New York, New York
Slipping through the sliding doors of Christie’s monumental midtown entrance across the street from Rockefeller Center, I walked to the right towards a steadily growing din. I was on my way to see “Insider Art,” the annual Christie’s staff show now in its 12th year. Labeled as a chance to see amazing work by those who labor at one of the leading art institutions of the world before that work becomes part of the next record-breaking sale, the show did more than live up to its promise. The first pieces in a narrow hallway before the main gallery were so interesting that I got in trouble while obliviously lingering in front of them: while staring at Cara Bonewitz’s intricately complex "Untitled 107" and the colors and intersecting planes in Tim Balboni’s "Tropical Fruit," I became an obstacle for the members of the catering staff hurrying through with more drinks and more hors d’oeuvres.
(Tim Balboni's Tropical Fruit and Cara Bonewitz' Untitled 107, Untitled 110, and 30-44 29th St. 5M)
The work inside the show was similarly brilliant. They were of all different genres: photos, mixed media, video art, sculpture, paintings, cartoons, and water colors were all represented. A few pieces in particular caught my eye: Jennifer Jacobsen’s "Lovey No. 2" perfectly captured the imploring way that dogs beg their owners for food. Hartley Waltman’s cartoons “The Life Cycle of Neuroses” and “Seven Inappropriate Gifts for Prisoners” provided a good dose of humor in the tradition of Roz Chast. Avery Daily’s pair of paintings entitled "Ancestors" seemed at first to be abstract paintings of serpentine lines and twisting color, but upon further inspection revealed themselves to be close-up portraits. Artsicle artist Dan Bina’s "Mo" depicted a 1959 Cadillac Coupe DeVille twice to fit the ethos of American excess and industrial hubris during the post-war boom; the flat plane on which the cars stood centered and emphasized that feeling.
(Dan Bina's Mo)
"Insider Art” was first organized by seven members at Christie’s East. They organized a small show, and the concept caught on. Though some of the art was for sale, Rebecca Riegelhaupt, a Christie's spokesperson, told me that some of the artists simply enjoyed a chance for their work to be seen before taking it back to their homes. What made the show so exciting was "being able to see the embodied passions of so many informed individuals" - people who handle some of the most interesting work the world has to offer on a daily basis. Dan Bina echoed this sentiment: "I would say that my art-historical knowledge from college was sufficient but working here put me in intimate contact with material culture of a different level. It was almost paralyzing at first to be around art constantly," but he has been able to put that contact to use by learning "how to pick out what interested me in continuing to add to the lineage of making artifacts."
(Robert Hernandez's Hiernoymus Bosch-inspired piece)
Rebecca also noted that such a show was able to change the way that colleagues were perceived. I overheard a literal example of this when artist Robert Hernandez say to his companion, presumably a colleague, “I told you I was crazy,” while both looked at his Hieronymous Bosch-inspired sculpture. The piece was ostensibly a man made of paper that cascaded down at the top and then elided into tightly stacked trunks of legs at the bottom, creating a controlled tension. Evidence of insanity, though, was probably strongest in the fact that there was a ship situated on the man’s shoulders and a cross that doubled as a mast coming out of his head.
(Mora Caitlin's Deborah Mosley, second from left)
Though Rebecca told me that the show was curated as little as possible, it seemed to be organized a bit in terms of media and subject: there was photography on the far left side of the gallery, and on the far right end of the gallery was a series of portraits by different artists. Mora Caitlin’s "Deborah Mosley" had a captivating gaze that was at once imploring and accusing, accentuated by dark, muted colors and schoolgirl seriousness. Dan Bina’s "Birdie Lamp" was placed perfectly in front of a saucy portrait of a middle-aged man quizzically holding a cigar, perhaps mid-sentence. Over email, Dan told me that working at Christie’s was akin to working at a museum on steroids. “The people here are so interesting. It is quite a joy to interact with a wide gamut of New Yorkers from our staff to our clients but, that said, we are here for the art and the objects.” As an art handler, he is able to benefit from “daily direct contact with masterworks ranging from contemporary art back to antiquity and prehistory.”
(Dan Bina's Birdie Lamp)
His department was the most represented at the show. Rebecca told me though over 69 artists were participating this year and there were members many departments who submitted, “there [were] more Art Handlers than anyone else.” This came as no surprise – “many of [Christie’s] art handlers are emerging artists.” Dan agreed, saying that “our organization is extremely large and the staff ranges in age, experience, nationality, and education. The works in this show reflect this immense diversity.”
(Joe Egan's Lanzarote, center)
I found that the work also sometimes reflected the department in which the artist’s work. Anna Covatta’s "Untitled," a beautiful heron on a matte gold background, fit with her job in the Old Masters and Nineteenth Century Art, while Jon Egan’s "Lanzarote," a mixed media concoction featuring wire mesh on a wood panel, reflected his work in the Post-War and Contemporary Department. And, while this might be a stretch, Paul Fortunato’s "The Break In," a large-scale painting of a bear surveying the havoc he wrought in a destroyed kitchen, immediately made me think of an overwhelmed buyer who realizes what he has done after embarking on a particularly dizzying spending spree; Paul Fortunato works in the Post Sales Department.
(Paul Fortunato's The Break In)
One of the most impressive pieces was Peter Hartel’s "Untitled Dream-Scape." Though only visible in glimpses through the crowd and covering the entire back wall, the piece dominated the room. I was drawn toward it even while looking at other pieces: I felt like the painting was watching me, and realized that that sensation was a result of the eyes scattered throughout the piece. Sprawling and hallucinogenic, "Untitled Dream-Scape" was defined by the dynamic action of the bees, human figures, trees, flowers, eyes, and bears contained within. Different colors and layers of composition emerged, disappeared, and re-emerged to create a labyrinthine whole. When I finally got to the painting through the crowd, I spied Peter to my left speaking to other show attendees about the piece. Fittingly, he was outfitted in a black and white jacket of optical illusions that perfectly complemented his piece; some attendees even photographed it.
(Peter Hartel in front of his Untitled Dream-Scape)
Both Rebecca and Dan told me that this year’s show was one of the best in a while, both in terms of the work presented and the number of attendants. After surveying the work, it came as no surprise that many of the artists had exhibited extensively elsewhere, and I am certain that those who hadn't will go on to do so. Before leaving, I stopped again to linger in front of Tim Balboni and Cara Bonewitz’s pieces and imagined where I could put these pieces in my own home. This time, I was not alone: the people around me were talking about the same thing.