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 year 1983 saw a shift at No Rio. Although the "Erotic Psyche Show " (December 1982) was organized by artists who were part of Colab and had participated in the "Time Square Show" many of the performances that accompanied the exhibit were by artists associated with the Pyramid Club on Avenue A in the East Village. Full of energy and ideas, these performance artists were soon organizing their own events at No Rio, like the hyper-performance marathon, "Seven Days of Creation," and Kembra Pfahler's truly extreme "Extremist Show." At the heart of the transition was Allied Productions, Inc. whose core members included Jack Waters, Peter Cramer (then performing as Peter Francis), Carl George, Brad Taylor and Brian Taylor. After three momentous but exhausting years, Alan, Becky, Bobby, and the other artists who had started and still ran No Rio, were ready to pass the baton. Jack Waters and Peter Cramer became co-directors of the space In August 1983 and a new era began.
Sex came to the foreground with this show produced by a five-member collective: Eva de Carlo, Bradley Eros, Bruce Gluck, Aline Psyche Mare, and Reina Jane Sherry. The show exposed a mix of the erotic and the occult which was not necessarily intended to titillate. One aspect of the show involved the admixture of feminist issues and erotic images. These entwined concerns had made their presence felt in the 1980 Times Square Show where many artists, including Mary and Sherry, responded to the show's location in the city's sex center. The conjunction of feminist ideology and female sexuality emerged in sharper perspective in exhibitions produced by carnival knowledge group at Franklin Furnace in 1984.
The Erotic Psyche group assembled numerous objects drawn from the erotic traditions of many cultures, placing them on an altar-like table in emulation of religious display. A reproduction of the prehistoric Venus of Willendorf reposed near a homemade fetish which enclosed an aborted fetus. One wall was given over to a homeopathic prescription for abortion, drawn from the repressed lore of "witchcraft," while in the back, Eva de Carlo constructed one of her "nests," an intricate assemblage of branches, cloth, and small objects entirely enclosing the gallery's toilet.
The ceremonial and ritual aspects of the installation were echoed in an extensive series of performances, films, and multi-media presentations throughout the show. Mare and Eros continue to produce work in partnership under the name "Erotic Psyche."
By Carl George, Peter Kramer, Brad Taylor & Jack Waters
The Beginning-Carl George came up with the idea to have a show based on the theme of The Seven Days of Creation. I suggested this sounded too biblical, so we dropped the 'The" and ended up with Seven Days of Creation. We sought to incorporate as many artists and performers as possible, and as more and more people got involved, things naturally fell into place. Carl and Brad Taylor masterminded the project from beginning to end.
The Event - Day 1 - new window... frenzy... champagne... aghh, that's gorgeous... amity... eros, music... black image... scream to ecstasy... people... grapes... this is it, let's do it... what comes next?... organization to entropy... april fool and hierophant... have you seen erik?... wall of men... philly!... mother of earth... peter precarious on cross-beam... paint... patent pending... proof... spoof... politics.., princess and princesses... polyphony... pool
Day 2 - norwegians... purple... leather... people... ebb and flow... vino, red and white and white and white... how's this?... here richard, you do it... old ladies with dog... dark eyes and young girls... late, technical trouble... where are the diplomats?
