Mike Weiss, the art dealer and former Chelsea gallery owner, liked to give out assigned seats at his more formal gallery opening-after-parties. I can’t remember which artist he was showing that evening roughly two years ago, or what restaurant it was, but I do remember being deliberately plunked down next to a charming young stranger with an infectious, liberally-used laugh, the Peruvian artist, Cecilia Collantes.
I was about to head to Peru for the now somewhat clichéd but nevertheless transformative journey down the Boiling River and into the heart of the Amazon for some of that good Grandmother plant medicine. I explained to Cecilia that I’d be joining a successful but criminally underrated Swiss-German artist (her fourth visit to Mayantuyacu), who I had previously interviewed for Interview and who showed with a gallery on the same block as Mike’s old 24th street-level space.
Mike interjected a few times over red wine and tapas, rightfully bragging about his matchmaking-skills, whether friendly, professional or romantic, as Cecilia and I were indeed hitting it off. Mike, Cecilia explained, had sponsored her Visa and was keeping a watchful eye on her developing work, mostly colorful, metallic powder on paper and canvas. The art, shown to me that night on Cecilia’s iPhone, was raw, cosmic, simple, elegant, unrefined, apolitical, and geometric. It was good, pretty damn good, but was it missing something? Did Mike feel this way as well? Was I supposed to discover what that missing ingredient was?
Roughly a year before meeting Cecilia, I met the multi-media artist and choreographer Jason Akira Somma. He was an early, featured guest on Ventiko the photographer’s awesome but short-lived podcast. I was the stream of consciousness, irreverent news guy. Mostly the shtick was Ventiko (showing in Basel Miami’s PULSE Play this year) telling me to shush anytime I tried to interject a thought into her interviews. Jason was about to embark on a prestigious, yearlong residency at The Park Avenue Armory where he was experimenting with analogue and digital circuitry and other hardware, which he spliced together to create wild projections and glitched-out photography. Sporting a trademark, wispy late-19th Century handlebar mustache, Jason came across like a mix between Wall-E, the post apocalyptic waste-collecting robot with a heart of gold, a faithful hacker/operator on a Matrix-universe hovercraft, and some unidentified Tolkien wizard.
I would drop in on Jason every other month to check on his progress. He had discovered a way to create interactive projections (as opposed to just a shadowy silhouette) that would dissolve the body in front of the screen into a wild, trippy, multi-dimensional, quantum portal; a symmetrical, holographic, hyperspace geometric mandala. Jason, himself a protégé of the renowned choreographer Jirí Kylián, started tapping into the New York dance community for slightly more dynamic human participants, though haggard writers were a helpful placeholder. This is when I met the sweet and ferocious dancer, Steven Hill, better known as Bones the Machine.
Bones incorporates contortion and a plethora of other dance disciplines culled from the streets of Jamaica, Harlem, and the stages of Lincoln Center, including high-level ballet, into what he helped define as “Flex” or flexing. When it came time for Jason to present the fruits of his year long toils and experiments, he enlisted Bones, Reggie ‘Regg Roc’ Gray, and a crew of other Flex dancers, mostly hailing from East New York, for a two-night thesis exhibition, which encompassed several rooms on the first floor of the Armory. One portion of the show featured several young Flex dancers performing in a completely blacked-out chamber, while the audience viewed their performance through night-vision goggles. The other rooms were equally mysterious, technologically perplexing and generally awe-inspiring. The climactic performance, led by Mr. Gray, saw several Flex dancers, under the audio-visual supervision of Mr. Somma, dancing in a fierce improvisational manner to the wild, pounding electric cello of Chris Lancaster, a singular orchestral force.
