A friend was in the know about a Damien Echols art show featuring work that he had done in prison. There was a ticketed opening reception with some of the funds going to the Dharma Friends Prison Outreach Project, and a group of us planned to go together, buying our tickets around Thanksgiving last year. Before the opening, I heard from somebody who had previewed the artwork that it wasn’t exceptional, not like the memoir Life After Death. So I wasn’t expecting much—just your typical art reception with an appearance from Damien Echols and maybe a few other celebs who supported his cause.
Our group decided to grab a few drinks beforehand at the dive bar Nancy’s on Lispenard, not wanting to be the first to arrive at the party. When I’ve gone to art openings before in Chelsea, they’re always free, and each gallery will give out some sort of free booze. It’s usually beer (sometimes in teeny-tiny bottles that are cute but only contain two or three swallows), but once I went to one where shots of bourbon were given out. I had to be coached through that one, not being a regular bourbon drinker. If you’re really strapped for cash in NYC and want to go out, you keep an eye out for an evening with multiple art openings, and then you cruise the galleries and drink for free that night.
Luckily, I didn’t have to rely on that and could afford my drinks at Nancy’s, along with some fries. We tramped out of the bar and headed to the reception/opening at Sacred Tattoo an hour after it officially started. A narrow staircase led to the gallery, and our group of six ascended but was held up at the door because nobody was manning it and the security guard wouldn’t let us in. We patiently stood in the stairwell as the line built up behind us, but then a man in a shiny leather coat jumped it along with his girlfriend, saying, “I’m on the list.”
My sister’s boyfriend Ed is the nicest guy. When we’ve been out and about, I’ve seen him give up his seat on the subway for people who need it more and swipe people through the turnstiles with his MetCard when they don’t have enough for fare. For some reason, though, he got mad at the line jumper and told him, “We’re all on the list,” since we had all paid for tickets. As we waited for the ticket person to appear, Ed got into it with the line jumper, who was really being an ass, saying things like, “Do you want to take this outside?” and “Don’t touch me,” when Ed shadowed him like a basketball player. The security guard had to keep them separated as tempers escalated.
The fight-or-flight response kicked up in me right away, and my initial response is almost always to flee. Whenever people are rude or cut in line, I am almost always passive—at most, passive-aggressive. I think the worst I’ve ever done is let loose a snide “Well, he must be a very important person” when somebody cut in front of me. I stayed, though, at the reception, and the line jumper was let into the gallery ahead of us. When the ticket person finally appeared, he said that the line jumper (or as we called him for the rest of the night, Mr. Shiny Coat) worked there or something. A friend of ours backed up Ed, saying, “He was being pompous.”
The security guard joked, “Oh, is that the first pompous person you’ve run into in New York?”
We had a good laugh over that, and with the tension somewhat deflated entered the gallery.
There was nothing to be in a rush about. The bartender was in no danger of running out of wine, and most of the artwork had already been sold, it appeared, before the exhibit even opened, though there were notes beneath many saying that limited edition prints were also available.
The title of the exhibit is “Moving Forward; Looking Back,” and the placard available said that all of the artwork was done by Damien Echols in prison using whatever materials he could get his hands on. The art all had titles displayed, but I would have liked a detailed list of the materials used for each. I’ve always found that fascinating at museums and other galleries when unusual materials are called out—say, mustard or soy sauce or mercurochrome. I could tell that notebook backs had been used for some of the art boards, but what would have been even more interesting is knowing what brand, how much they cost in prison, the magazines mined for collage images, etc. There was one work that opened as a book (it was apparently used during meditation), but only the part that served as its open pages was displayed to full advantage. What I found more interesting, though, were the images painted on its cover, which were impossible to view in full because of the way the work was presented.
I think the best part of the exhibit/reception was people watching. We tried to keep our distance from Mr. Shiny Coat, but I was always conscious of where he and his girlfriend were in the gallery. At one point he expounded for a group of what looked to be three or four art students, but I couldn’t hear what he was talking about. There was a woman who looked like a real-life version of Natasha Fatale from the Rocky and Bullwinkle Show, and she was very drunk. (The bartender gave healthy pours.) She ran into a display case nearly toppling it and propositioned my sister while she waited on line for the bathroom. Damien Echols came out later to make a statement and there was something involving a champagne toast that I couldn’t quite hear. I felt badly for him—at the moment fame looked really sucky. He seemed very uncomfortable at the front of the gallery surrounded by a huge mass of people with iPhones held aloft, snapping pictures.
On our way out the door at the end of the party, the security guard called our group “rabble-rousers,” telling us to stay out of trouble. I’m not really, but it was kind of thrilling to be called that.