One of the best things about getting old is that you can do whatever the fuck you want. Or so the old people say. Such is the case with Jonas Mekas, whose latest exhibition at Microscope Gallery
is inspired by his lawsuit with the gallerist Harry Stendhal. The ninety-year-old Mekas, who is best known for his avant-garde films and criticism, has accused Stendhal, his former dealer, of selling some of his works without giving him his cut, including 40 stills of Elvis Presley, to pay an outstanding personal bill of $90,000 at Cipriani Downtown. For the past four years, the pair has been involved in an expensive legal battle that, according to Mekas, has not yet been resolved. This exhibition, Mekas says, is dedicated to all artists who have gone through similar trials with their galleries.
As a founder of Anthology Film Archives, and a legend in his own right, Mekas is properly suited to be such a knight in shining armour. But only a few people will really know that this battle was being waged, because the exhibition is staged at a tiny gallery in Bushwick, a neighbourhood that, despite its popularity in the media, has yet to be heavily trafficked by the mainstream artworld.
The works in the show are meant to be shocking, but they might not be for gallery natives, who will be familiar, for example, with the language used in Outlaw: Letters from the Gallerist to the Artist (all works 2013), a series of 12 black-and-white Xerox collages culled from borderline-illiterate BlackBerry emails sent by Stendhal to Mekas. ‘Just remember I never lose,’ reads one line. Another: ‘don’t fuck with me I will bury u and piss an ur u drunken oldman piece of shit’. Remove ‘oldman’ and you have a good picture of many a dealer–assistant relation.
Much of the work doesn’t have any artistic merit. Mekas’s 12 collages look like newspaper-clipping letters sent by a serial killer to his next victim, only on each of them there is also a photocopy of a woodcut of Dante descending into Hell, as if to remind the viewer that she is looking at an artwork. The letters appear again in a video, Sing. Sing to Me, Blackberry, in which Mekas pans the camera over copies of the emails while he sings along to a concertina in the background. “My great love for money/For money/Would have put me in Sing Sing,” he chants. If you didn’t have the emails as a reference point, you’d think you were listening to a song by Bob Dylan.
The darkness in Stendhal’s missives is countered by Fragments of Paradise, a series of 12 acrylic and watercolour drawings and photographic prints from Mekas’s video archive. Mostly featuring blossoming flowers, they seem more the output of an old lady in her dotage than the Father Time of avant-garde film. Untitled (#4) features five haikus about Paris enclosed in a vine of painted flowers. Untitled (#5) features a filmstrip of flowers in a meadow enclosed in a vine of painted flowers. You get the gist. Perhaps what Mekas doesn’t give a fuck about is showing work that, earlier in his career, couldn’t have been sold by anyone, especially a dealer allegedly desperate to pay off his debt at Cipriani.
This review was first published in the October 2013 issue.