Lucien Smith on the 'Horror' of Gentrification

Lucien Smith on the 'Horror' of Gentrification

At "Domestic Horror," on till October 19, Smith's oracular collab with Glenn O'Brien is back on view.

At "Domestic Horror," on till October 19, Smith's oracular collab with Glenn O'Brien is back on view.

Text: SAMUEL ANDERSON

New York is shrinking—at least population-wise, according to today’s Times. To anyone living here, this comes as a surprise: The city forever seems in the midst of an exponential surge, with its clogged MTA system and incessant new construction. But this recent data suggests another reality; amid all our New-York-is-over ideation, did we, at some point, pass a boiling point? Perhaps the center, as they say, cannot not hold. Perhaps New York is finally over, and is due for a clean sweep. 

If such an exodus really has begun, artist Lucien Smith may have predicted it. In his video piece “Clean Sweep” (2013), Lucien, who was living and working upstate at the time, catalogues New York scenes, from ruin-like parkland to crowded crosswalks, as Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” plays and the disembodied voice of New York denizen Glenn O’Brien recites elegiac prose. 

The sense of an impending doomsday is not specific to New York; in a current exhibit at Gagosian, “Domestic Horror,” curator Bill Powers “probes the tension between civilized order and chaotic disorder,” according to the gallery. Powers’s selections range from Smith and O’Brien’s urban swan song to highly personal portraiture by Chloe Wise and Louise Bonnet, charting a mixed-media array of horrors both public and private. 

We spoke to Smith about re-unveiling his work, and what domestic horrors haunt him currently. 

LUCIEN SMITH & GLENN O'BRIEN A Clean Sweep, 2013 (film still) © Lucien Smith © Glenn O'Brien Courtesy The Suzanne Geiss Company and Gagosian

VMAN Can you summarize your attitude towards New York in 2013, when you made "Clean Sweep"?

Lucien Smith For me, this project was always a memento mori to New York. At the time I was focused on documenting the vanity and transient nature of the city. It’s interesting watching it now and reflecting on how much New York has changed even since then. Funny to think we made this pre-Citi Bike, and seeing the shot of the Freedom Tower being built really creates a time stamp.

VMAN What prompted you to collaborate with Glenn O'Brien for this work in particular? If you can say, what was his attitude towards New York at that time? In what ways was it similar or different to your own?

LS The film needed a voice. I’ve always believed that jazz, specifically Coltrane’s saxophone, is the voice and spirit of New York. I searched through Coltrane tracks but I couldn’t land on anything that had the diversity I was looking for. So I widened the parameters and landed on “Flamenco Sketches,” a composition written by Miles Davis and Bill Evans featuring Coltrane, and coming off of the greatest Jazz record Kind of Blue, which was recorded in New York City in 1959. I sat with that for a while and decided that the film needed narration. 

CHLOE WISE We should have each other for dinner, 2019 Oil on linen 72 x 60 in 182.9 x 152.4 cm © Chloe Wise Photo: Rob McKeever Courtesy Gagosian
LOUISE BONNET Interior with Pink Blanket, 2019 Oil on linen 72 x 96 in 182.9 x 243.8 cm © Louise BonnetPhoto courtesy of the artist, Nino Mier Gallery and Gagosian

Bill Powers recommended Glenn O’Brien and connected us. I sent the film to Glenn and, to my amazement, he agreed to narrate it. I remember the day he came over to my apartment/studio. I set him up in my room with a laptop and microphone, and I’m pretty sure he did it in one take. That was such a special memory for me. I was meeting a New York legend for the first time, and not only that, we were collaborating. It was a real honor. I remember watching the film with his narration and just feeling a wave of resolve.

VMAN How do you think the film will be perceived now? Do you think there are new ways in which it will resonate, as opposed to in 2013?

LS Definitely. Watching the film now I feel the nostalgic undertones are even stronger. I think we showed it to soon. Perhaps it should have sat in a time capsule until now. Nobody wants to read the writing on the wall. Looking back on this film and this experience brings me happiness, not remorse. I think that’s the only healthy way you can live in New York. You have to welcome the change. Hearing Glenn’s voice after his passing sort of solidifies that whole experience. I hope his voice and New York can live on forever through this work.

VMAN What does title "Domestic Horror" conjure for you today? What 'domestic' issues are top of mind right now?

LS I mean, the same fears and anxieties that triggered me to start this project are the same, if not worse now. I think as a country we are going through the rinse cycle of a lot of important issues such as gender, sexuality, race, economics, technology, and so on. A lot of those issues are creating uncomfortable, even horrific, but necessary confrontation.

Lucien Smith by Jason Schmidt for V79 (Fall 2012)

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