Playing off the Board: The People Games Play

Nicholas Cueva’s solo show The People Games Play is titled like an Iggy Pop lyric. It’s energetic and charged, it may symbolize a range of things, but it’s also literal and playful. A punk catchphrase that promises passion and ephemerality. 

Cueva’s installation is divided into two parts: a perimeter of paintings and a table of small objects.

The series of large paintings seem integrated into the architecture of the space. The entire gallery, walls and floor, are always painted battleship grey at Five Myles, a cozy color of stone. A grid of unpainted wooden lighting tracks span the ceiling like rafters. The surfaces of Cueva’s paintings are made of found fabric remnants, unprimed, and loosely woven into patterns of their own. Glimpses of a reflective sub surface shine through the weave and light seems to emanate from the paintings like stained glass. 

The subject matter is lively with silhouettes of people, food and drink melding into fractured patterns. A skull looms in the center of Old Scratch. The paintings share a warm, bronze palette that allows them to push and pull out of their fabric host and to comfortably reference the history of painting alongside the decorative arts. There is evidence of narrative within the layers of each image but amorphous fields of background fabric left plain distorts the completion of any one passage like a crumbling fresco. 

Off center in the space is a chairless table covered in objects, games of Cuevas own invention and accompanying instructions. These objects are visually and thematically mismatched, as if the artist had gone to the closet and brought out ‘the game box’. Moon and Stars is a one player game whose instructions read like those of a Sol Lewitt drawing, while Incense Race calls for up to 5 players’ incense sticks to be lit simultaneously. Players experience a simulation of Cueva’s practice. Experimentation, thought process, social habits, success and failure are all approximated for anyone to try out.

During the opening, hoots and cheers fill the space. The effect of the game table is disruptive to what would otherwise be a solemn, spiritual installation. But the warm atmosphere complements the warmth of the paintings. Onlookers may even notice that those standing around the game table begin to reflect some of the fractured content on the walls. As concentration shifts from gallery opening to game play, there may be momentary integration of the player into the exhibition, filling the visual incongruity between the games and the paintings.

Five Myles is a hike. It’s located on the outer rim of a newly sought after Brooklyn neighborhood, gentrification far preceded by Hanne Tierny, who set up the space in 1999. The gallery aims at an audience in the art world, but works to maintain relationships with its neighbors, often serving as a play space for local kids during the day. The resulting atmosphere is warm and friendly with regular locals eager to chat at openings, much to a New York gallery goers surprise. Cueva describes Five Myles as ’truly intersectional’. The two parts of Cueva’s installation are incomplete when left alone in the space. An audience, like a congregation, is required to make the experience whole.

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A Visit to Intermediate States

Having a drink at a bar, I will sometimes strike up conversation with the bartender or the stranger beside me. Sitting in the sauna, I give a polite hello but avoid conversations at all costs in the small, quiet cedar room. I ride the subway, crushed between strangers for extended periods of time and never make eye contact. Our lives are patched with these public rituals, each with its tailored venue and established social protocol. It is both the structure of the venue and its respective ritual that forges social bonds between strangers. 

Kristen Wentrcek and Andrew Zebulon Williams have a collaborative practice that explores a balance between tender human interaction and harsh industrial materials. Their studio is on a busy corner in Bed Stuy, Brooklyn in an invisible building, the venue for their most recent installation Intermediate States. Four people at a time are invited to participate and each invitee is given a plus one. 

On a typically cold and harsh New York winter evening, my plus one and I enter through a glossy black door at street level and ascend a flight of stairs. The second floor ‘waiting room’ is enormous, divided by columns with dusty ornate iron capitals and surrounded by high, arched windows. Two monolithic light sculptures flank a table with eight identical instruction cards. The rest of the room is empty and dim. It takes a while to realize that beyond closed glass panes, each window is sealed from the outside. In here, it’s the city that’s invisible - there’s no street noise and the air is still. 

We each take a card that instructs us to go upstairs at 8:15, but when the time comes we are all reluctant. After a few moments one of us takes the lead and a social hierarchy forms - the leaders and the followers in the group. We climb the second staircase to an equally large room full of piles covered by canvas drop cloths. The ominous cream-colored heaps are bisected by a narrow lighted entryway which leads us down a hall with backlit walls and ceiling made from sheets of fleshy colored fiberglass that is cast on site. The sickly yellow color of the material feels both natural and artificial. At the end of the hall we find a shelf of tumblers and each take one, as instructed on the card. A turn to the left, then to the right and the eight of us find ourselves in a small room, constructed like the hallway, glasses in hand. The fiberglass has an inconsistent opacity and pinholes leak points of white light. With a low ceiling and warm ambient lighting the space should feel cozy, but it’s more like being on the inside of a lampshade, with an unsettling sense of expanse outside. 

On one wall, eight spigots are divided by low fiberglass partitions. Facing each spigot is a milking stool made from stock lumber and medical cast gauze. Our leader takes the first stool and we all follow. Sitting facing my spigot, a small red indicator light clicks on. As instructed by my card, I turn the knob and red liquid slowly dribbles out of the brass spigot into my tumbler. The light clicks off. 

Here is a new social venue. Like the bar, the social catalyst is alcohol but the bar’s continuous counter, bench seats and long tables are invitations to merge your space with that of those around you. In the space constructed by Winterchek and Zebulon, we sit on stools so low we’re crouching, corralled and facing a spigot, all characteristics more reminiscent of being at a bath or sauna. We all have a designated personal space, a retreat from the awkwardness of avoiding conversation, encouraging introspection and inviting self-care. The partition provides the option to interact but it is not prescribed. Conversely, in a bar the drinkers will likely become more relatable and communal, being more intimate with one another as the night rolls on, comforted by their mutual inebriation. This is the dichotomy that each of us in Intermediate States has to resolve as we sip our first drink.

Both the bar and the bathhouse integrate an element of vulnerability - intoxication and nudity, respectively. This vulnerability becomes the bonding agent as time passes. At first, caught off guard by the dichotomy of the situation, we fall into the protocol outlined for a bathhouse. We act like nude strangers (although none of us have disrobed) carefully following the instructions, relying on the unifying bond of past experiences and reluctant to improvise. We are delivered drinks through our spigots three times at 15-minute intervals. Strong drinks. I strike up conversation with the stranger next to me, but also find it easy to break off that conversation and retreat into my own space. 

As the time passes, the drinks take effect and it sinks in that we are not nude strangers. Faced with an unfamiliar situation, we used this bond as a placeholder, but maybe this is turning out to be a bar after all. Just before 9:00 pm, a person picks up their stool and moves it across the room, our leader overthrown and social hierarchy upended. We all chastised him together, jokingly, but there was reality to the physical and social disturbance he caused. Suddenly, the structure that had given us each our private space was transgressed, but perhaps the deepest bonds are formed through transgression. Once that stool was moved, we snapped back to the familiar rapport of mutually intoxicated strangers, uninhibited by partitions and willing to break the rules. 

No one comes to correct the seat mover and, now that I think of it, we have not seen our hosts at all. No one has asked us to pay, photograph, promote or sign anything, there has been no transaction nor advertisement. As I exit onto the street I drunkenly wonder “why did that happen to me?”

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