Wednesday, February 23, 2005

My mind is part of God's. I am very holy.

A friend in high school asked me once, casually, if I went to church, and if I was "all holy." I wondered why she didn't come right out and ask me if I was a "sanctimonious twit." What was I going to say, "yes, I'm all holy, and you are profane and sinful. Get thee behind me!"

(I suspect now that this particular friend was a clever narcissist who honestly didn't realize that she came off as shallow and condescending. She was part of a crowd of "friends" of mine who would make loud plans for going to the circus or the movies together on weekends, with me sitting right there, and it didn't occur to them either to invite me or even that I might be upset at not being invited. This sort of thing happened to me a lot in high school, most notably in regards to dances and proms and things, wherein the "popular" girls would move heaven and earth to dredge up dates for my "friends," but seemed to regard me as some sort of asocial eunuch who would not be interested in such sordid things as proms. They were wrong, and I wreaked my revenge by NOT growing up and marrying a banker or lawyer or businessman and having 2.3 children in the upper-middle class suburbs, but becoming some sort of eccentric femme fatale, with ex-lovers in more than one country and no permanent address.)

The last time I saw the "all holy" friend was a few years into college, when she dramatically told me the story of how a group of our friends all went out to dinner at the restaurant where she worked, and didn't invite her, but they WAVED at her, and she threw a tantrum and "divorced them." I was like, "and you're telling ME this story? Me?" The irony was lost on her.

Strangely enough one of those same high school friends just wrote to me that she will be in New York in June, and that she couldn't make it to our 20th high school reunion, but "seeing you would make up for it." Gosh, maybe I'm cool, now. Or maybe some of my friends grew up.

Anyway I think that claiming to be "holy" is about the same as claiming to be "spiritual." Anybody who thinks that some people are holy and some aren't is entirely missing the point of holiness and is automatically disqualified, except that they aren't, because how could some people be holy and some not? So anyway, my mind is part of God's. I am very holy.

I got off on this tack because some friends of mine asked me to officiate at their wedding. I was very nearly speechless. "Uh, uh, duh-ba-duh, I'm honored," I said. "You can make a ton of money doing this, we've researched it on the Internet," said they. "Uh, uh, duh-ba-duh," said I.

Really, I am AMAZINGLY honored, that they thought of me, that they trust me, that both of them came to this idea together, even though I'm really the guy's friend and hardly know his fiancée (though I DO read her blog--in certain circles I think this constitutes friendship.) I have to confess that even though I've had more than one set of close friends get married by friends who sent in their $15 ordination fee to the Universal Life Church the week before the wedding, I have some issues. I have not entirely abandoned the Anglican conservatism of my forebears; we have many close family friends who are seven-years-of-seminary, deacon-to-curate-to-priest-to-rector-to-Bishop kinds of ministers, and a big part of me feels that mailing in my 15 bucks and swanning around in a collar is, at the very least, profoundly disrespectful of these people. I understand and agree with the theory that nobody has a monopoly on access to God. But good intentions are one thing; serious, long-term, focused hard work is another. I also get upset when Jeff Koons puts a blow-up doll in a gallery and calls himself an "artist."

I don't consider the concern to be so much "identity theft" as a devaluation of another person's time, thought and labor. "Identity" issues can be a red herring; I believe that all people ARE fundamentally equal and perfect and holy, no matter what their external attributes. However, all people do not spend seven years in seminary or twenty years in the studio, and it is the discipline rather than the essence which I wish to consider, when assigning worldly roles.

Anyway, the city of New York does not accept ordination by Universal Life Church. My friends still want me to officiate; what this will entail is actually producing documentation of a "church" and a "congregation" which meets regularly, and considers me to be their "spiritual leader." It happens that this would not be entirely a lie. Me and at least one good friend DO meet regularly for Course in Miracles study, and we know several others who are willing to sign on. I'm still shocked and amazed. Wow. I will NOT tell my mother, though. She might be even more upset than when she read my web page and discovered that I wasn't a virgin anymore at 35.

Friday, February 18, 2005


I've finished my PAINTING *tiddley-pom* it's a beautiful PAINTING *tiddley-pom* with a spiralling SUN *tiddley-pom* and then there's the INSTALLATION *tiddley-pom* called "the idle thoughts of ANGELS *tiddley-pom*...

well, maybe it sounds silly to describe the intricate doodle in graphite on the ceiling of the Whitney, with the looooong chandelier covered with silver vines, and the paper lantern hanging over a mirror, and the lace ripples on the floor, and the red leaf drawings pinned to the wall with little gold tacks. Plus I don't know what it means, it would just be pretty and it popped into my head while I was taking a nap. Naps are good for the soul.

