Alan Belcher’s Friends at Downs & Ross is an afterparty. The works in the exhibition are a series of mascot-like plush sculptures sitting in groups on broad, mattress-topped plinths, hanging out as if coming down from a night at the club. Each cuddly character is composed of mutant combinations from a lexicon of emoji-like elements that include body parts, geometric shapes, foodstuffs, household items, “traditional Asian medicinal aphrodisiacs,” and video game icons. Though they have the bright colors and professional facture of kids’ toys or corporate swag, these “friends” were hand-sewn by the artist. They vary slightly in size but most of them would be pretty impressive prizes at a fairground shooting range. Most importantly, each one is named for one of Belcher’s own friends or acquaintances, making the ensemble a portrait – a screen capture, you might say – of Belcher’s social scene, in which his dual position as an artist and gallerist made him a nexus point.
Belcher co-ran Nature Morte gallery in NYC’s East Village, a short walk from where Downs & Ross is now, from 1982 to 1988. At the time these works were made, between 1996 and 1997, he had just moved back to his native Toronto from Cologne, Germany, where he had been living for five years. Initially shown in New York, London, and Toronto, the sculptures were received with a “dull thud,” in the artist’s own words, though he acknowledges that his friends enjoyed being commemorated. Seen now, they feel almost alien, both improbable and surprisingly fresh, as if they had appeared out of nowhere, dragging history behind them.
The fact that this body of work was made over twenty years ago necessarily gives the exhibition a retrospective, even elegiac, quality somewhat at odds with the sculptures’ zany, irreverent appearance. One, titled Felix (1996), memorializes General Idea member Felix Partz, who died of AIDS-related causes in 1994. Several of the series’ subjects have are now deceased, including Costa Pappas, who appeared in some of Nan Goldin’s photos, and Romeo, a bull terrier who belonged to Belcher’s erstwhile gallerist Jack Shainman. Some of the people “depicted” in the series – though Belcher insists that the elements in each configuration are “abstract” and not meant to signify anything about the subject – have drifted out of his life, while others remain close friends. As a whole, the series links New York and Toronto with cities in California, Germany, and elsewhere: a loose international network of queer subculture and conceptual art in which Belcher was a multifarious connector.
For these works to appear now, in this particular space, testifies to the resurgent interest in Belcher and his milieu among younger artists and gallerists. In the 1980s, Nature Morte exhibited a variant of Neo-Conceptual art that was opposed to the splashy Neo-Expressionist painting of the day but still fascinated with commodity aesthetics. Some of the artists that showed there were associated with the “Pictures” group (and Metro Pictures gallery) and some were tagged with the often-maligned “Neo-Geo” epithet, but most hybridized some combination of Pop, Minimalism, and Conceptualism without running afoul of the standard protocols of commercial gallery practice. Like numerous other upstart galleries in New York at that time, Nature Morte eschewed the ethos of established alternative art non-profits in favor of a quasi-commercial – if informal – model.
The 1980s boom in DIY art galleries was an important precedent, if not always a conscious model, for the kind of screen-facing, small-scale artist-run spaces that abound today. The art that circulated there, occupied as it was with media technology, image culture, and branding, also remains an under-recognized forerunner of the Post-Internet art of the last decade. Friends is prescient in exactly this way, uncannily anticipating the emoji-fication of language wherein the notion of personality as an assemblage of prefabricated images is practically the default.
It’s easy to see why Downs & Ross is a natural fit for Belcher’s work. The first venture of Tara Downs (who runs Downs & Ross with her partner Alex Ross, formerly of Hester gallery) was Tomorrow gallery, which she co-founded in 2011 with Hugh Scott-Douglas and Aleksander Hardashnakov in a studio-warehouse on Toronto’s Sterling Road, across from the premises now occupied by the MOCA Toronto.
Tomorrow was the trailblazing art space in Canada in terms of the recent wave of DIY artist-run galleries. Each of the principals was fresh out of art school and, from the start, they were networking internationally, exploiting the visibility afforded by the internet and showing the first wave of Post-Internet artists, like Brad Troemel and Parker Ito. Like many venues that followed it, Tomorrow showed emerging artists while operating on a basis that was more ad-hoc than an established commercial gallery, and also unlike the Canadian artist-run center. Much of what they exhibited seemed like the physical extrusion of exchanges that were being lived online.
