critically engaged art galleries in New York have established themselves explicitly for profit. A block from Miguel Abreu Gallery, New York’s Orchard Gallery is another case in point. Functioning as a “cooperatively organized exhibition and event space,”4 in another era, Orchard might have opted to operate not-for-profit. However, given the opacity of, and limitations posed by non-profit funding, Orchard’s twelve directors have chosen to run their gallery commercially, explaining “it was a more realistic and honest option than affecting to transcend the market.”5

In a comment published in Artforum last September, Andrea Fraser wrote, “Representations of the ‘art world’ as wholly distinct from the ‘real world,’ like representations of the ‘institution’ as discrete and separate from ‘us’ ... maintain an imaginary distance between the social and economic interests we invest in.” We might now ask what agency there is today in operating from outside of the gallery? Or, given the fading ideological gap between the institution and its opposing avant-garde; between the art world and the autonomous art object—whether the idea of “outside” is, any longer, even a productive concept.

In this same article, Fraser retired the term she is credited with coining,6 going on to say that we (the artists, dealers, curators, viewers, critics, et cetera) are the institution. It’s inside of us. And as we can’t get outside of ourselves “[i]t’s a question of what kind of institution we are, what kind of values we institutionalize, what forms of practice we reward, and what kinds of rewards we aspire to.”7 Yet, since Fraser’s article was published, Chelsea’s plenum of mediocrity has grown no less underwhelming, while the curatorial motivations of several New York museums have not ceased to dishearten. How then can the elements within an institutional body best be rearranged to support the qualities that compelled us to critique the institution in the first place?

This was on my mind while visiting a show of Hans Bellmer on view at Miguel Abreu Gallery last June. Arriving at the entrance, there was no signage or frosted glass on the façade. Simple shelving, visible from the street and holding a collection of thumbed-through exhibition catalogues and texts by various French post-structuralists not only distinguished the storefront from its adjacent establishments, but from most galleries west of Allen Street. Inside, a grid of square floor tiles brought my vision into focus on the thirty small frames containing drawings, photographs, and engravings by Hans Bellmer lining the side and far walls.

Bellmer’s images are delicate—at times so precise that certain lines seem to be an extension of mechanical type. Although, in contrast to typography’s linearly organized stream of thought, where all narrative progresses unidirectionally across the page, Bellmer’s bodies gracefully contort to the point of dissolution. Bellmer referred to his drawings as “anatomical anagrams.”8 And indeed, like a play on words, he transposes faces onto phalluses, stretching human arms to become the legs of tables. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari suggest a similar model: in the making of a “Body without Organs” they ask, “[i]s it really so sad and dangerous to be fed up with seeing with your eyes, breathing with your lungs, swallowing with your mouth, talking with your tongue, thinking with your brain, having an anus and larynx, head, and legs? Why not walk on your head, sing with your sinuses, see through your skin, breath with your belly?”9 While maintaining their sense of corporality, the elements of Bellmer’s figures are rearranged, distended, and exchanged—bodies without organs, reordered according to the demands of desire. For Bellmer, the lines we collectively accept as describing our human form are a generalized fiction. To abide by them is to close off complexities—other available possibilities we might want to call on should the conditions of use change. The drawings function as fantasy. They are an exploration in the ways in which a body might reorganize itself once liberated from its conditioned consciousness. Or as Abreu phrased it, they effectively describe, “the point at which the social body falls apart expressing its true desires.”

The Bulgarian poet Nora Mitrani (also Bellmer’s muse) writes, “Bellmer looks forward to a time when the liberated imagination will rediscover its physical imaginings and destroy the contradiction between the interior and the exterior.”100 It is pointless to establish where Bellmer’s figures begin and where their surrounding environments end. The first drawing in the show is an image of a girl peering into herself as she pulls back the bricked exterior of her middle body.111 The skin of her thighs is transparent revealing the femur and an imagined concentration of nerves and muscle tissue, and it compelled me to mentally retrace my steps. Approaching Miguel Abreu Gallery from the street, I could see to the rear of the space. Visible from the exterior, accessible from the interior, the gallery’s library created a membrane at their point of intersection, revealing from the outside, the intellectual core of what takes place within, a striking transparency of the gallery’s structure appeared to mirror Bellmer’s bodies.

