“Anyone know where my installation’s supposed to go?”
“Which one’s Seth? Hi. Are you Seth? Are you Seth?”
“Seth’s in the bathtub.”
“Installing his piece.” “It’s about Dylan Thomas. Who used to live here.”
This is three o’clock on a Friday afternoon in Suite 1024 of the Hotel Chelsea which is an old building on 23rd with iron staircases and high school hallways and hostel firedoors and long-stay resident artists and layers and layers of paint that remind you, as does everyone you talk to, that the hotel has seen layers and layers of artso: Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Robert Mapplethorpe, a bevy of Andy Warhol girls, Sid Vicious, Arthur C. Clarke, Patti Smith, Leonard Cohen. Dylan Thomas. Suite 1024 is currently layered matte red, and serving at trim, a dozen late-twenty-somethings prepping for the DeSiRe exhibition, a showing of 25 emergent New York-based artists. Tonight, the suite will buzz with the artists, their plus-two’s, and supposedly, apparently, theoretically, hopefully, a press contingent. Tomorrow, all the friends and curious eyes 25 emergent artists can Facebook invite. But now, four hours before the big unveil, they work in quiet pre-show fremitus, everyone just trying to get their installations installed, everyone asking for Seth Embry.
Who is not in the bathtub. Embry, the show’s ombudsman-omegaman, is all at once in the reception room and the bedroom and the bedroom closets and the bathroom and the kitchenette. Black t-shirt with white horizontal stripes. Jean shorts rolled up above the knees. Arms akimbo. A quiet voice and a wry smile that hangs just very slightly at the side of his mouth. Seth Embry, by day a store designer for J. Crew, is in the bedroom where two women are arranging their clothing line on the bed, an assortment of animal fur and transparent lace. Nearby, a water jug sits on the nightstand. In it, something that looks very much like a bull penis. It is a turkey neck but it still looks like a bull penis even after you’ve been told. The dresser has been repurposed: two face molds sit atop crying nail tears while plaster body parts scrabble their way out of the drawers. One of the women places on the pillow a plaster sculpture of a hand fingering the spread lips of a vulva. Hesitates. Moves it to the center of the bed.
Seth Embry, who on Facebook lists his UF ‘04 college majors as Architecture, German, and Avant-Garde Partytime, is in each bedroom closet, overseeing hands ropebound downward in prayer and gothic bodypart miniatures in formaldehyde jars.
Seth Embry is in the reception room with a woman in army fatigues and biceps and triceps to match who is leaning over the coffeetable fitting footlong glass eyelets together. “They’re like, giant needles,” she says. An artist who calls himself Luke Harms stands, watching, grinning, a small duffle bag in one hand. Inside the bag, waiting for the right moment to emerge: polymer clay monster golem figurines. With his other hand, Harms polishes a small hexagonal showcase. Nothing like sebum to shine up an exhibit.
Seth Embry is at the corner table discussing a dinner scene installation with artist Sara Jackson. “It has a story behind it,” beams Jackson, hands hugging her sheer black dress. The scene consists of two candleholders which are plaster mutant-robot hand candleholders complete with eggshell skin, and two soup bowls filled with hardened resin and chicken feet frozen in time. Jackson overturns a water goblet to complete the scene. During the course of the next two nights Jackson will tell the story of the mutant-robot uprising with varying degrees of detail, but now she tells Seth only the thirty-second version. The robot-factory workers, in the middle of chicken foot dinner, realize the robots are rebelling, and rush out of the room. As we look at the upturned scene, our realization: we are the mutant robots.
Seth Embry is rolling up the floor rug. On the floor, photographer Elizabeth Raab peels plastic backing off frames for two large portraits of large women, one in samurai garb, the other costumed as a medieval brunehilde. Both women’s gargantuan breasts spill out of their clothing in epic white voluptuousness. “These are big women…beautiful big women,” explains Raab. “So it takes a little Photoshop to get their skin like that.”
Seth Embry is answering a knock at the door. In the doorway, a huge canvas just barely covered by a queen-sized bedsheet. Eyes akimbo, Seth takes in the giant veiled canvas. Somewhere behind it, in dark jeans, flannel, and boots, is the artist.
“Hey! Nick Courage!”
“Hey! Seth Embry!”