Eventually, Scott-Douglas and Hardashnakov left to pursue their careers and Downs decamped to Berlin to work as associate director of the Tanya Leighton Gallery before resettling Tomorrow in New York in 2014. Most DIY spaces on the Tomorrow model are provisional, short-term projects, too precarious to last. Downs, by contrast, has made a rare leap in turning what was once an edgy project space into a serious commercial enterprise.
A sign of the new maturity represented by Downs & Ross was their decision to begin showing older artists and works, particularly ones like Belcher’s, which may have been neglected when they were first shown but now feel relevant and contemporary. The very first exhibition at Downs & Ross in early 2017 was composed of works made between 1981 and 1983 by Vikky Alexander, another Canadian artist whose career crosses between US-Canada scenes (New York Pictures and Vancouver School Photoconceptualism) and whose work has lately been subject to re-evaluation.
Belcher has also been an important figure for Montreal art space Vie d’Ange, which included works from his 1989 Oil series in its inaugural group show in 2016. When Vie d’Ange officially closed its doors on Rue Marconi this summer, their final exhibition, Condemned, consisted of a single installation by Belcher that reprised his Condo works of 1987-91, in which photos of a Toronto Harbourfront condominium development were sliced into strips, laminated, and mounted on an imposing construction of cinder blocks.
In this case, it stood as a sober monument to the displacement wrought by real-estate speculation and gentrification. The previously undeveloped enclave where Vie d’Ange was located, affectionately known to some residents as the “Marconi Maze,” is undergoing colonization by massive tech companies whose property acquisitions have led to the ejection or closure of several local businesses and a steep rise in rents.
With Condemned, the issues that the work addressed when it was first produced are essentially the same ones it speaks to in the present context, despite the twenty-year gap – though, to be frank, I find a certain flat-footed literalism in its combination of signifiers and its material presence that’s unfortunately typical of Belcher’s output. Though his work is full of interesting left turns, his particular brand of object-based conceptualism has often been conceptually thin and aesthetically clunky. Which is to say that there are reasons he hasn’t been better known. It’s also telling that, while Downs & Ross and Vie d’Ange have each presented his work more than once, they’ve stuck exclusively to his early period.
Friends is intriguing in part because of how eccentric it is in relation to most of Belcher’s oeuvre. Many of his works have a handmade quality, and some even incorporated embroidery and sewing (notably his voodoo doll self-portraits), but this mascot series stands apart. It’s more abstract than much of his other work, occupying a pleasantly absurd, self-contained aesthetic universe, while also feeling more intimate and personal, freighted with the gravitas of representing real lives and a moment in time.
Of course, much of this effect derives from the passage of time itself; its success depends partly on the different circumstances of viewing it today. Furthermore, many of the 1990s references that were important to its creation – Asian Pop “kawaii” culture, “kiddie rave” techno, and ‘90s video games, for instance – aren’t especially legible now and, to the extent that they are, they represent nostalgic kitsch rather than the up-to-the-minute saturation in hypermodernity that Belcher’s 1997 press release proclaimed with lines like: “These bio-tech bouquets salute the Pacific Rim’s majestic rule of the contemporary.” (It’s worth noting that Belcher spent six months in Japan in the middle of producing the series).
The presentation format also makes a difference: at Cold City in 1997 most of the sculptures sat on the floor, aside from a couple placed on a futon mattress, and the word “tomodachi” (Japanese for “friends”) was lettered on the wall in kanji script. Downs & Ross’s mattress plinths preserve the futon’s connotations of crash-pad fun while also sprawling far more luxuriously across the floor space and (to me, at least) evoking a medical or even mausoleum flavor: a hospital bed or a softer version of a marble slab. The kanji, unsurprisingly, do not appear, except as embroidery on some plush Cheetos tucked away in the back of the gallery.
If younger artists look at Belcher’s sculptural practice, curatorial activities, and social milieu and see a reflection of their own activities, I think much of it has to do with how he and his peers responded to conditions of rising political conservatism and market stratification in the Reagan era. Galleries like Nature Morte and artists like Belcher did it themselves and found ways to survive and succeed, though partly by jettisoning the utopian aspirations of earlier generations, embracing entrepreneurial models and an ethos of irony and provocation. As these very works testify, though, not everyone did survive the 1980s and not every survivor thrived. Friends shows how Belcher moved on, adapting to the bubbly optimism of the Clintonite 1990s, though upon opening the time capsule, it’s the shades of tragedy and horror imparted by our present perspective that make these relics compelling.