Nyehaus becomes Indicaby Nora Griffin
November 8 – December 22, 2007
To find Nyehaus, an elegant “project space” elusively located on the eighth floor of the National Arts Club, is tantamount to time travel. From the Old World New York charm of the building’s Art Nouveau lobby, complete with courteous doormen in tuxes and oil paintings of pug dogs, visitors make their way past tinkling piano music and elderly women in furs to reach a modishly converted gallery space. The gallery’s current exhibition, Nyehaus becomes Indica (originating at the Riflemaker Gallery in London last year) is a re-imagining of the mythologized Indica gallery and bookstore, London’s first experimental art space, open from 1965 to 1967. The line-up of artists is a mix and match of Indica’s original exhibitors—Yoko Ono, Liliane Lijn, Carlos Cruz-Diez, Mark Boyle, and Takis—who are placed in a contemporary context defined by the work of Mark Dagley, Aishleen Lester, Juan Fontanive, Jaime Gili, Carol Bove, and Jim Lambie.
Nyehaus presents Indica as a groundbreaking cultural and social experiment, as well as a dynamic art gallery. John Dunbar, the 22 year-old visionary behind Indica, took a freeform curatorial approach, emphasizing the anti-art objects of Fluxus and the emerging forms of Kinetic and Op Art. The gallery’s international roster, including many artists who had not shown outside their native country, gave Indica a radical edge on London’s hermetic art establishment. Indica bookstore, located a floor above the gallery space, was where you could pick up imported paperbacks, records, and newspapers (including International Times, London’s first underground paper, a prototype for the explosion of alternative presses in the late 1960s).
Indica also had strong ties to the rock and roll world of 1960’s London, specifically the Beatles’ inner circle. It was on the eve of her 1966 opening at Indica that Yoko Ono met John Lennon for the first time. The bookstore’s managers, Peter Asher and Barry Miles, would later be vital players at Apple Records, the Beatles’ own short-lived attempt at a freeform commercial enterprise. Nyehaus injects this rich history into the layout of the exhibit with an archive room filled with posters, books, and Indica-related ephemera. In the corner of each room discreet speakers fill the gallery with a murmuring collage of 1960’s sounds—Rolling Stones outtakes, underground British Psychedelia, free jazz, and folk music.
But is it possible for Nyehaus to breathe life into works of art that have not been viewed within the context of Indica for over forty years? The answer lies in curators Tot Taylor and Virginia Damtsa’s sensitive selection of younger artists working with similar conceptual and visual approaches to their art. Venezuelan artist Carlos Cruz-Diez’s “Transchromie”—brightly colored plastic perspex strips hung from the ceiling in front of an oversize window—are placed next to Jaime Gili’s installation of roughly geometric painted planks of canvas and wood, a direct homage to Cruz-Diez’s art of color and sensory perception. Aishleen Lester’s totemic poly-resin "Arabesques” (2007) are like playful, aquatic variations on an Eva Hesse design. Mark Dagley’s large-scale painting, “Neutral Value Vortex” (2002-2006) is an exuberant Op Art spiral of black, gray and white squares, extending indefinitely beyond the sides of the canvas frame. All three of the younger artists (especially Jaime Gili in his explicit reference to Cruz-Diez) are clearly channeling the ethos of 1960s art, without reducing their own visual language to a form of mimesis.
Nyehaus becomes Indica brings a much welcome visibility to artists who haven’t been shown widely in the United States, such as the kinetic sculptor Liliane Lijn, who debuted her signature “Poem Machines” (also knows as “Koans”) at Indica in 1965. Looking like Surrealist bedside lamps, the poem machines are motor-operated, rotating cones and cylinders collaged with letters, newspaper scraps, gouache paint, and postcards. Placed next to the koans, Mark Dagley’s “Fludds Universe”(1998), a wooden structure housing a geometric model of painted sticks, is a contemporary counterpoint to Lijn’s formal conflation of mysticism, geometry and Pop jubilance. Similar to many of the exhibited artworks, the poem machines can be seen as experimental models, created for a future world that never fully emerged out of the dreams of the 1960s.
Limiting itself to Indica’s singular vision, Nyehaus becomes Indica, escapes the trap of Disneyfication that can befall an exhibition’s overzealous attempt to encapsulate a “scene” or “movement” from the recent art historical past. By allowing the works of art a physical autonomy within a functional gallery space, Nyehaus leaves no room for the melancholia-tinged nostalgia that seeped into both “High Times, Hard Times” and the ubiquitous East Village surveys. Similar challenges were overcome in the Grey Art Gallery’s “Geometry of Hope,” a vibrant overview of the political and social impetus behind mid-century abstraction in South America.
Forget for a moment the paraphernalia, catch-phrases, rock music, and “optimism” of the mid-60s scene, and you’ll arrive at the core radical difference between then and now: the necessity for a physical space to generate a counter-cultural movement. The art word’s current global sprawl conflated with the Internet’s promise of universal information makes Indica’s urban storefront operation appear hopelessly quaint by comparison. New York City’s possible equivalent of a bookstore/gallery/social scene, such as Printed Matter, functions more as a fringe operation on the edge of Chelsea’s monolith than as a vital nexus of information and display.
Indica, like all variations on the shining utopian dream, didn’t last long. However, its lessons, and at the risk of sounding sentimental, its “spirit,” persists today—in the contemporary artists chosen for the show, in the paper you’re now reading, and more intangibly in the unknown artists, writers, and musicians who still believe, in the words of John Lennon, that you “make your own dream.”