What gets the creative wheels spinning? For New York artist Greg Haberny destroying, gutting, gluing, stapling, shooting, burning, deconstructing, dismantling, and basically blowing things up gets them going pretty good, this, his modus operandi in making art and riding life. And for him, life is all about making art, solo, for hours on end in his Chelsea studio aptly nicknamed The Bomb Shelter. Situated inside an old carriage house beautifully hidden from the street, behind an unassuming early 19th-century domicile off Seventh, Mr. Haberny found this little piece of Shangri-la to keep creativity moving along. Here all the time, he doesn't waste time bullshitting or going out to party or futzing about. His work is his zen, his peace, his all-night party, his way of grinding those wheels to the pavement. To catch Mr. Haberny, to chat with him, is to find him at his art openings or at art fairs in Miami, Cologne or at VOLTA, New York, where I spoke with him and his dealer Michael Lyons Wier this past month and where both were satisfied from the turnout, the quality of collectors passing through, but mostly from selling-out their booth of Greg's work.
Mr. Haberny creates by first becoming master destroyer, acute dissembler, before the metamorphosis to master builder begins, reassembler of the wreckage and carnage created priorly with absolute and total abandon; for with each new work, worked on, labored over, and scrutinized for months, Mr. Haberny acts, too, as sole critic/debater, debating both sides of the coin, both sides to the latest news-breaking stories out of FOX 5 or 60 Minutes whence he harvests material, simultaneously, unabashedly, defending and prosecuting with equal measure and emerges, eventually, with a bang, originating an entirely new universe regurgitated from current events from here in the states or direct from Beijing for it's all the same, or so his work seems to convey; all part of his repertoire, all for the taking and for the part-taking, and all of it history and feed for the fodder -you can smell it in the studio, the glue gun working up a storm on overdrive- and General Grant's description of history as 'one god damn thing after the next' fit's perfectly well within Mr. Haberny's very hands-on, constructionist, vernacular. The guy moves around quickly from the floor where he's assembling a new work to work table where paints are mixed and found objects dismantled, from one painting to another, continuously, trying to understand things by breaking them down, cutting them open. This is a chop-shop except legal.
Or, perhaps, more biology lab where it's not a frog but Micky Mouse getting pinned-down, dissected. His wheels get oiled from many issues and topics of the day: corruption, greed, train-wreck celebrities and reality stars of little worth, talent or moral standing; of priests, rabbis, and politicians gone bad and of storms and corporate governance gone worse and of bailouts for banks and props to the well connected "all while the little guy gets reamed in the ass incessantly down on Main street with everyone watching and no one doing a god damn thing about it because American Idol is on and we must vote for the next big star if only we could reach the cell phone that fell to the floor for we are too comatose from sugar-induced, fat-laden, diets of Big Gulps, Chunky Monkey and nachos with cheese whiz, amen' he says in one breath.
"It's all madness, worse if you let it get under your skin, if you read the papers" which he does and uses in his work, "and it piles up ever so high like horse shit would in this stable if not cleaned-out daily and had there still some horses here." This madness and insanity is what Greg's work screamingly portrays via the accumulation, destruction and assemblage of things like, but not limited to, broken tea cups, porcelain figurines, taxidermic squirrels with crack pipes, dollar signs and scrawled messages with dire warnings; of heaps of trash, mounds of rubber tires or of computers not even a decade old. His work mimics those massive floating bodies of plastic bottles swarming and clogging our oceans, rotting and emitting toxic gases and damaging the very eco-systems that keep us alive and best evidenced in Haberny's epic piece Beautiful Disaster displayed at VOLTA NY.
Greg keeps going: "We're victims of our own success, gasping for fucking air, fresh water and green space and we need a break from the monotony, from the petty, from all the red-tape in getting things done, now, and of ever-higher taxes to pay for things unseen, undone or overdue and the high cost of rent unless you live in god forlorn Detroit." Yes, Detroit, now there's a perfect metaphor for Mr. Haberny's work: it's ruinous, bellied-up, bankrupt, shattered and dying, no, it's bleeding, Motor City is dead. But look closer and listen and you'll see people still living there and they have a pulse and hearts and they call Detroit home and have pride and families they love and all they want is to better themselves and their city. You'd think our government would invite billionaires to step up to the plate and offer billion-dollar prizes for solutions, offer tax breaks and immediate incentives to help change that ugly disaster but no, we gotta stop malaria in Africa first and provide condoms second while homes burn, people abandon, kids kill and life keeps sucking for millions right here on our own shores.
