Loren Munk at Lesley Heller Workspace

Munk #2

Loren Munk, Village of the Damned, (2004-5), oil on linen, 60″ x 72″; courtesy Lesley Heller Workspace

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Huffing and puffing through myriad YouTube postings, navigating New York City’s art districts on his trusty Schwinn, James Kalm has graduated from being a guerilla videographer to an art world fixture—a presence as ubiquitous as the umpteenth condescending gallerista or Jeff Koons’ shit-eating smile.

Kalm is more endearing than either—quirkier, too. These qualities are readily apparent in his POV videos of gallery openings, museum press previews and sundry other public events. Documenting the art scene with dogged persistence, Kalm has received kudos from out-of-towners eager for a glimpse of goings-on about New York City. He’s also earned the enmity of dealers whose sense of exclusivity frowns upon grassroots communitarianism. Watching Kalm being shushed out the door by a functionary at Pace Gallery—yes, you can find it online—is to realize that art is, you know, not for just anyone.

Community counts a lot for Kalm as it does for Loren Munk, whose paintings are on display in Location Location, Location: Mapping The New York Art World at Lesley Heller Workspace. “James Kalm” is, in fact, Munk’s alias and one of the art world’s most badly kept secrets. Alongside his roles as “vlogger” and artist, Munk writes for The Brooklyn Rail, a journal that’s made a niche for itself as an arts community booster.

Kalm/Munk is a geographer intent on capturing each and every facet of his particular sub-culture. From the humblest Red Hook living room to the poshest Blue Chip gallery, no venue is beyond his ken or interest; all are an integral component of that living, evolving and consternating thing known as “the art world.” Munk’s paintings—labyrinthine diagrams of criss-crossing linear networks, innumerable factoids and the stray slogan (“There are over eight million paintings in the NAKED CITY, this is only one of them”)—embody a sense of the city’s cultural identity and standing.

Location Location, Location consists of eight large paintings and one small study dedicated to a specific area of the city: Soho, the Bowery, the West Village (home of the famed Artist’s Club), East 10th Street and the Village of the Damned (the Lower East Side circa The Mudd Club and Keith Haring) and The New Lower East Side of Whole Foods and The New Museum.

Munk has been around long enough—he set up shop in Red Hook in 1969—to witness the scene’s aesthetic, commercial and logistical shifts and, not least, the role of the real estate market in shaping them. (What Manhattan Makes Brooklyn Takes underlines the artist’s eternal search for affordable studio space.) Rendered in bold colors and with lumpish clarity, each canvas functions as an art world “Who’s Who” and “Who’s Where.”

Munk has done his research. Take time to unravel his text-heavy pictures and you’ll discover not only the addresses of Alfred Stieglitz’s ground-breaking Photo-Secessionist Gallery and the fabled Cedar Tavern, but the studios of Edward Hopper, Ad Reinhardt and Eric Fischl, as well as those of half-remembered figures like Herman Cherry, Richard Nonas and Aaron Ben-Shmuel. Esoterica is embraced for the sake of accuracy; for the sake of obsession, too.

Nodding to Edward Tufte, the Yale academician who pioneered data visualization, Munk is a statistician-cum-self-made folk painter—an artist driven by inescapable categorical imperatives. There are pictorial smarts at play in Munk’s images. He traverses the divide between language and image more nimbly than one might, at first, suppose. But the work is powered more by encyclopedic necessity. This makes for art that is daunting in its details, impressively focused, a tad invasive and a little eccentric.

Maybe a lot eccentric—extremity of character accounts for a lot of Munk’s charm. Location, Location, Location is where the cliché “one of a kind” earns its keep.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 28, 2011 edition of City Arts.

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