February 1997
s m u g
by Leslie Harpold

"Mass murder can be art, it all depends where you put the blood."

I overheard that phrase at a gallery opening about three years ago, and I've never forgotten it. I don't know if the person who said it was the first person to say it, or if they read it somewhere, or were quoting something they once overheard. Guess what? I don't care. I have gotten more mileage out of that phrase than almost any other, and I'm not afraid to say it often. If you go to enough gallery openings in the same place, you can start to pick up your fellow viewers shtick, so you have to watch out for that, but otherwise, selective borrowing and stealing can be very effective. Jack's favorite phrase is: "It conveys a great sense of loss to me," and Todd likes to say "I think I've seen this before, maybe something German." My personal favorite stems from the fact that I seem to be seeing too much collage and too much word based conceptual sculpture lately, and frankly, it ain't my cup of tea.

Now, art gallery openings are in no way to be confused with art. In future posedowns, we'll explore faking your way through conversations about photography, pop art, and all manner of other categories, but right now, we're going to focus on the most precarious of all social situations. The Gallery Opening.

childhood woes with cheesecake, still life

First of all, even at the most posh gallery, the wine is going to be bad box Chardonnay, Merlot if the artist sells at a multi-thousand dollar price point. Galleries seem to attract people with a taste for cheap wine. It is totally uncool to mention that the wine is from a box. Sure, you know it's tacky, but sometimes if the art is really bad, that box wine can be your best friend.

If you want to talk to the artist, pick the piece that looks most like a train wreck. Separate yourself from whoever you came with, and stare at it, seemingly mesmerized. Eventually the Gallery Owner will approach you with a comment like "Moving, isn't it?" Smile enigmatically and nod, but do not turn your eyes away from the work. Soon, you will hear the distinctive snap of fingers, the owner summoning the artist like Bette Davis summoning a waiter in some old movie. You will be introduced, and it's important to have a mysterious question for the artist ready. "Your figures seem to have a certain esoteric body language that speaks of loss, were you thinking of cultural constraints on materialist obsessions when you created this?"

Chances are they will make up an answer to support your theory on the spot, having been carefully coached. This will be the most entertaining part of your evening. Nothing entertains like a good lie. Look the artist in the eye knowingly when he/she finishes the didactic. Watch the gallery owner get the special glint that says they think they just made a sale. Wander back to consult with your companion, then, you should probably leave, because the gallery shrew will jock you endlessly for the balance of the evening.


I know I say this about everything, but wear good shoes. This will give you the credibility to pull off all these slick dance moves. People do notice, because remember, the function of the opening is to find out who's got the money, and then take that money away from them. Shoes are key. Don't wear jewelry, because no matter how much you think your Hello Kitty pendant is cute and makes you look thinner, these people know their stuff, and will instantly dismiss you into the "not a player" category, and you won't be invited back.

The advantages to getting really good at these events is they can open a whole world of better events. Trust me, the parties after the opening and the brunch functions "hosted by the artist," tend to be a lot more fun than these pretentious gatherings. And the art gallery equivalent of the "Secret Show" will get you cheap champagne for free, and lots of it, so if nothing else, it's just another way to get drunk free, and load up on fancy gourmet snacks you'd never buy yourself.

A final cautionary note. The most important person in the room will appear to be some European guy with slick hair and an untraceable accent. This is a guy from Staten Island looking for a rich patroness or patron and is definitely a sleazeball. Unless you want a live-in boy toy with expensive tastes, avoid him like the plague.


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