Small miracles of the month:

1) M0's C4rting Co. dropped a dumpster on my truck. Instead of driving away in a hurry they looked through the front window of my truck, got my address off a piece of mail I'd left in the front seat, leaned on my doorbell until I got out of bed, confessed, apologized, and, after various negotiations with Terry the mechanic, dropped off a check for $2500. With which Terry the mechanic not only fixed the dumpster damage but my front-end suspension, which I couldn't afford to fix myself. My paternal grandmother's name was Mo. I take after her. M0's C4rting Co. ROCKS, and in the unlikely event that I ever need any carting done, I know who to call.

2) I got a phone call on Valentine's day from one of my favorite former valentines, who offered to pay for a ticket for me to come visit him where he lives, which is far away and sunny. Maybe I will take him up on it.

3) One of my formerly represented artists actually returned the favor, and recommended me to a very high-end furniture company which also sells art, and has a big showroom in Chicago, and also one on Madison Avenue and 62nd. Neneng-girl had just been telling me that I need to forget Chelsea and W-burg and go for the Upper East Side, Greenwich and the Hamptons, and I agreed, but pointed out that--

--small but important revelation of the week--

the art world does not work like the job world. Self promotion isn't. Any artist who goes into a gallery and shows the dealer her work is automatically disqualified from ever showing in any gallery that dealer even knows about. It DOESN'T WORK. The art world is full of cagey, oppositional, difficult, egoistic people with a deep distrust of sincerity, openness and good manners. The only way to get your work shown is if an Art World Insider sidles into a gallery and mutters, "so-and-so's work is really hot. Don't tell anyone I told you."

This is not an exaggeration. Last week I attended a seminar, "Selling without Selling Out," featuring the premiere Chelsea art dealer who shows emerging artists. She told us that she gets hundred of slides a month, which she throws away. The only artists she considers are those recommended by other dealers, collectors, or artists. The work she shows is total crap--I checked out the website. This means nothing. Dealers don't Look at Art. They Listen to Rumors. Which is why the whole scene makes me gag and consider giving up in despair.

But anyway, the salient piece of this revelation, which I now must communicate to dear friends everywhere, is that for fifteen years I have been stressed almost to the breaking point by dear friends who are constantly telling me, "you should check out such-and-such a gallery. They should show your work."

These dear friends mean to be helpful, and I must respond accordingly. So I smile and nod and promise to check the gallery out, knowing full well that this is useless and if I go in and introduce myself, I will be roundly snubbed. Many times I DO go in and introduce myself, and am roundly snubbed. But if I try to equivocate with the dear helpful friend, I come off sounding defensive, and Not Willing To Do What It Takes, and thus Undeserving of Success.

And meanwhile I am still stressed out by not getting into the galleries and not getting reviews and not earning enough to live on. With the added stress of having to make the dear helpful friends feel helpful. Because deep down, I always knew that the art world worked this way, I just didn't have the right words to explain it.

(This is also why I have nervous breakdowns when I DO have art world insider friends in my home and my gallery, and instead of muttering, "serena's work is really hot," to their dealer, they blather on about dancing poo. This is tantamount to attempted career homicide, and these people know it.)

So, the right words are: (please pay attention)
"Thanks so awfully much. The thing is, the art world doesn't work like the business world. Art dealers are egoistic, oppositional and suspicious. If I go in and introduce myself, I will definitely be treated like pond scum. What would really help is if YOU would go in, or a rich, important friend of yours, preferably a dealer or a critic or a well-known artist, wearing a discreet Armani suit and carrying a Hermes bag, and say something like, 'Do you carry Serena LaBella's work? I'm looking to buy/deal/write about her, and I need a contact. Oh, you don't? That's surprising. She's amazing. Anyone who IS anyone is talking about her now. Well, I don't know, try Google. You see? Absolutely stunning. If I were you I'd try to get in now, before her prices skyrock...oh, there's my agent. Ciao!' That's what would REALLY help."

Of course, we can't all be performance artists like Neneng-girl. But six degrees of separation, SOMEBODY has got to know Cameron Diaz.

At any rate, my formerly represented artist is a trooper and I thanked her a million times. She said, "Nobody's watching the kitchen door." I don't know if I can actually get my work into the showroom on the Upper East Side, but at least they were POLITE to me when I called. For chrissakes.

