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If it’s good for you, it’s fine by me, a group exhibition on display this past spring at Real Pain, was, ostensibly, a show about the neighborhood bar. Conceived during the Coronavirus lockdown, the exhibition (curated by Gracie Hadland) served as an elegy to our emptied local watering holes, places where we might ordinarily enjoy the community of strangers or the comfort of solitude outside of our homes. The show suggested a frenzied archiving, an attempt to preserve the sensory texture and memory of these sacred haunts. Specifically celebrated were the grungy trappings of the neighborhood dive bar: mismatched cocktail glasses, flickering neon signs, the dripping red wax on a bottle of Maker’s Mark. Actual bars have since begun to slowly reopen; we no longer need to rely on art gallery-approximations of neon signs, the gushing sounds of soda guns, or the swatting away of bar flies. Thankfully, the exhibition moved past mere nostalgia, asking us instead to consider our active role within our communities, the bar representing a central hub of activity. Within the walls of Real Pain, visitors were simultaneously viewers and participants in the exhibition—the artworks, and by extension, the gallery, had the potential to be transformed simply by our presence. In destabilizing the roles of spectator and participant, the exhibition provoked a deeper investigation into how our presence, or lack thereof, informs and defines the communities we occupy beyond the gallery walls.
In collapsing this murky space between viewer and artwork, Adam Stamp’s Bar Fly (2021), in which the artist hatched and released green bottle and house flies into the gallery, played a critical role. The flies’ presence not only alluded to but literally recreated the sight of flies milling around a bar. Upon meeting with the swatting hand of a visitor, the fly and viewer together became instantaneously and momentarily a new work of art, both a representation and a recreation of that dive bar mise en scène.
In Lena Daly and Dani Bonnet’s Paraphernalia (2021), six numbered glass works wink at their collective title, resembling smoke shop glassware with their bottom-heavy, beaker-like bases. Highlighting the similarities between a bar shelf, head shop, chemistry lab, and museological exhibit, the sculptures allude to their possible alternative uses. In fact, the glasses were originally commissioned not as artworks but as functional cocktail glasses by Datamosh, a bar in Las Vegas. Transported from the cocktail tables of Vegas to the confines of Real Pain, the glasses became Duchampian vessels ripe with content.
Julia Yerger and Harley Hollenstein took a more literal approach to the theme. Their large, but technically miniature, seven-and-a-half by two-foot cross-section diorama of a dive bar (aptly titled Bar, 2020) considers how an artwork can be made functional. The diorama was hung on the wall at a height that mimicked a bar top—tempting visitors to pull up a stool. In these dual roles, the work was symbolic of the exhibition as a whole, at once a representative allusion and the actual thing it approximated. With meticulous detail, down to its graffiti-scrawled bathroom, the diorama is reminiscent of models found in natural history museums—direct recreations of specific locales. However, Bar does not depict any actual place. Rather, it is a distilled and idealized depiction of one, a sum of the disparate qualities that together define a dive. Like the exhibition at large, Bar is also lacking in people. The glasses sit half-full and the pool balls appear mid-game, almost urging the viewer to pick up a cue and take the next turn.
Given the broader absence of people throughout the exhibition, the show’s lone figurative work solemnly stood out. Reynaldo Rivera’s black-and-white photograph, Tina, Mugy’s (1995), depicts an elegantly costumed Asian drag performer, fully engrossed in their performance while a man in the foreground applauds. Placed opposite the gallery’s front entrance, the photograph immediately commanded attention, creating the feeling of sitting shoulder to shoulder with the applauding man, enraptured by the performance. In its solitude, though, the photograph amplifies the absence of figures in the rest of the works, further emphasizing the role we, as visitors, play in creating the community so essential to what makes a bar a bar.
Many of Rivera’s documentary photographs were taken in Echo Park, once home to a thriving Latinx LGBTQ bar scene. Yet, the thriving locales pictured in his work have since been replaced by bars catering to a whiter, wealthier population. As Los Angeles faces the conjoined and compounding crises of gentrification, Covid-19, and rising inequality, with LGBTQ spaces being particularly impacted, Rivera’s lone photograph serves as a stark reminder about the groups and spaces most vulnerable to the physical and economic violence of the past year, as well as the important role that queer nightlife spaces play in building community and culture.
In its reliance on the viewer for activation, If it’s good for you asked us to seriously consider the mirroring role we all play as community members—at once observers of and participants in energizing the local culture. Our presence in these spaces then becomes actively political. The bars we choose to frequent—or avoid—can hasten or prevent the spread of gentrification, and with it, a monoculture dependent on our passive acceptance of it.
Sampson Ohringer is a Los Angeles-based writer, originally from Chicago. His research interests focus on global shipping and logistics networks as they intersect with other disciplines.
This review was originally published in Carla issue 25.