ABC No Rio Dinero: The Story of a Lower East Side Art Gallery
Edited by Alan Moore and Marc Miller
New York: ABC No Rio with Collaborative Projects, 1985
The art world in the 1980s witnessed a revival of painting and sculpture of which ABC No Rio proved to be an early indicator. Already in its second year the gallery hosted a steady stream of artist-organized theme exhibitions open to anyone who wanted to participate. Although new media proliferated during this period, for the most part these shows were dominated by painters and sculptors and provided a supportive setting for young artists working in traditional modes to learn and collaborate. Exemplary exhibits included the "Island Show" (organized by sculptor Becky Howland) and the "Absurdities Show" (organized by painter Bobby G). Both shows were preceded by "painting parties" for the artists to make works appropriate for the theme of the exhibition. For the "Island Show" they completely transformed the space by creating a tropical mood. On the stage of the "Island Show" the main attraction was the debut of the No Rio Cardboard Band with an all-star artist lineup playing self-made cardboard instruments. Thumbing through the No Rio book confirms that behind its grungy exterior, the gallery was bursting with young talent on the brink of maturity. Becky Howland, Bobby G, Christy Rupp, Kiki Smith, Walter Robinson, Judy Rifka, Richard Mock, Jane Dickson, Tom Otterness, and Cara Perlman were some of the No Rio artists who showed extensively in the 1980s and beyond.
The Island Show (featuring the Ice Jungle) was organized in a light-hearted spirit by Rebecca Howland. The show's theme was based on the shared insularity of Manhattan, Puerto Rico, and the Dominican Republic; the concept was worked out in bright-colored decor and music evoking the tropics in the dead of a hard winter. (Although Howland experimented with joined copper tubing conducting water for icicles, the Ice Jungle in the background did not really materialize; the true "ice jungles" of the Lower East Side were to be found inside many apartments that winter as plumbing pipes burst throughout the tenement neighborhood.)
The Island Show saw the flourishing of several concurrent strains of collaborative activity undertaken by No Rio's artists: the Cave Girls film group, organized by childhood friends Ellen Cooper and Kiki Smith, exhibited the recently completed film; videotapes from the artists' cable television series Potato Wolf (produced that season by Bobby G) were played; numerous island images were generated at a "painting party" held before the show; and the Cardboard Air Band gave its premiere performance, dressed in painted tuxedoes salvaged from a fire-gutted bridal shop across the street.
The show represented the efflorescence of the artists' almost naive attempt to come to terms with the Lower East Side by styling themselves after indigenous Caribbean-derived cultural idioms.
The ABC No Rio Cardboard Air Band was based on the high school talent show gimmick of lip-synching pre-recorded music. The band performed a number of songs at the Island Show written by its members, including a sardonic ballad about colonization. Dressed in hand-painted tuxedoes, playing cardboard "instruments" vaguely appropriate to the pirated instrumentals,, and standing in front of painted backdrops, the style of presentation had its roots in the cable TV show Potato Wolf, a half-hour live slot sustained by hectic impromptu performances.
The fun of no-frills rehearsal-free performance and enthusiastic audiences brought the band to the stage again during Bobby G's Absurdities Show at No Rio, at the Ballgown Show organized by Sophie Vieille at the Mudd Club nightspot, and at the Island of Negative Utopia evening at the Kitchen in 1983. Matthew Geller produced a "music video" of the cardboard Band a year earlier. Always impromptu, the Cardboard Band has not performed recently, although the devices and approaches of what Ellen Cooper called "cardboard consciousness" continue to find an outlet in the work of several artists.
By Alan Moore
Four black chauffeured limousines
Will carry us to the arrangements
Five black chauffeured limousines
Will bring the mourners home from the war
Four blue and white cop cars full of police
Will pull up outside our place and get their
The employees of our company are painting pictures
and writing songs
As the slugs ricochet off the wall
Someone makes a telephone call
And General Haig orders the troops into the field
In the suburbs they have planted lawns with crabgrass
And the limo drivers are all out on strike
Enjoying the sun
They are enjoying the sun
She finally sees that there is nothing more to be gained
By refusing to tell the cops and the DA's men exactly
what they want to know
My boss has bought a house in the country, a machine
gun and a lot of gold
He invited me to spend the weekend with him
and his charming family
And even though out there it should be a big group
They are tearing up the street in front of my house
so I think I might go
chorus: Four black limousines
I'll be taking the bus
chorus: Pull into the driveway
From Penn Central at noon
chorus: Four black limousines
Board a plane at the airport
They've been paid for with cash
By a man in Miami
Four black bulletproof Chrysler limousines
Fly high in the sky
Four black bulletproof Chrysler limousines
Fly high in the sky
By Bobby G
I'm out to mug you
I'm going to take your money
You have a job
I can't even read
I'll never be an executive in a multinational corporation
But I can con your ass
I'm moving down the street
Here come a guy
He looks like he has money
He doesn't even see me
Hey! Give me your money!