Day 3 - up early... sweep, sweep, sweep... cafe con leche..wood nymph... mushrooms... seattle... psyche to eros...samoa and felipo... agony to ecstasy... high... reggae...tanya ransom... more vino... michael and meryl... hurray philly hurray steven hurray... samoa to samoa... pilot to copilot... felipo, if you grab anyone else you're going out again...stoke the fire... raise the goddess... alchemy from the west... relax and fly... moon trine mercury... moon trine mars... easter what?... satisfaction... exaltation
Day 4 - are we broke again?... are the kids coming?... candy and soda pop... uh-oh, here they come, eddie, louie-lou, manny, maria, ramon, jessie; paint, glue, masks, smiles... eddie, no more pop... out for firewood... adam purple... nedra newby... garden talk... save that potash... speculators out... slides of beauty, flowers in the war zone... warm community feel... early bed
Day 5 - lorraine!... hearts, brains, plastic gloves... and that was of course, darwin's theory of evolution--questions? yes you there in the spikes and black leather... la gran botanica... medical genies... you got a joint lorraine?... i like the pink uterus bull with the sperms on his face... saturn and birth... organs in the refrigerator... cuban sandwiches
Day 6 - anne-marie and mario... siouxsie and the banshees... magic in her hands... mario and velasquez?... alan liked the stage set... david as a bird... futon on the floor... richard's not really starting at twelve, is he?... hello, this is steven tashjian and this is the seven days of creation show at abc no rio
Day 7 - rain washes away fatigue... birds, stars, swirls, cat, dog, donkey, yea salamander, birds and fishes... every color and all bright against black... do we really have to hang mark frazee?... seeds and ideas thrown in eyes like poison... lovely... do you have the key for downstairs?... what's wrong with samoa's amp?... can we get some beer?... no more firewood... no more joints... rockabilly... is this abc no rio? do you have a schedule of events?
Organized by performance artist Kembra Pfahler, this round-the-clock event revealed the same raw energy that characterized Seven Days of Creation. The nine days of performance and exhibits spotlighted Pfahler's ironic conception of an art movement, complete with logos, manifestos, and multi-media work. Audience and performers merged in a series of mock ceremonies, some commencing at dawn, executed with orgiastic favor. The entire event climaxed with the solemn incineration of manifestos and art in a trash-can in the backyard. Drawing on artists from Creation and Erotic Psyche, the Extremist show reiterated the theatrical bent of the new directors.
ABC No Rio moved to the Kitchen center in Soho for this combination exhibition and performance event. Approached by this established alternative space, Joseph Nechvatal and Seton Smith took on the organizing task, naming the show, inviting a multitude of artists to exhibit in the Kitchen's tiny gallery, and scheduling a sold-out evening of performance, music, and poetry.
A loosely organized carnival-like compendium of No Rio talent, friends mingled as the Cardboard Air Band played, Bimbo Rivas read poetry, and artists who had appeared at No Rio throughout its existence performed. Their performances took place on three separate stages in front of large backdrops painted especially for each performer, and the entire four-hour event was captured on videotape.
By Charles Stuckey
In addition to the gallery space, the Rivington Street premises made available to ABC No Rio included a backyard lot- basically a walled-in rubble heap that had been untended for years. Cleared of garbage with a little help from the Department of Pest control, it became the site for Rebecca Howland's fountain sculpture Brainwash. The artist had begun to fashion the elements for a large public sculpture in 1981, but lacked any place to erect it. Although she would have preferred a more accessible location, Howland's only viable option was No Rio's backyard. She completed Brainwash in the summer of 1982, and opened it after a plague of caterpillars had abated.
A founding member of ABC No Rio, Howland worked on the Real Estate Show. Her poster for that exhibition presented a stylized octopus grasping little buildings and dollar bills in its tentacles. She continues to use similar ideograms for environmental and political factors in her art, and Brainwash, her most complex socio-political "diatribe" to date, includes simplified renditions of money bags, electrical transmission towers, burning oil storage tanks, all intended to evoke the fundamentals of power-its sources and manifestations in nature and society. This work is conceived as public sculpture, which by definition has always been a commemoration of power.
Brainwash extends the centuries-old tradition of civic fountains, whether in Rome, Versailles or London, embellished with emblems such as horses, dolphins, and naked children to celebrate natural and political forces. This tradition, which has gone somewhat into eclipse during our century, has guided Howland's output since 198O that June she exhibited a modern emblematic fountain at the Times Square Show. It was in fact a monument to power politics: a four foot high simplified model of an oil rig, set in a basin from which oil was pumped upward. Installed in a men's room (and thus Duchampian in spirit), the work was blatantly ironic. The footings of the rig were bag shapes made in concrete and labeled with dollar signs. Above the rig she suspended a scimitar as a sign for the powerful Ayatollah of Iran.
During the past few years Howland has made multiples based upon similar ideograms: burning oil tanks, pentagons, fossil-ridden cross-sections of mountains-all components of the large piece under development entitled Brainwash. At Artists Space in October 1981 she exhibited tabletop-scale constructions made of wood, cardboard and plaster that were models for various sections of the same major piece.
