Art Scene Report: Amalia Ulman's "Jenny's"
Jenny's at Jennys, Instagram DMs, and the artistic value of friendships
Hundreds of black-clad hipsters on Saturday funneled in and out of Jenny’s, a nondescript upstairs gallery near Doyer street, the little Chinatown alleyway that supports a gaggle of delish bone broth soups and a nutritionist-certified portion of nightclubs, to be on the scene for Amalia Ulman’s exhibition opening at Jenny’s, a show aptly named: Jenny’s.
The tautology of Ms. Ulman’s title fits. The objects in the exhibition are hanging snugly, three kinked rows of hand-sketched caricatures reminiscent of a Guess Who? board. The caricatures display none other than Ms. Ulman’s friends and colleagues: a cross-section of art, style and culture insiders who stand in for the larger culture-making machine of New York City. If art can only point to something, referring but not embodying, these caricatures point to the living, breathing subjects of the show, who could be found either taking selfies next to their own portraits or lingering outside the gallery smoking and glancing periodically beyond their immediate groupings.
The degree to which you’ll enjoy the show depends on your familiarity with this clique of people and whether you recognize the faces on display. If you know, say, at least three of them, then you’re likely among the scene enough to find this exhibition irresistible. Barring that you probably won’t go to this show, and the artists involved probably couldn’t care less.
This is unapologetic insider-art, winking for effect, and Amalia Ulman does it as well as anyone alive. The show efficiently magnifies the rules of the downtown avant-garde. It makes no allusions to painting or sculpture, antiquated categorizations which nevertheless provide massively profitable scaffolding for auction sales and, importantly, constrain the imagination of the public when asked to conjure an idea of what “art is”. In fact, one could even imagine Jenny’s at Jenny’s cleaving the art world in two. On one side of the butcher’s knife are those living in the world of pictures, palettes, thickness, light, materials; on the other are those living in the world of cigarettes, posting, and niche internet microcelebrity podcasters. Most people in the second world had to spend significant time and energy navigating the first before realizing that the state-of-the-art is a speakeasy in the back.
When you go to an art opening, you’re likely to notice that few people seem to be looking at the art! This is no accident of circumstance. But when I first moved to New York (I didn’t study art as an undergraduate or get an MFA) it came as a shock. I had actually believed, like a dingus!, that contemporary art was about art. It’s patently not. It’s a stage show about red curtains—art is about politics, booze, sex, capital, with a splash of good humor and aesthetics thrown in. Over time I’ve found this suitable enough as I also tend to enjoy sex, capital, politics and booze.
Ms. Ulman’s central casting of art-influencers, whose primal need for recognition fuel perpetual expression, recalls a tidbit of advice I got in a DM which I’ll never forget: “want to become a famous memer? Make memes of your most clouted followers so they’ll repost out of pure narcissism.”
Ms. Ulman makes art to this adage. She has transformed herself from art student to conceptual artist to actor to art-influencer to MC; the deeper to take the magical dream. As an artist, I sometimes feel frustrated by this tautology (to become a successful artist, one must be a successful artist); where one’s ability to perform and act as an caricatured version of oneself, especially online, become essential. Then again, success in many fields comes down to who you know…
The morning after the show, Dasha Nekrosova reposted an image of her portrait, cheeks puffy and lips pouty. If her one-hundred and twenty-eight-thousand followers didn’t know who Amalia Ulman was before, then they do now.