This is a much better lead than the "curator" I met at the conference, who has a "gallery" in TriBeca, on the fourth floor of a building with a broken buzzer and no sign. The gallery doubles as a dance rehearsal space, which I am not opposed to, but the answering machine has a generic voice on it, and there were almost no "sold" stickers on the very expensive artwork from Sweden, still on the walls one month after the show officially closed. This "curator," furthermore, let me show her my work, but only after she bored me for an hour and a half talking about the "nouveau riche" Filipino families in Manila that got rich by stealing WWII gold from the Vatican. I told her to read "Cryptonomicon." She told me to invite her for a studio visit. I actually considered doing so.

That evening I had a meltdown on the phone with Neneng-girl, who said, "I think that woman upset you." It's true. Some days I feel like I'm a strange amphibian, drowning in the cold Caribbean, and the people on shore are all smiling and waving and blowing kisses.

But today was a Happy Day, tiddley-pom. Good night.

Thursday, February 17, 2005

Dog in the manger

What is it with these East Coast parents, don't they teach their children Aesop's fables? I thought that was mandatory. But when I told Neneng-girl that her ex-lover was a real dog in the manger for getting pissed off and sulky when she dates other guys, she said, "what? That's funny. I've never heard of that before. Dog in the manger. Tee-hee."

A friend of mine drove by my ex-gallery the other day, and she says it looks exactly the same. Libby's installation in the window, plants, empty walls, track lights going on every night on a timer. I think the answering machine is still plugged in, with my voice on it saying that I'll be on call till the end of September. It has been four months exactly since I moved out completely, and my ex-gallery is still glowing like the frickin' World Trade Center Memorial.

I must say that I am damn proud of myself. Not only did I scrape myself up off the pavement and get along with life after apocalypse, some fool part of me is now rushing in where angels...well, into Lower Manhattan.

Okay, so the long story is that I answered a flaky craigslist posting and met an investment banker. Cool guy. The girl who posted the initial advert turned out to be a complete idiot. After me and the investment banker had brainstormed a pretty darn brilliant business plan, judiciously combining the best of non- and for-profit worlds, complete with mission statement, aesthetic and cultural agenda and possible liason opportunities in Greece and Indonesia, flaky idiot responded with an open letter which read, "that's not what I want, at all. I want to form a non-profit with deep pockets, buy a huge building in Manhattan for a dollar and hold a bake sale to renovate it, making all decisions in a collective, socialistic manner. With a large, committed membership, fundraising should be easy!"

So we are not working together anymore. However, I still went to the conference I'd registered for on behalf of the group--"M0ney, M4nagement and Mark3ting," sponsored by the L0wer Manhatt4n Cultur4l Council. I felt like a total impostor, since you had to be with a cultural or arts organization to register, and I just made one up. And, foolishly, I used the name that Grace and I came up with, last August, for the visionary real estate corporation we were going to build, "L1ghtHouse."

So everybody at the conference congratulated me for working at Lighthouse for the Blind, and I had to keep explaining. Note to self and investment banker--his idea for a name, "S1te Osm0sis," is the winner.

But people who attend business conferences are not like artists. Two days before this, I attended another LMCC-sponsored event, an info session for their artist's residency program. All the artists arrived alone, sat alone and stared around with stony expressions on their faces. I went up to a cute girl with pigtails, smiled, asked "Is this seat taken?" and she looked away and mumbled. During the "question and answer period," half the artists scuttled out with their heads down, and the other half went up to the microphones and asked wild-eyed questions which could all be paraphrased, essentially, as "what about ME ME ME??????" Artists are not community-minded folk. They are Hard To Talk To. Thus I was scared shitless about attending the conference.

At the business conference, everyone I happened to find myself standing nearby introduced themselves and asked probing questions about my life and purpose. I collected more potentially useful professional contacts in one day than in the previous six months. I had a BLAST. Business people understand that nobody does anything worthwhile all alone, and if you bathe, smile, take notes and speak clearly, you're a professional. Thank God.

(In fairness to the artists, I have to point out that our culture is not artist-friendly. After getting rejected for every grant, residency, juried exhibition and fellowship that I applied for last fall, I noticed one thing they all had in common--the percentage of applicants to awardees was lottery-level impossible. As in, 2000 applications for 10 S3gal Foundation grants, 71 applications for one Abb3y Scholarship, 430 applicants for six Sm4ck Mellon residencies, and so forth. With odds like this, for programs which, each of themselves, are still only a drop in the bucket to a sustainable career, it is no wonder that artists get surly, competitive and desperate. Our society really is trying to kill us.)