The models shown at Artists Space hardly prepared me for Brainwash, which I perceive as part suburban birdbath, part funhouse and part mystical allegory of the world. Its constituent "parts" are both integrated with and opposed to one another. A spectator circumnavigating the piece confronts shifting inter-relationships between manifold shapes and ideograms, as if Howland had cast them as a modern-day Valiant-For-Truth from Pilgrim's Progress.
At one end she has constructed a concrete mountain, a primal symbol for permanence, and at the other end the prow of a ship, although related in shape, a typical symbol of flux and adventure. The landlocked prow is pointed toward a large caricature style image of a worn-out dollar bill, blown by winds, it would seem, forever out of the ship's reach.
If the ship never reaches this crass horizon, however, neither does it sink, despite the fact that the fountain's water collects inside the hull like a sailor's nightmare. The ship end of Brainwash is connected to the mountain end by several catwalks. Here Howland has placed the elements of a miniature city, including a model railroad version of the Canal Street Bridge, a piece of plywood painted to suggest the entrance to the Manhattan Bridge, and two concrete blocks poised like the World Trade Center towers on the harbor.
Arranged beneath and around these spanning and framing elements of landscape, cityscape and seascape, still other forces are at work as parts of the fountain. Lurking at the base of the mountain is the concrete brain of modern man. Scraps of bottle tops and bits of mirror, like eyes, are embedded in its convolutions, polluted, hardened, and sinister. Water running off the mountain glistens a while on the ridge of this petrified cerebrum and then drains into a little pool under the catwalks. On the side of this pool Howland has placed a little factory and several oil storage tanks marked Exxon, Gulf, Occidental, Mobil, and Standard. Flat red and orange shapes, jagged in silhouette, seem to leap up from the tanks like quench-less catastrophes indifferent to the adjacent pool of water. From the pool the water descends a concrete staircase decorated with a frieze of frogs (each one's tongue licking the ass of the next) that suggests the wicked aesthetic of some destructive Chaldean tyrant.
The staircase ends in a second pentagonal pool. Its bottom is inscribed with GE trademarks. Under the water these logos suggest a world short-circuited, and spell death as surely as a skull crossed with bones. Six submachine guns spout water-pistol jets into this idiotically military-industrial plaza pool. Howland has decorated their sides with curlicue patterns simultaneously evoking Arabic scripts, meninges and intestines.
The macabre GE pool can be understood as the unacceptable explanation for the other elements of Brainwash, including the tipsy electric transmission tower set next to the prow of the ship and, on the other side, the concrete form of a woman's dress, inverted as if an empty being had jumped ship. This bodiless corpse is a sort of flower at the pool's side, and inside its skirt petals Howland has included a little image of lovers loving.
The mountain is the most elaborately detailed part of Brainwash. Its side is cut away to reveal a vertebral cord of anarchist bombs like those used in silent film comedies. Painted in ochres and siennas crossed by carbonic black stripes, the mountain's side is composed from strata of buried money bag treasures as well as decomposing trees and leaves, shell fossils, celapods, diatoms, rotifers and other tiny geometric creatures thought perhaps to make oil in the hidden depths of the planet.
The details of Brainwash could no more be thoroughly described here than a single commentary could cope with the exuberant images of one of Blake's visionary songs. As a spectator meditates upon the scratchings, lumps and toys stuck together helter-skelter in this backyard lot, reactions can range from titters to tears. Howland's fountain is a folly, like the world we live in. The water drips, splashes, collects, drools, cleanses, seeps, laps, only to seek a level of its own to rest.
The Williamsburg Bridge was the site of this show organized by Rebecca Howland and Ann Messner in conjunction with Collaborative Projects and ABC No Rio. The neglected promenade seemed like the perfect place for a large-scale sculpture show. For two years, the sculptors grappled with the strict requirements imposed by the city's Department of Transportation, which administers the deteriorating bridge. The opening coincided with the centennial celebration of the Brooklyn Bridge, a synchrony which attracted attention to the show. The works, however, also attracted vandals and thieves, and a number of sculptures disappeared before a week had passed.
