Collecting Narratives: Visiting Lower East Side Galleries and the New Museum

Collecting Narratives: Visiting Lower East Side Galleries and the New Museum

This week’s trip led us to the Lower East side for gallery hopping, and culminated in a visit to the New Museum for its recent retrospective on conceptual artist Hans Haacke.

We prefaced our first gallery visit with a discussion regarding the current state of Lower East side galleries, and how migration to Tribeca is slow pushing out smaller galleries from the area. The galleries were noticeably different from that which we saw in the Upper East side, and were somewhat larger in size, something we were told was the result of compensation to keep up with higher-tier galleries.

View of gallery entrance.

The art inside however, was just as fulfilling as Upper East side galleries, if not more. We began with the Rachel Uffner Gallery and Joanne Greenbaum’s exhibit, i’m doing my face in magic marker. Recently recognized for her use of very diverse mediums as painting materials, Greenbaum’s work was beautiful to say the least. Comprised of eclectic forms frozen in smooth glass, none of her works had a standard size or shape. One work, an untitled pane that explodes with a saturated orange color and jagged lines of white, captivated me where I stood. They make me think of a modern day millefiori, a medieval glass working technique that made patterns and designs by welding together different types of glass. Greenbaum’s handling of color is amazing, and treats the eyes with ecstatic jolts of energy that contrast the materials almost frozen appearance.

Joanne Greenbaum, Untitled work from “i’m doing my face in magic marker.” 2019.

Greenbaum’s paintings were lovely as well, and enjoyed their own larger gallery space past the main entrance. When looking at her larger works, it becomes quite clear her feat of translating her painting techniques into glasswork. The colors are just as vibrant, especially the brilliant neon ones produced by a pigment known as ‘flashe.’ I would contest that the only thing that truly separates her paintings and her glassworks are texture. Otherwise, her style is consistent. The gallery upstairs in the Uffner gallery was intriguing as well, with an anxiety inducing air of conspiracy and a salon chair outfitted with several phone attachments that looked not unlike a mind-control contraption. I did not find it as compelling visually as Greenbaum’s exhibit, but thematically I was extremely fascinated.

Chen Fei, Untitled work from “Reunion,” 2019.
Detail, Chen Fei, “Reunion,” 2019.

Chen Fei’s Reunion exhibit at Perrofin was incredible, as is Fei’s talent. His work exists as a blend of realism and graphic art, with such attention to detail and texture that one would almost want to reach out and touch. His larger still-lifes are some of the most beautiful paintings I have seen, and include little jokes and subtle whimsical additions that were enjoyable to find. Thematically, his work is packed full of reference to art history, which he recontextualizes and appropriates to tell a larger narrative. Western style banquets scenes are filled with traditional Chinese dishes and delicacies, while other food-based arrangements contain snacks and drinks with further cultural connotation. Fei repurposes the Western art historical canon to tell a narrative that would otherwise not be portrayed, and has not previously been portrayed, in such a style. His portraits and figure-based works remind me a lot of Kehinde Wiley’s works, mainly because of the appropriation of western painting tropes, the graphic rendering of the figure, and the extravagantly patterned backgrounds.


Holly Coulis, “Flame and Fluted Vase,” 2019.

The other galleries we visited were just as titillating, especially those of Holly Coulis with her geometric abstractions of fruit bowls, and Jerry Thomas’ metal balloon shapes based on the chemical reactions for dopamine. One particular exhibition, that of Saskia Noor Imhoff at the GRIMM gallery, ended up being a favorite of mine. Arranged as an interactive experience, Imhoff’s work required visitors to go down a staircase lit by a saturated magenta light, which caused a color burn of green on one’s vision once they left the staircase. It drew a synesthetic reaction from me as I travelled down, my pulse quickening and a warmth gathering in my chest from how vibrant and warm the light seemed. Inside the downstairs space, the floor was covered in about three inches of salt, with several other works situated snugly in it. It was certainly a surreal experience to walk into. Yet I grew to like the transient nature of the salt, and how all the old footprints made by past visitors were swept away by the new. And the lack of context for the space made it all the better. Being thrown into such a conceptual space without explanation allowed me to create my own narrative for what it all meant, an intention than Imhoff admitted in the gallery’s press release.


Saskia Noor van Imhoff, “#+40.01,” 2019. LED light strips.

Our final destination was perhaps the highlight of my entire day. The Hans Haacke retrospective at the New Museum now contends for my favorite experience during New York semester, and with good reason, I had not really heard of Haacke before, only really getting my knowledge of him from the research we did for class. But upon seeing his work, I now want to know all that I can about him. A pioneer of kinetic art, environmental art, and institutional critique, as the wall placard read, Haacke’s work required thorough contemplation.

Re-installation of original work. “Hans Haacke: All Connected,” 2019.

It was heavily political as well as critical, but in a simultaneously subtle and outspoken way. Works such as A Breed Apart and State of the Union seemed so mundane at first, but packed a powerful punch once you looked closer. A Breed Apart’s combination of vehicle advertisements with imagery of the war crimes those vehicles assisted and State of the Union’s never-ending piles of printed news bulletins and torn American flag felt so relevant, and portrayed a dark American history that institutions like museums helped to facilitate. That was a good portion of Haacke’s critique, and it reminded me greatly of the film Triple Chaser from the Whitney Biennial, which confronted the Whitney’s affiliations with the production of chemical warfare. I found myself very enraptured with Haacke’s art, even if it was more conceptual than I am used to. I like political art, and especially when it’s done subversively. Confrontational, straightforward political art is powerful, I do not deny this. But there is something about inconspicuous critique against the institution that I find all the more enticing, perhaps because of the amount of creativity needed to make such a reality.

Hans Haacke, “State of the Union,” 2019.

There were so many different narratives packed into the span of a three-hour trip, each one as distinct and interesting as the last. Though I enjoy the idea of art-for-art’s-sake, seeing the capability of artists to create these intricate contexts is something I will never get tired of.

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