Two nights in a row, Somma and company received standing ovations from a very hip and connected NYC audience. I said to myself, as many did, undoubtedly, that it would be impossible for the Park Avenue Armory to ignore the work of this pioneer, both of creative technology, artistic insight and community inclusion. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
Many writers and other art world faces were there to witness, dare I say corroborate, the reality that Jason’s work, developed over the course of an entire year, not only paved the way, but laid the foundation, structure, plumbing, electricity, tile-work, and pretty much every other essential creative element that would, somewhat dubiously, become FLEXN and then FLEXN Evolution, a major ticketed Park Avenue Armory production. Unfortunately, Jason, who had been toiling away for a year in monk-like obscurity, was ousted to make room for the more widely known American theatre director and choreographer, Peter Sellers.
The meat of Jason’s work was swept up and incorporated into FLEXN, the Sellers-directed production, while his monumental efforts, all those work-hours, the trial and error, the vision and the recognition that should have come from his residency, was altogether-and rather unconscionably-swept under the rug. Though Mr. Gray, in a Times interview, expressed concern about taking this particular dance style to the predominantly white, Upper East Side of Manhattan, there is little to no mention of Jason’s efforts. This Kafkian erasure of Jason Akira Somma’s efforts, is not only baffling (though sadly, not completely surprising) and for Somma himself, infuriating and enduringly depressing, but it is also indicative of many of these types of residencies serving as an institutionalized farm and incubator for ideas, out of which many artists find themselves and their work exploited for the sake of mass consumerism, greater prestige and presumed “press-worthiness.” It’s understandable that Flex patriarch Mr. Gray wouldn’t want to rock the boat and spoil this opportunity for so many young dancers, but Somma was hung out to dry, pure and simple.
This isn’t how I met Alison Clancy, strangely enough. Strange-because Alison Clancy is the long-time professional and romantic partner of Chris Lancaster and a good friend of Jason’s. Rather, I met Alison through the red-haired artist and dancer Brooke Borg (we caught each other’s eye at a terrible LES rock show), who had invited me to an opening for the photographer Kitfox Valentín, who had previously trained his lens on Clancy, an undeniably compelling muse. The works in Kitfox’s show that featured Alison were by far the most compelling of the bunch. Halfway through the opening, Borg and Clancy spontaneously entered into a playful, but rather rigorous wrestling match in the middle of the gallery’s polished floor; twisting into an intertwined human Gordian knot. I loved them both immediately and forever. Soon I discovered just how intertwined Clancy and Lancaster were and still are. Their musical collaboration, Loving You, is both intimate and alienating, in the sense that their connection is so profound, their talent so immense, that one can feel like a child-like voyeur in over his head.
Since Somma’s problematic residency at the Armory, Chris and Alison have combined forces with the mustached digital-analogue alchemist, creating a performative triumvirate that is altogether otherworldly. This trio has performed previously at Amy Van Doran’s admittedly small but lovely Modern Love Club in the East Village. Van Doran, a matchmaker for extraordinary people, interestingly enough, was also at Somma’s Armory thesis exhibitions years earlier, and perhaps also felt the welcomed responsibility to showcase his many talents and discoveries.
At 10pm, on Tuesday, October 24th at The Mailroom-a brand new, subterranean, state of the art nightlife venue and event space at 110 Wall Street-Clancy, Lancaster, and Somma will perform in perhaps the most visually and sonically conducive and supportive environment yet. This performance will be precluded by an exclusive performance by Bones the Machine, who will be celebrating his 30th birthday that same night. Kicking off the multi-media dance performances at 8:30 will be the quirky and enigmatic Natalie Deryn Johnson, aka Lady Deryn, whose resume is equally as impressive.
Bones the Machine, Deryn and Clancy may be three of the greatest young dancers in New York City, respectively, and therefore the world. Before Clancy arrives at The Mailroom to take the stage, she’ll be performing in Les Contes d’Hoffmann at The Metropolitan Opera in Lincoln Center. I saw her perform earlier this year in several small but challenging roles in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and was thoroughly captivated. All of these performers will be sharing their talents under the thematic and celebratory umbrella of Cecilia Collantes, who will be presenting a series of her geometric powder works on paper and canvas in this art exhibition, performance and nightlife event, which she’s calling, A Matter of Dust.