Kick him in the gut
Smash him in the face
Get his money and run
I've got it now
Mugged in the night
I wish that the muggers had money
They wouldn't be so uptight
They'd probably think this song was funny
I'm on the street once more
It is so dark and scary
Along comes this guy
His neck is awful hairy
Why is it, why
And who can it be
That grabs me and smashes my face?
He takes all my money
It's not very funny
This is a bad place
Absurdities was organized by Bobby G, No Rio's live-in caretaker and one of the organizers of the Real Estates Show. Opening April 1, April Fool's Day and G's birthday, the show was intended to emphasize painting, to show, as G said, that "No Rio was putting out some important work."
Sculptor Dick Miller's piece cantankerously intimated that "art at No Rio" was the primary absurdity, as he painted those words on a sheet of plastic festooned with wooden knobs and price tags. For other artists, the spirit of the practical joke became a cover for pointing up political ironies; in Bobby G's words, "Absurdity almost equals inequity -- racism, classism, repression, bureaucracy."
As in the Island Show, a number of the pieces exhibited were produced at a "painting party" several artists held before the opening. Performances, organized with William Scott, the "junior director" of Fashion/Moda, featured the "One Man Hubcap Band," a street performer with a bizarre noisemaker built upon a shopping cart. Scott's "Kinko the Clown" act was abetted by Alan Moore's trapdoor stage illusion of dis-and reappearance, and music by two bands.
Tom Warren's Portrait Show was one of the clearest examples of an interactive exhibitions at No Rio. Warren discovered a cache of old photographs in the building next door to no Rio, left behind by the proprietor's of Gus' Photo Studio, which had served the portrait needs of the local Jews and Hispanics since the early part of the century. Photographer Warren turned Bo Rio into a contemporary update of this defunct neighborhood institution, selling instant 4x5 black-and-white prints at a dollar apiece to all comers. Hundreds of local residents took advantage of the bargain, and Warren retained the negatives of the images he shot with his view camera. Enlarged, these photos formed half of the Portrait Show. These portraits, posed for by people who wanted to look good, show the enduring aspect of an Hispanic neighborhood often overlooked by those focussing on slum realities.
Warren went on to set up his traveling photo studio at other locations, including Fashion/Moda in the South Bronx, where he photographed the indigenous Black and Latin community, and at a Soho gallery where he focussed on artists. This latter exhibition moved Richard Armijo, painter, poet and sometime critic, to add the antagonistic postscript to his initially favorable review of the Portrait Show.
By Richard Armijo, East Village Eye, 1981
It beats pop radio. It's better than strapping an enemy. The portrait show that Tom Warren developed at ABC No Rio suggests that an equivalency to broken English exists in the realm of visual communication. Broken English communicates despite the breakdown of a much-hallowed syntax. And for a moment let's pretend that a portrait of a Nuyorican is equal in meaning to the latest Mary Boone [Gallery] fixation. Which is to say that the image of a Puerto Rican is valuable. It is and no, again like broken English.
...Broken English and broken aesthetic have much in common. Somebody speaks then some people respond. Mostly the response to the portraiture was exceedingly positive. But why? I mean, I was certainly flattered to see a picture of myself up there. And I imagine so too were the other experimentalists. Pay a buck and see yourself. Come to the opening and mingle.
If only for a moment we're up there with them. And we think it feels great. They are at their best and so are we. But, like a pause, our fulfillment is short-lived. I think we are holding our breath. We are waiting for something to happen and nobody knows just what that will be, not them and not us. So we are left with the pictures...
By R.R. Armijo, 1982
There will always be something seductive about portraiture. We enjoy seeing ourselves contextualized in snapshots, family albums, or among our peers as was the case at Tom Warren's show of portraits at ABC No Rio, and is now the case in a similar show at Semaphore Gallery. The distance between Rivington Street and West Broadway begs some questions. Nuyoricans are not wont to patronize Soho-culture signs say stay away. Nuyoricans do not usually participate in the dynamics of No Rio, and I've heard there is an open door policy-why is this the case? The Portrait Show successfully provided a service to the community, good portraits at low prices, but beyond that what?
In retrospect, I feel that it was appropriate that I linked Tom 's portraits of Puerto Ricans to Mary Boone, although as it turned out, Semaphore picked up on the imagery. It's still West Broadway. Why do anonymous images of the so-called underclass elicit our interest and appreciation, even monetary patronage, while the people themselves are confined to ghettos, encouraged to concentrate in projects, restricted to mostly blue collar jobs, their intelligentsia too late acknowledged, and their daily movements monitored by cops, sociologists, liberals and now artists?
I submit that we are comfortable with Mr. Warren's photographs because the camera has done what our own society has done; namely, taken subjects, put them in straitjackets, silenced them, and dehumanized and objectified them. When we confront our own pictures next to theirs, it is easy to suppose that an equivalency exists. And in a sense it does-it is that fictive equivalency artists like to pretend exists between themselves and the disenfranchised. I also wonder how we, who are white and privileged, should feel if suddenly a third world had the means at its disposal to hunt us down, observe our daily rituals in minute detail, photograph us and act as if nothing political had happened. (I am aware of the irony in the last sentence since I myself am Hispanic.) One criticism is that Tom has consistently chosen to avert the obvious: Aw, shucks, folks, these is just plain and simple portraits, just like the ones they used to take in third grade. The means by which the portraits are taken are in fact similar to that one-up documentation, but that is where the similarity ends.