Jenny Dixon: Who are the artists in this show?
Ann Messner: Becky Howland, John Morton, Jody Culkin, Scott Pfaffman, Christy Rupp, Tom Otterness, Peter Fend. There were nine artists in the show.
JD: And now there are four-and-a-half?
AM: Five with one leg missing.
JD: Why are there only five?
AM: Beginning with when the work was installed there was vandalism where it could have occurred. The sculpture was put to a test. It is a rough area. The work wasn't guarded. The sculpture that wasn't strong enough or was easily accessible was taken or destroyed. That was pretty much all during the first week. The way the show is now is pretty much the way it was then. Any vandalism that did occur happened fast. Except for the graffiti which is continuous.
JD: First of all, why do you think it was vandalized?
Rebecca Howland: In Tom Otterness' case he had two beautiful small pieces sitting on the posts on top of the stairway. They are just the type of thing that someone would want to take.
JD: So you think that people liked it.
AM: In half the cases it was. Christy Rupp's sculpture, which wasa collection of papier mache monkeys, was not placed completely out of reach. People went out of their way to take them home. They're collectible.
RH: She liked that very much, actually, that people had to act like monkeys to get the monkeys. Several people I know saw them on Clinton Street which is adjacent to the bridge and a concentrated drug and hot goods market. The people were very proud of their new monkeys.
JD: So they were for sale?
RH: Not necessarily for sale but being displayed. They loved it. I don't necessarily think she really loved having that happen that much.
JD: You both have worked in a public art context before and are used to the vulnerability of the work. How did you approach this in the planning of the show?
AM: This vulnerability was something that we had discussed at the meetings we held. Part of the Department of Transportation's acceptance of the individual proposals was that they be built structurally strong enough so that they would not fall over, be destroyed, etcetera. Some of the artists had done larger work in public places and had learned through their mistakes what would last and what wouldn't. Two of the sculptures did not last because they were not strong enough.
RH: John Morton's was knocked over and then kicked in.
AM: Dick Miller's was kicked in, slid over, sat on and completely demolished. And it was quite large. I think it was somehow a temptation. I think there were ways in which he could have made it so that that could not have happened, and maybe next time he will.
JD: One of the things you mentioned when I first asked this question was how graffiti was appearing on all the work. How do you feel about that? Do you see it as something that continues your work or do you see it as vandalism?
AM: I think it is wonderful. It makes the whole thing integrated. That's their reaction to it. I see it as a positive one. I think someone said it was a way of identifying it for themselves.
RH: I loved it when I saw it. Plus I am so happy that my sculpture is still there.
AM: I know. That's one of the things that amazes me-that Becky's sculpture is still intact. I think the people who are on the bridge feel a kinship for her sculpture. Otherwise I think it would have been destroyed. To me it would be a temptation to physically do it.
JD: In a way what you are suggesting is that you have put these works in a violent neighborhood and that these people really made their own comments in what they took and what they destroyed, that that is how you understood their reactions.
AM: In a way. Maybe someone just hasn't come along who would kick in her sculpture.
RH: I think they would break their foot before they would kick it in, but it could be damaged. I'm happy that it hasn't been so far. I did like the graffiti when I saw it. They are not all anonymous people. I was up there two days ago and I saw that we had another participating artist-Fab Five Freddy had put a whole piece there which I was very happy to see.
Excerpted from an interview with Jenny Dixon aired on WNYC, June 6, 1983
No Rio's relationship to its neighborhood was directly manifested in these two mural projects supported by the gallery. Johnny "Crash" Matos and John Fekner are tow artists associated with the graffiti movement of the South Bronx. Their 1981 collaborative Suffolk Street Fallout Shelter, intended to dramatize the impossibility of evacuating New York City in the event of nuclear war, was ironically destroyed shortly after completion as the building was pulled down.
Bobby G, a No Rio co-founder, lived as caretaker in the gallery's basement. His paintings are based on photos of local residents, primarily teenagers. This large 1984 mural on Delancey Street was a well-recieved addition to the neighborhood.