That's why I say thank god for artists, like Greg, who communicate freely their thoughts, opinions, and rage. Look closer and you'll see his work is on to something: you'll see that there is indeed hope in destruction, somehow, amazingly, just like after 911, when New York, and the rest of America, was inundated with kindness and help from the world over, proof positive that beneath all the wreckage, beneath wastelands and beyond the waste, beneath all rubble, past all negativity, that there are green-shoots indeed, flickers of positive light; that rays of technicolor exist, of life yearning to get to the surface again, to change face of that surface, like artists moving into downtown Detroit the way they moved into the Lower East Side, Williamsburg, or Wynwood, and when nobody else wanted to except the poor because they didn't have a choice, and those initial gestures born out from creative migration helped make immediate, noticeable and positive change to those neighborhoods. But there's always a storm first, there has to be, always carnage, destruction, and loss of life or material home first before we listen, concur, and make amends, make better. Why can't we ever make better those things that are already good or OK or not so bad?
How long must we choke on our own crap, on ignorance, on bigotry, on diesel fuels and fossil fuels, and on athletes who cheat, powered on steroids, turning the Tour de France into the Tour de Farce before a collective gasp, no, a collective scream of "I'VE FUCKING HAD ENOUGH ALREADY!" is belted out loudly and clearly and daily over NPR airwaves? We need more rage! Unfortunately, as long as home runs are hit and ballparks fill with hundred dollar and up seats and Lady Gaga keeps changing attire there'll be no such thing, who gives a shit anyway? Who the hell cares? Who can even tell anymore what's important when we're forced-fed Kim Kardashian's ass on the same platter and with equal measure as with all the downbeat updates coming out of the Near, Middle, and Far East. Maybe history really is 'one god-damn thing after the next', repeating itself over and over and over again. The thought numbing and not at all comfortable. Which way to turn?
In Cormac McCarthy's The Road we're led into an environment that is not so remotely unlike a Haberny landscape, of a Haberny installation, of Detroit or New Orleans after the flood, environments of startling destruction and unsettling despair. Haberny's inventive worlds, too, from the looks of it, are just as dangerous, with prickly barriers and sharp edges and act as a distraction from his core principle: to expose and enlighten. Because truth be told, Mr. Haberny does give a shit, the way Goya gave a shit. His work is his fight. His reporting. His vigil. His is an oil spill choking the oxygen not out of beautiful clear Floridian waters but strives to suffocate hypocrisy wherever it rears its ugly head, to choke it at the source directly and with confrontational vigor and Shakespearean swagger in this our society that wants to have its cake and eat it too.
You can almost hear Greg's laughter, his mockery, in a piece that spells out 'FAT' in thick globs of dripping, golden, goop, -looking like gilded shit, quite frankly- and as such, the shimmering and alluring value and power of gold blinds us into believing everything on the surface is just fine. But we know better. The system is broken and with the gold standard gone long ago, the system ran amuck and the printing of dollars, of Quantitative Easing, 1, 2, and 3, and of easy money for banks and not for the little guy makes it all stink even more. In fact, it stinks to high heaven. But like the magnetism emanating from within McCarthy's masterpiece forcing you to walk along all the gray matter and debris and not put the book down, magnetism exposed via the gravitas of caring, to care for, as in the tenderness bestowed by the ill father to his scared little son and in the hope they'll survive together, in the hope that humanity will survive, Greg Haberny's work also gives hope, has light, is breathing life and makes us realize that along with the danger and after devastating loss we must always be on the lookout for nourishment, bright spots, for shelter from the storm, for reminders that Nirvana exists and is here on this earth.
Because as more shit gets piled higher and higher, as history passes with each and every day, the line between friend and foe, good and bad, gets blurry sometimes, and questionable. Always will. But sooner or later we're all forced to make decisions, to make a stand for what we believe in and must jump off the fence and choose which side of it to live on, to live by -the enemy, the bad guy, the big bad wolf, the greedy banker, the storm, the terrorist, will always be there, right around the corner- but so too is the rainbow, remember that! But in Greg's work the colors of it are running, dividing, morphing into something else, something entirely new, for better or worse, but what it is most important, most certainly, is evidence, evidential remains out of his quest and pursuit of truth to make art and hence, from doing so, safeguarding the rainbow's everlasting appeal. For its appeal, its sight, even if fragmented and half-hidden by dark ominous clouds, is what gives hope to live and carry on, to move forward along the path to enlightenment.
Mr. Haberny is represented by Lyons Wier Gallery in New York.