“Okay! Let’s see it.” Nick Courage’s canvas will be the largest of the exhibit and as such, it gets one of the few nails in the hotel wall. Most of the other “flat media” will be arranged on chairs, the couch, the floor.
Courage steps into the suite. Undresses the canvas. On it, in heavily textured acrylic, is a cartoon-style girl with cat whiskers sipping a juice bottle through a crinkle straw against a black background with the words “hyper-chouette” rainbowing out from cartoon cat-girl’s head. Nick and Seth heft the canvas to the wall, trying to maneuver around the couch until someone says it’d be a lot simpler if someone moved the couch, which someone does, and Nick and Seth work on getting the canvas balanced on the existing nail. It slips to the right. To the left. Refuses to be still.
“This is rather inexplicable,” says Seth, as they slide the canvas back and forth along the wall. They take the canvas back down, think.
“Mind if I veil the canvas?” says Nick. Sara Jackson is still standing by her mutant-robot scene. Luke Harms still hasn’t unzipped the golem bag. Elizabeth Raab isn’t quite looking at anyone. The artists talk as they work, but they don’t talk about art. If I didn’t know better, I’d say they were intentionally avoiding it. In a few hours, the artists will shift into show-mode: Be witty! Be sharp! Be weird! Be interesting! Sara Jackson will tell the five-minute version of the mutant robot uprising. Elizabeth Raab won’t talk about photoshopping obese beauty; she’ll explain the anti-heteronormative stance of her photographic aesthetic. Courage’s canvases will be unabashedly unveiled. Everyone will be taking photo and video and wallowing in historicity. But right now, even though it is a roomful of artists, there are no egos on display, you don’t hear the “Well, I went to art school, so–” or “That’s a nice hobby. For you” or the feigned interest and feinted compliments that you’ll hear plenty during the show. In fact, very little of anything feels artso. In this moment, the artist is simply a technician.
Seth Embry is looking down at Nick, who is bent over the floor, pounding wire higher into the “hyper-chouette” frame. Hammer blows echo along the wood floor.
“Um, Nick.” The corner of Seth’s mouth is concerned. “We have to be extremely careful here about…It’s just the noise is…I don’t want to–”
“Oh, sure. Right. What if I wrap the hammer in like, flannel?”
A sudden crash of glass. Seth whips around. The woman in army fatigues leans over the coffee table, wincing. “Glass on glass has a tendency to be problematic.”
Seth says nothing. The corner of his mouth tightens uncomfortably. “Okay. I’m gonna work on my installation. God. I haven’t eaten anything all day.”
“Are you Seth?”
Seth turns around. A woman–mid 40s, the oldest artist in the show–is facing Embry. Is in Embry’s face. She wears a loose fitting, well-worn black dress. No bra. She has an imperious mien. She wants to know who’s in charge. Apparently there has been some mix up. There had been emails that clearly stated she was in the exhibit but this is news to Seth. Seth looks happy to accommodate, less happy about how he’s being spoken to.
“So can I set up my exhibit?”
“The thing is–”
“It goes in the toilet.” And it really does. Feathers. Lining the toilet bowl. And a handwritten sign: “Guys -Please sit to pee - do not lift the rim - Thanks-“ This is the only part of the installation visible to the naked eye. “You’re supposed to pee on the feathers,” she explains. Tomorrow, the toilet bowl will be a mix of urine and toilet paper and feathers. It will be an easy installation to dispose.
“The problem is,” Seth begins, quietly reasserting his role, “my installation goes in the tub and I’m gonna to have to get all up in there to put it together and you probably don’t want me climbing all over what you’re doing.”
Embry’s exhibit is a canvas painted in geometric whites and blacks. That goes in the tub. Thick black yarn spiders out from the vents and to the floor, taped with electricians’ tape. It is intended evoke the ghost of Dylan Thomas, who died while a resident at the Chelsea, whose presence, Embry explains, still lingers in the walls and pipes. The artist with the toilet installation has no choice but to wait.
Which isn’t a problem. In the end, with time to spare, the artists’ exhibits have come together. The cat-girl is staying put on the wall, big beautiful brunehilde is framed, the fingerbanged vulva is properly positioned, the golem figurines are in their hand-shined case, the feathers are in the toilet, the mutant robot uprising is complete, and Dylan Thomas wafts from the vents. There’s even a time for a beer run.
All that’s left, now, is the show.