Marlborough’s Shades of ‘Grey’: Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe Turn the Gallery Into ‘a Parallel Universe, Where Time Is Out of Joint’

  • You walk into an art gallery on West 25th Street. It’s the Marlborough Chelsea, right? Well, yes and no. The gallery you enter is hung with paintings and collages, but it doesn’t look like Marlborough. Moving on, you find yourself in an art storage space. Then a public lavatory, then a private one, as if in somebody’s home, where you step into the bathtub, then, Alice-fashion, you pop through a hole in the wall. Which is when things start getting… odd. You have been wandering through an installation by Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe called Stray Light Grey.

    Installation art has a long history, which you could say began with Kurt Schwitters, who started his sprawling Merzbau in his living space in Hanover, Germany, around 1919 and worked on it with an ever-growing agglomeration of the found and the built—everything from scraps of paper to a bottle of his urine—for many years. He abandoned it when he escaped the Nazis, and built another in Norway. And again fled the Nazis. His first Merzbau was destroyed by Allied bombs, his second by fire, but his third, built in Britain, survives.

    Over the following decades artists who invested spaces with art oomph, infusing them with differing degrees of poetry or critique, include Ilya Kabakov in Moscow, Christo in the Rue Vincennes, Paris, Claes Oldenburg with his Manhattan Store and Ed Kienholz in Los Angeles with The Beanery and–in the parking lot of Gemini GEL–Stud Card Five.

    In recent years, installation art has developed in some surprising ways, as its possibilities—improvisational, allusive, theatrical, an everything-plus-the-kitchen-sink generosity—have appealed to artists eager to tap the power of other media, the energy of non-art situations and the availability of other ways of delivering myth and/or meaning. Hence such recent pieces as Amnesiac Shrine and The Coral Reef by the Brit, Mike Nelson; The Double Club, created by the German artist, Carsten Höller, in London’s Angel, Islington; and Tom Sachs’s Space Program Mars at the Park Avenue Armory, which I covered in these pages.

    I never saw Hello Meth Lab in the Sun, Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe and Alexandre Singh’s installation at the Ballroom in Marfa, Texas, in 2008. Nor the short-form version later curated by Nate Lowman in Miami during Art Basel Miami Beach. But it prefigured Stray Light Grey in being a physical journey through several rooms. “It was essentially three different types of social space,” Mr. Lowe told me. “A meth lab, a hippy commune and a museum in an Upper East Side townhouse. A museum of artifacts.”

    Movies like The Shining and The Conversation were referenced and rooms were salted with meticulously chosen clues, such as New Agey astrology charts, the makings of crystal meth – Sudafed, etcetera—and the leavings of what Freeman called “a ritualistic aristocratic party…a combination between Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball, Norman Mailer’s 50th birthday party and the last scene of Rosemary’s Baby.” My reaction upon finishing its handsome bottle-green catalogue was that if J. G. Ballard had decided to make art instead of writing another novel, it might have come out a bit like this. Messrs. Lowe and Freeman were okay with that.

    Stray Light Grey is set in the San San Metroplex, a supercity of…the future? Not exactly. San San was conceived by futurists Herman Kahn and Anthony Wiener in The Year 2000, a ‘60s bestseller, and it was supposed to spread from San Francisco to Santa Barbara, whereas his BosWash was supposed to stretch from…well, make a wild guess.  But 2000 has come and gone. So just when and where is San San?

    “It’s sort of a parallel universe where the time is out of joint,” said Mr. Lowe. “It’s a strange cousin or twin of our own time. But certainly reaching back to the ‘50s or a time when the governments are interested in hallucinogenic drugs as either a weapon or a truth serum or as a therapeutic device.”

    This element surfaces right away in the ‘art gallery.’  “We have actual drawings of spider webs made on drugs,” Mr. Freeman said. “They gave spiders LSD, marijuana, caffeine and various things and mapped out how the webs were formed. We’ve made these paintings that have a diagrammatic quality and some ways map out the installation.”

    The installation includes a hallway from the Kowloon Walled City (a rundown, densely populated settlement in Hong Kong that was leveled in the early 1990s), an off-track betting room, a motel hallway, Limbourg City, the Villa Stray Light, the Pirate Radio Brain Room and the Library La Chinoise. Subversively evocative ideas are tossed around as nonchalantly as by the Williams, Burroughs and Gibson (“Stray Light” is a borrowing from the latter’s Neuromancer).