Anyway, by the end of the day my head was swimming with so many business models, paradigms, principles and useful contact details that I nearly passed out during the closing remarks by various Manhattan cultural luminaries. But then the president of LMCC started talking. I had to listen because I got an instantaneous crush on him the second he walked up to the podium and smiled directly at me. Shaved head, blue suit, lopsided grin, and suddenly I feel like a teenager at a rock concert. How we do change.

One of the things that was made clear to us during all these proceedings is that there is not, in fact, an unlimited amount of grant subsidy money available for Lower Manhattan business projects. Yes, the city wants to revitalize the area. No, this does not mean that they're giving away free real estate and millions of dollars of development money away to anyone who asks. In fact, the money is mostly gone. They do want to encourage us with free business advice, though; they're here to help. Whatever.

What caused me to prick up my ears and snap out of somnolesence as though struck by lightning were the words, "Sw1ng Sp4ce Initiative." Apparently the LMCC is going to be getting access to temporarily empty spaces, being sold or leased or demolished or renovated, for short periods of time, to do worthwhile cultural projects. Zoing! That's it! That's it! I didn't listen to the rest of the wise remarks by the president of New York Foundation for the Arts, though I'm sure they were worthwhile. I was too busy writing a business plan in my head.

During the next hour, I was not like my normal self at all. I was a Superwoman. I was a fast talker, brilliant improviser, deep, serious listener, graceful networker. I went to the reception and recepted. I chatted seriously with a nearly unintelligible Asian woman about the Foundation for Historical Preservation. I collected cards, I met people, I forcefully propounded notions. And all the while I circled gracefully and casually closer and closer to the president of LMCC. When I was in striking range, I smiled.

"Hi!" said the president of LMCC.

"Hi, I'm Serena LaBella, and first I want to thank you for this wonderful event. And I want to talk to you about Sw1ng Sp4ce. I used to have this project, H3aling 4rts in Williamsburg..."

"Oh, I know H3aling 4rts," said the P. of C.


(I'm sorry, but I have to take a break here and burst into tears. Nobody knew about my gallery. I worked and worked and worked, I renovated, I curated, I web-designed, I networked, I designed cards, I printed info flyers, I wrote and re-wrote press releases and sent and re-sent them to every frickin' art publication in the WORLD, and nobody published my listings even when they were soliciting advertising at astronomical rates. Reviewers never came and never wrote reviews. Other galleries snubbed me, artists snubbed me, clients were erratic and fell away when I raised my prices to market rate. Collectors passed up stunning work at bargain prices. Then my boyfriend broke my heart and closed me down in the same day, and didn't even use the space for anything afterward. I felt like the whole enterprise was a sophisticated exercise in spitting into the wind. But the president of LMCC has heard of me. And he has the nicest smile.)

"I'm H3aling 4rts," I said. "That was me. All me. I did everything. And I have an idea for Sw1ng Sp4ce. I want to go in, clean it up, make it GORGEOUS, curate an exhibition, hold performance and musical events, then LEAVE. This will benefit the landlords, the brokers, the artists, the neighborhood, and me. And I have experience doing this."

"That's a wonderful idea," said the P. of C. "Here's my card. Call me next week and we'll talk. Remind my secretary that you're the H3aling 4rts person."

After that I went home. No reason to push it, have another glass of wine, babble and look foolish. I should have been exhausted but I called about four people and chattered till midnight.

So for the last two weeks I have been working on a proposal. I called everybody I met at the conference and set up appointments. I called friends for practical and moral support. I collected input. A very clear point of input was that this project has to make money or it cannot be done. I have ideas about this, other people have ideas about this, if it works it could be a business. But I don't know if it will work at all. I simply have nothing to lose.

In the process of working on this proposal I have had to go through all the photos taken of my gallery in various phases, and I am amazed. Somehow during the process I didn't have time to be amazed, to step back and see the infinite, intricate beauty of what I was doing. I had a jerkwad of an uncommitted boyfriend standing over my shoulder and demanding to see the books, and looking at the clock, and whining and ranting and scaring people off. And now this same uncommitted jerkwad is paying the electric bill for track lights which illuminate empty walls all night, and the phone bill on an answering machine with the ghost of my former self giving outdated information, and not making a cent in rent because he is too paranoid and angry to trust anyone in the entire world. Arf, arf.