It’s not immediately clear that there’s an art show happening at Von. The Bleecker Street wine bar always has art up, often the work of Charles von Herrlich, the bar’s owner. If anything, the pieces now hanging seem more eclectic, less unified, than usual. There are photo collages, street art, and a shattered mirror pressed into a rounded ceramic cone. There are no titles or names. The most obvious clue that there’s a show on is a handwritten sign saying that it continues downstairs.
“The guiding logic was that I know everyone in the show personally,” explains Emil Memon, the genial Slovenian expat who curated the show. On the Sunday night before the show—or the Monday morning, he corrects himself—he was “swept up in the big craziness of the Armory and wanted to do something more independent, more democratic.” He immediately e-mailed, texted, and called dozens of artists asking for pieces—and Charles, asking whether he could use the bar. He put the exhibition together in four days. “It wouldn’t have been possible even two years ago, without the smartphone and Facebook.”
Emil talks a lot about how technology helped him get the show together, but as he talks it becomes clear that he built his social network the old way: by hanging out in galleries and East Village bars and by being very enthusiastic about everything everyone is doing. When I ask people how they know Emil, most say “from around” with a look that says, How could you not.
An example of what around can mean. Andrew Strasser, who has an ominously lit video downstairs of himself getting hosed with Diet Coke, met Emil late one night at Vaselka while they were waiting for their checks. Later he brought Emil along as muscle in a job interview with Santos Party House. “I thought it’d help to make them wonder who this weird old guy standing there was.” Andrew says that he found out he was in the show when he saw his name on the flyer.
Downstairs, Charles explains that he and Emil “traveled in similar circles,” both being Pratt graduates. “He called me about the show and I said, Sure, but you’re curating the whole thing. I’m strictly technical support.” He’s helping set up an amplifier on the dance floor, or “music appreciation space,” as he calls it, wry obeisance to New York’s cabaret law.
The basement used to be where Charles sculpted and sparred with friends. Then it became a hangout spot. DJ Spooky played a regular show there, a sort of salon, Charles calls it. As the rent rose and the neighborhood changed it made less sense to keep using it as a studio, and he relocated to Bed-Stuy.
Similar forces guided the evolution of the upstairs space. He opened it as an antique shop with his sister in the mid-nineties. Then they started serving coffee. But the antiques still weren’t selling, the cafe was getting crowded, and New York split up the license for liquor and wine. “We went for the easier license, and the antiques became furniture.” Later the enormous rusted caps of an oil tank he’d excavated from the basement would become wall art, and the tank would become the wine vault. Charles, who called himself an “enthusiastic consumer” of wine for the decade of art school, became an “avid enthusiast”; the wine corks he’d collected over those ten years went on the ceiling as a sort of found acoustic paneling.
Key figures from early Von lore still stop by. Earlier I found myself at the bar with Evelyn, who described herself as the princess of Bleecker (daughter of Luke, the King, also at the bar), and part of the dynasty (Gentile & Associates) that built pretty much everything now on the block. She claims to be the inspiration for the change from cafe to bar. They were renovating the Italian restaurant next door, but were short on workspace and reduced to eating lunch in their cars, the engine running for heat. “Charles would open up for us and serve us coffee,” she said. “Then lunch, and then they were like, we can’t make a business just serving you two lunch, so they started serving wine.”
There’s a splash from the music appreciation space. “What was that?” yells Charles. Danny and Daniel, the twin brothers who make up Apollo Heights, the melodic shoegaze band playing later tonight, say that there seems to be water in the mike stands. Charles ducks behind the bar and reappears with a mop. “I spent ten years designing this place, so everything fits perfectly,” he says as he wheels the bucket through the swinging doors, along the bar, and to the center of the room.
Danny watches as Charles and Daniel empty the remaining mike stands into a drain. He’s been a regular at Von since it opened. “This bar supports you—you’re broke, they know who you are,” he says. “That’s an important thing to have as an artist. For a certain group of people this is a bar where you can meet and hang out. People know you’re real.”
Back upstairs Emil is talking with some of the artists about their favorite pieces. Everyone likes Iara Diaz’s arresting painting of automatons building a giant statue of her on a surrealist plain. Next we turn to a picture of a brownstone drawn by Helen Dennis in silver pen on black paper. Emil met Lara during a fellowship in Düsseldorf, Helen at a poetry reading in New York. Hash, a curator at the White Box gallery who’s clad in what he says is a Mayan breastplate and whose piece in the show, a silver coin with the Hebrew word for money written on it, has mysteriously gone missing, knows Emil through Alfredo Martinez, who went to prison for forging Basquiats and who has a watercolor machine gun on the wall.
“Ready, aim, fire,” says Voodo Fe, a rapper who knows Emil “through music,” pointing to Martinez’s piece, then his own painting, then a bright abstracted human with glued-on bullets for a head, and Emil’s piece, a photograph of artist Sibylle Springer aiming a rifle in a garden. Emil is delighted by the serendipitous theme.
Josh Dzieza writes for Newsweek/ The Daily Beast.