If I seem less neutral than a year ago it is because since then a lot of shit has come down from the big boys. What I considered a year ago to be something akin to visual Spanglish, I now perceive as exploitative. What I previously credited as broken aesthetic I now am inclined to call broken promises. And if I started out thinking about defacing our language but still forcing it to retain meaning, I wound up realizing that our language maintains the function of exploitation, and the only thing being defaced are lives.
The Crime Show, organized by John Spencer, had the biggest crowd of any opening, perhaps an indication of the relevance of the theme. For years, the economy of the Lower East Side was to a great extent based upon organized crime -- the sale of drugs, and illicit industry involving entire families in its wide range of tasks. Crime of all kinds in the neighborhood remains high. One artist experienced this first-hand on her way home from an opening when she was mugged in the subway. It is probably safe to say that every artist on the Lower East Side knows someone who has been mugged or robbed. Household burglaries are endemic, as the heavy gates on neighborhood windows testify.
Artists' depictions of crime in the show included graffiti, corporate rip-offs and landlord greed as well as the more conventional burglary, rape and murder. Spencer said that he was seeking to engage the youth of the neighborhood with the Crime Show, and indeed, a number of kids did drawings for the show on the theme. A woman living in the building put in a startling picture based on her childhood experience of witnessing the murder of her sister by a lover.
My own involvement with ABC No Rio began with "Unforgettable Moments," an exhibition organized by Bettie Ringma and myself that featured drawings done by "real life people" depicting their most intense experiences. Bettie and I had originally collected these drawings for a magazine article but we were persuaded by Alan Moore to mount them as an exhibition at No Rio. Arranging the three-week exhibition required attending one of No Rio's open Monday night meetings where proposals were made and voted on democratically. Bettie and I had to hang the show, publicize it and pay all the costs. The place was a mess but its run-down ambiance complemented the emotional rawness of the drawings and the show attracted a surprising amount of attention. Lucy Lippard's review in the Village Voice raised interesting questions about the political implications of the show also relevant to other exhibitions at No Rio containing depictions of hash social realities. Soon after "Unforgettable Moments" closed, Alan asked me if I would collaborate with him on a book about No Rio. Following the publication of the book, I served on the No Rio board of directors, eventually resigning in 1989 articulating my concerns about the safety of the deteriorating building and the lack of funds for liability insurance.
Once this girl I was going out with died of an overdose. She had gotten off in the kitchen. I had gotten off in the bathroom because I need to be by myself to get off. When I came out she was lying on the table. She was blue. It didn't bother me because it wasn't my fault. But I kept thinking about what I could do to get the weight off of me. I ended up putting her into a phone booth and calling an ambulance. But she was dead. I tried figuring out where she had gotten her dope. I figured it must be stronger than what I had and I should get some too.
I was a drug addict and I needed money so I started pulling robberies. At one point my girlfriend was also involved. I had a pistol and she had a shotgun. We went to this gas station and held up the guy who worked at the station. It was sort of a Bonnie and Clyde scene. We did a few jobs together but then we separated.
By Lucy R. Lippard, Village Voice, 1982
Evil, or an abstracted inhuman nature, was ... the subject of Bettie Ringma's and Marc Miller's brief show at ABC No Rio called "Unforgettable Moments, drawn by real life people." In black marker on white sheets some 20 adults made very raw, childlike drawings of ghastly things they had done or that had happened to them, ranging from murder, rape, addiction, and robbery to the larger screen of Vietnam war atrocities. The tales were hideously moving. At the same time there was a certain monotony to the drawings and even to the autobiographical accounts of the events they illustrated, broken only by color photos of the victim-narrators looking incongruously pleasant and healthy.
Although watered down by a few art world inclusions, the "moments" were mostly drawn from the experiences of an underclass struggling to exorcise them and survive.
Participants were found through social agencies in the ghettoes, where such experiences become public property, unlike the bastions of middle-class privacy further downtown.
"Unforgettable Moments"... resurrects the issues I've written about in regard to white downtown artists working in the South Bronx. Where do generosity and desire overlap in this context? Where do they cancel each other out, and why?
For reasons of space I have to oversimplify, but I do want to insist that I'm raising such questions in support of and with genuine respect for the artists who are tackling them, in the interests of strengthening all our gestures toward justice for the oppressed. (I assume that is the basic motive, rather than esthetic tourism or simple sensationalism.)
On the other hand, it's necessary to ask why it's always the most romanticized and stereotyped vision of the underclass that's presented. The involuntary glorification of alcoholics and addicts, or war-torn landscapes and cool brutality ends up replicating the dominant culture's appetite for stereotypes. The focus is always on the most helpless, away from the oppressor, and nobody exists in between. The image of the victims is the same as that offered in movies like Fort Apache. I don't have the answers, but clearly it is not enough to identify with the oppressed. Lacking political analysis of the battle actually going down in these communities, art that doesn't mean to do so simply reinforces the oppression it pictures.