    Why Limbourg City?  I noted that Googling had been unhelpful and all I could remember was a smelly cheese. “The name came from the Brian Eno song, ‘The Fat Lady of Limbourg,’” said Mr. Freeman. “It’s from his album Taking Tiger Mountain (by Strategy). That album has a high-concept narrative strain to it that was an early inspiration.”

    And why Kowloon? “Kowloon is particularly resonant,” Mr. Lowe said, “because it seems like a parallel view of urbanism. It was more or less created by its inhabitants at a certain point…having its own economy, being run by street gangs. It seemed an example of this hypertrophic urbanism that we were using for San San.”

    And the ominously banal corridors? “They are a way to ramp up or to bring you back down from a particularly hot spot. It’s a long transition. There’s usually not a lot of information.”

    The Pirate Radio Brain Room contains a particularly creepy chunk of techno. But Pirate Radio was a ‘60s thing. What is one doing in San San? “There’s the fossilization of this antiquated technology. And partly this room was inspired by Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry’s Black Ark,” Mr. Lowe said. Black Ark was a shack of a recording studio outside Kingston, Jamaica, where Perry created sounds that nobody has managed to replicate since, before he scrawled his name on every surface and burned it down. “It’s one of these personalized laboratory spaces that have such bad vibes that you’ve got to burn them down.”

    Messrs. Lowe and Freeman have invented a historical period for San San. They call it “The Portmanteau Dynasty,” which was brilliant and inventive and sadly short-lived. Its traces are to be found in the Art Deco Museum and the Library

    “We had lots of discussion about Weimar Berlin and the historical avant-garde.” Mr. Lowe said. “And also ideas of trans-sexuality and the cyborg. And the way notions of personal identity shift in relationship to the industrial world and the urban world. And it’s also set in a period where there was a backdrop of economic depression and political unrest.

    “And you could see art being politicized in a way you hadn’t seen before. You can see it as kind of a precursor to some of the countercultural strains of the 1960s. So although it’s not in any way a specific representation of that, there is certainly a silent acknowledgement of that.”

    The Art Deco museum is located near the end of the installation. “We have photographs which are relics of cabaret nightlife scenarios and other elements like that,” Mr. Lowe said. “We did a photo-shoot with a Cabaret theme. Of course, like everything else it’s perverted and made into a parallel.”

    I noted that Norman Mailer and Truman Capote had been referenced in Hello Meth Lab, but that, by and large, Celebrity Culture has gotten off pretty lightly in here—although I had spotted a PR pic of Justin Bieber.

    “Well, there’s another room in there which is kind of a retail environment, like a Mexican swap meet or a Chinese mall,” said Mr. Lowe. “And, within that, the celebrity pictures sort of become the wallpaper. In these kinds of urban spaces you are often confronted with these celebrity identities as kind of backdrops to the world.”

    As for the Library, it’s kind of a fiction. “They are one-of-a-kind books,” Mr. Freeman said.  “Our own titles, our own authors. We are creating this parallel literary universe that is created by this person.” Is it relevant that most people read on screen these days? “Yeah. We are preserving the internal surroundings of a lost era. Or a long-gone era, rather. The OTB being that, Kowloon too being that.”

    What is a receptive person who has walked through all this going to be feeling, coming out? “That’s very hard to say,” Mr. Freeman said.  “Often it’s quite different from what we feel about it. Some feel very intense emotions and are scared in certain ways. That at least was never my experience of it.”

    At the end of its run, what happens to the labrynthine installation? What will the residue be? As with Hello Meth Lab, there is art for Marlborough director Max Levai—who brought the artists to his gallery as part of his efforts to revitalize it—to sell. Though sales are somewhat less straightforward than normal art deals. “There’re paintings.’ Mr. Lowe said. “Collages… photographs… sculptures… books … and videos. All of which can be subtracted from the piece. And one can acquire a room.” Mr. Freeman added, “It can be reconstituted. And we’ll make a catalogue.”

    One thing hard to miss about Stray Light Grey is the sheer breadth and number of the references, including allusions—all of them narrative—to books, music and movies, and the 24/7 news cycle. It’s easy to the piece as an example of the art world’s increasingly gluttonous appetites. But the two artists have a disarmingly retro take on this. “Yes, there are a lot of narrative,” said Mr. Freeman. “But the narrative is a way to structure the work. So it is in some ways more useful to us than it is to other people. It gives us a framework to embellish. In a way we’ve always thought about it as a kind of exploded cinema. But I don’t think the narrative is essential to the experience. Yes, there is a reference point, a back-story, and you can delve in if you want to. But essentially we have been creating a sculptural, visceral, physical experience. Of space and matter.”