Though The Mailroom isn’t exactly a traditional fine art exhibition space, it should be noted that one of its main
owners Jayma Cordoso (Lavo, GoldBar, The Surf Lodge), knows how to bring in high-level creative programming. This summer, The Surf Lodge (which recently celebrated its ten-year anniversary), showcased a summer art exhibition series in their on-site gallery, which was supervised by celebrated painter and curator Richard Phillips. Phillips invited such forward-thinking curatorial minds like the Lower East Side’s Kai Matsumiya, for instance. Though Kai’s artists may have pushed the bar a bit too far, Cordoso and her team are not afraid to take chances. A Matter of Dust is a clear instance of Cordoso and her team providing both space and opportunity for a young, female, international artist, as well as a host of other talented and authentic performers who deserve all the attention and resources that New York City has to offer.
The Mailroom, which is in partnership with WeWork, has yet to open its flagship location to the public in an official capacity. However, it has hosted performances by Gucci Mane and LCD Soundstystem. There is no stage, so the audience can get pretty up-close and personal, dare I say (playfully) confrontational, which Clancy, Deryn, and Bones are more than accustomed to. DJ Fernelly and DJ Stiletto will be on hand to keep the beat alive throughout the evening. Zirkova, a socially conscious Ukrainian vodka brand, will be providing specialty cocktails. The producer and soon to be TV personality, Derek Anderson, a major Zirkova investor, has been going out of his way to provide capital and opportunity to various marginalized filmmakers with Zirkova’s We are One+Together film series. This is just another example of this larger team supporting young creatives in New York and abroad.
In searching out a place to display Cecilia’s work, I reached out to many traditional gallerists, admittedly in the heart of the rather jam-packed and competitive fall season. One absolutely delightful curator and art dealer friend, after looking at Cecilia’s work and recognizing her inherent talent, suggested that an MFA program would benefit Cecilia immensely. Was Cecilia still missing something? If so, what? This essential, social justice-minded curator is not wrong exactly, but in an age where so much contemporary artwork is incredibly didactic if not overtly polemic and literal, it’s almost refreshing to see an artist (who could easily and conspicuously comment on gender politics, fluid sexuality, immigration, and femininity), turn her attention to the cosmic, the microcosmic, the primordial and the universal. There is a striking resemblance between the images Somma manifests with sound, movement, light and electricity, and the dusty, colorful, geometric, emotive works Cecilia produces. The poetic, nebulous works featured in A Matter of Dust, will provide ample room for the dancers-these heavenly bodies, all diverse, all unique-to flex and rage against the same institutions that would seek to contextualize the quality of one’s work and the professional, emotional, or cultural validity of the artists who make it.
After recently returning from an “outsider art” conference at The John Michael Kohler Arts Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, earlier this month called The Road Less Traveled, I came to the conclusion that it’s not Cecilia’s work that is lacking a crucial element, but rather us, the critics, the curators, the collectors, dealers, the institutionalized, who lack greater perspective. When was the last time we really stopped to look at the stars or gaze deeply into the majesty of a stranger’s multi-colored iris? Though attaching a clear talking point, as manifested through a overtly literal, visual language, could certainly propel Cecilia into larger, more timely press circles and generate a considerable amount of attention, especially in this contentious left-right American (Trumpian) media landscape, on Tuesday, October 24th, let’s instead celebrate, as French novelist René Daumal would say, “…the accomplishment of knowledge in action.”
Kurt McVey began his journalism career as a prolific contributor to Interview Magazine where he covered emerging and established names in the art, music, fashion and entertainment worlds. He has since contributed to The New York Times, T Magazine, Vanity Fair, Paper Magazine, ArtNet News, Forbes, Whitehot Magazine, and many more. A Long Island native, McVey is also a successful artist, model, performer, entrepreneur, and screenwriter working out of NYC.