Red Light District: American Folk Art Museum Celebrates Brutality at Downtown Party

Still from Jennifer Reiland The Arena ARTIST

Still from Jennifer Reiland The Arena ARTIST

The downtown bar Madame X advertises itself on its website as the “Sexiest Bar in New York City.” I am in no way qualified to comment on whether that claim has any basis in fact, even after attending Realms of the Unreal, a spring benefit party for the American Folk Art Museum thrown at the venue last Thursday, but I will say that the space was quite dark, and punctuated with harsh red lighting.

Lansing Moore, the co-chair of Young Folk (the “official young supporters group” of the institution, which threw the party), told me that when looking for a venue, they desired “something dim with dramatic lighting” to accommodate perhaps the centerpiece of the night: The Arena, a video by the organization’s annual art commission winner, Jennifer May Reiland.

The 10-minute, hand-drawn animation loosely follows a chaotic battle in a bullfighting arena and was inspired in part by the famous American folk artist Henry Darger, to whom the night was dedicated. (The party’s title, Realm of the Unreal, came from a book and a documentary about the artist). “I was kind of worried about showing the video in a bar setting but it actually works really well,” Reiland told me. “All art videos should just be shown in bars so people can drink and hang out and then resume watching.”

Moore said that Reiland’s video is “similar to Darger in that it is very epic in scope, there are sort of historical figures and even brief bursts of violence.” Indeed, for an event whose press release invited guests to “pass through the looking glass and ascend into a Realm of the Unreal; populated by fanciful beasts and outrageous vegetation, a war wages on between good and evil,” brutal red lighting and a cramped room full of socialites seemed fitting enough. (It should be noted that the same release also promised specialty cocktails.)

That brutality translated to Reiland’s dense video, which centered on representations of bullfighters and princesses and included everyone from Princesse de Lamballe to JonBenét Ramsey. Reiland mentioned that the day of the opening, her boyfriend gave her a “sick” plate adorned with the many faces of Princess Diana, who is also included in the animation. “I love Princess Diana,” she said. “I have read the Tina Brown book about her like four times. Also I read Princess Diana: Her True Story by Andrew Morton in a single sitting once. I was in Spain and for some reason it was the only book I had with me other than Don Quixote.”

Moore told me that he hopes that Young Folk can assist in opening New York’s art world to work that falls outside of certain institutional norms and “make people reconsider what folk art is, what the vernacular is and what outsider art is.”

Towards the end of my stay at Realms of the Unreal, I thought back to the lyrics of the song “Shatter My Harmony Joy Ride” by another important American folk artist—Wesley Willis, whose music and drawings of the Chicago cityscape touch on an eternal American feeling that seems spiritually in conversation with an artist like Ed Ruscha. When Willis sings about turning “my rock n’ roll joy bus tour into a nerve-wrecking hell ride,” I couldn’t help but think about gala season in New York City. After leaving Madame X, I went on a fast anxiety-ridden stroll around the Lower East Side. Then I went home and took some PM cold medicine.

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