In Fraser’s argument, like Bellmer’s figures, a discrete outside does not exist. Our bodies constitute the institution and there is, therefore, no objective position from which to critique it. Instead, we are called to pull back the false bricked exterior and question, “what kind of values we institutionalize” and “what forms of practice we reward,” rearranging the extremities and orifices to best support our potential answers. Miguel Abreu Gallery may be structurally homologous to a Bellmerian figure, but perhaps of greater importance are the values it aims to institutionalize and forms of practice it rewards. Take the gallery’s inaugural show. Although both are invested in the problem of staging representation, the work of Straub/Huillet and Blake Rayne appeared more dissimilar than alike. For Abreu, however, it was precisely this gap between the two bodies of work. It is the topographical relief created by their juxtaposition that generated the motivation for discussion. Rather than create a stylistic survey or thematic grouping, Abreu presented a dissonance and invited a “small group of artists, critics, curators, and friends”(read footnote)2 along with any interested passersby to respond. If, in the 1990s, “relational” artists had to carve out a social space within the institution, contriving circumstances that would engender community, the activity of Miguel Abreu Gallery is predicated explicitly on a critical dialogue with the community already at hand.

Abreu operates not from a place of profitability, but out of admiration for the artists and thinkers he engages. Primarily, he runs his enterprise with a belief that, “art, structurally, is not for sale.” Ironically, in this hypertrophic moment of the art market, it may be just this attitude that sells best. If, in the windows of Abreu’s gallery, books stand in for frosted glass, we might consider whether there is not a market for intelligence—or at least the appearance of it. Certainly the cost and proliferation of higher art-related degrees would support this line of thinking.

By allowing them to “see through their skin” and “breath through their bellies,” Bellmer liberated his figures from habitual patterns of sensation to strive for more satisfying alternatives. Whether or not Abreu’s program is the result of an inflated market, perhaps by working with the art world’s current excess to reorder the priorities of his own commercial space, Abreu is tempting our collective institutional body with precisely what it desires.

  1. On April 28th, 1958 at Galerie Iris Clert, Yves Klein opened The Specialization of Sensibility in the Raw Material State into Stabilized Pictorial Sensibility (The Void) wherein he obscured the gallery’s primary entrance and removed all contents of the space save an empty vitrine painted white.
  2. See Robert Barry, “Gallery Closing, Amsterdam, Art and Project,” Bulletin #17 (December 17 to 31) in Ursula Meyer, ed., Conceptual Art (New York: Dutton, 1972), 41.
  3. Thread Waxing Space (1992-2001), a non-profit alternative art centre in Soho.
  4. From Orchard’s mission statement, August 2006.
  5. For an extended discussion of Orchard, see Melanie Gilligan, “Kollektive Erhebung. Über das Projekt ‘Orchard’ in New York,” Texte zur Kunst (2005): 59.
  6. Andrea Fraser first published the term “institutional critique” in her 1985 essay on Louise Lawler printed in Art in America titled “In and Out of Place.” Citing Michael Asher, Marcel Broodthaers, Daniel Buren, and Hans Haacke, Fraser wrote that “while very different, all these artists engage(d) in institutional critique.” This quote is reprinted by Fraser in Artforum (Sept 2005): 279.
  7. Ibid., 283.
  8. Constantin Jelenski traces this reference to Hans Bellmer’s L’Anatomie de l’Image in his introduction to The Drawings of Hans Bellmer, ed. Alex Grall, (London: St. Martins, 1972), unpaginated.
  9. Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari, “How do you make yourself a Body without Organs?,” in A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: U. Minnesota Press, 1987), 150–1.
  10. From Mitrani’s unfinished writings on Hans Bellmer, Rose au coeur violet.
  11. The drawing is titled “Rose ou verte la nuit.” A cursory Google search suggests that, a shortened version, “rose la nuit” is a phrase containing the 10 letters most often used in the French language.
  12. In Miguel Abreu’s letter to Straub/Huillet collaborator and scholar Barton Byg, Abreu identified the gallery’s community as “as small group of artists, curators, critics, and friends who are beginning to operate and show their work in the area…” This correspondence doubled as the press release for the gallery’s inaugural show.


About the Author

Caroline Busta is an art historian and critic living and working in Brooklyn, New York.

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