Gallery openings are rather conservative affairs. White wine, hobnobbing in the art world, and maybe dinner.
O’Flaherty’s, a seedy gallery in Manhattan’s East Village named after a nonexistent Irish pub, attempted to reverse the whole concept of the summer group show. First, it held an “open call” where anyone — starving artists, children, even Terrence Koh, an established artist — could submit their work and see it hung in a New York gallery. (More than a thousand people submitted entries, the gallery said.)
Then O’Flaherty invited them all and their Instagram followers to a grand opening last Thursday night. It was a well-planned recipe for chaos.
Ten minutes before the 8pm opening, Jamian Juliano-Villani, an artist who founded the gallery with her longtime friend Billy Grant, 37, buzzed through the gallery’s ramshackle storefront, putting out fires at the last minute and drinking from a bottle of Evan Williams Bourbon.
“It’s disgusting,” said Ms. Juliano-Villani, 35, referring to the work on display. She wore a bright red tank top with a fluorescent green miniskirt, a cigarette dangling from her lips. Then she turned off all the lights and started letting people in.
As visitors streamed through the front door, each was handed a small flashlight, and the pitch-black gallery was soon illuminated by a swarm of LED beams. What visitors saw was an insane mishmash of art: more than 1,100 works covered every square inch of the cramped gallery.
There were oil paintings of genitals, a still life of peaches, a shovel twisted like a pretzel, a silkscreen of someone who looks like Al Pacino, a wall clock with mismatched numbers, a pair of panda prints by Rob Pruitt, a box with disposable gloves, a black dildo, a signed photo of Justin Bieber as a child, a patterned swastika with a happy face. Cans of Budweiser and Coors were served in a plastic tub.
Many of the early arrivals were artists looking for their work. “I’m pretty proud of it,” said Matt Held, an art dealer in his 50s who came with his 14-year-old daughter. He found his oil painting – a portrait of a friend in a pink shirt – hanging in the hallway.
Michael Crinot, a 20-year-old student, found his job in the office. “I did it,” he said, admiring a portrait of his severed head painted on a Cheez-It cracker box. “This moment exists.”
The bathroom was also plastered with art, including a toilet seat with red lipstick marks by Dan Colen. In an adjoining room, a motion detector triggered loud power tools hidden under the floorboards as guests entered, causing some onlookers to scream.
“You thought you couldn’t participate in a more irreverent group show and you’re wrong,” the gallery founders wrote in a statement. They would take any piece that anyone would bring, the statement said, “whether it was great or total rubbish, and try to make an idea out of it.”
At 8:30 a.m. the gallery was besieged. The atmosphere was somewhere between a haunted house and a sex club. Within seconds you could encounter an artist bending over to find his work, be blinded by a flashlight, beer spilled, and see a young man knock over a painting while taking a picture of his friend. poses with a watercolor hanging behind a garbage can.
Few wore masks, and the words “superspreader” and “monkeypox” could be heard in the airless gallery.
Outside, hundreds lined C Avenue, past a community garden and down the block along East Fourth Street. Hundreds more gathered in front of the gallery, turning the opening into an impromptu block party.
There were young performers in torn tank tops and tote bags. Older East Village guys with ponytails and walking sticks. Performance artists who made the sidewalk their stage and gallery – a salon de refusés above a salon de refusés. There were also a handful of well-known artists from the art world, including artists Rachel Rossin and Richard Phillips, and gallery owners Alexander Shulani and Max Levai.
The block party felt like a throwback to a New York of a different era, as Deitch Projects and other galleries invaded a frenzied downtown arts scene, hosting carnivalesque private viewings that spilled onto the sidewalk and pushed the boundaries of art, music, fashion, and nightlife blurred .
O’Flaherty’s may have done this too well. At 8:50 p.m., the police arrived. Ms. Juliano-Villani went outside to discuss the situation. This was an opening, she explained. People came to see their work on display and to support their friends.
The police looked inside and didn’t like what they saw. An officer on the phone with his precinct estimated there were 3,000 people outside the gallery. “Clean it up or I’ll close it right now,” Ninth Revier’s Timur S. Popal told gallery owners. “It’s unsafe.”
Ms. Juliano-Villani surveyed the circus atmosphere and seemed to grasp the current situation. She stormed back into the gallery yelling, “Get out! Out of! Out of!!! Everybody out!”
Guests trickled out and rejoined the block party, which now included multiple squad cars and more cops trying to disperse the crowd. “There is no more art, go home,” said one official.
At 10pm there were still a few dozen latecomers outside, some banging on the shop windows in hopes the gallery would reopen. Ms. Juliano-Villani, who by this time had finished the whiskey and moved on to a bottle of tequila, could not contain her resolve.
“And that stuff sucks, too,” she said, pointing to the art on the office walls.
She went outside and rolled down the security gate to underscore the message that the gallery was closed for the night. As several officers roamed the gallery, Ms. Juliano-Villani and her staff broke the news that there would be an after-party at Nublu, a dance club a few blocks north.
“Only eight things were damaged,” Ms Juliano-Villani said on her way out.