BY JUDY RICHHEIMER | After dancing, say, at Marquee, or drinking at The Half King, and before fighting for a cab on Ninth Ave. or praying that the E is running after midnight, the merrymaker who glances at a certain window just to the west of the doorway at 415 W. 23rd St. is in store for one last bit of fun.
In a ground floor commercial space, facing outward, arrays of white and painted mannequin heads, full-scale mannequins, generally in costume, colored lights, occasionally toys, a large mirror, a whirling panel, and other objects form sometimes whimsical, sometimes surreal, and of late, satirical, installations, which change according to season or the recent outrage from DC. These constantly lit displays are best enjoyed at night, as glare interferes with good daylight viewing.
Barry Wine (in his mid-70s and a Chelsea resident since 2009), creator of the “tableaux,” as he called them, more or less slid into this ongoing project some three years ago. “I am a collector,” he explained. He had been working with vintage jewelry bought second-hand (“grandma’s stuff that the family didn’t want”), which he repurposed as one-of-a-kind, phantasmagorical rings, marketed under the name Butter+Bling.
He turned next to painting and the creation of wall pieces, consisting of mannequin torsos, generally with heads still attached, mounted on canvas. “They were very heavy,” Wine recalled, so he switched to Styrofoam wig heads, which were easier to maneuver. Eventually the work was moved to the windows, in part to clear space in his overburdened art studio, and, as he frankly put it, to “brand” his work and perhaps catch the eye of an interested gallery owner.
Wine is a self-taught artist, and there was scarce intimation that he would someday pursue that role (with one exception; as a young man, Wine worked with famed investor Victor Niederhoffer, applying decorative bits to the shells of living snails and selling them as pets).
Speaking to Chelsea Now in the cool, almost corporate comfort of his building’s tenant lounge (and later in his workspace, which feels like the inside of a magic barrel, stuffed with material for assemblages past and future), he averred, “I went to good schools, became a lawyer, and then I owned a restaurant. Actually, it was pretty well-known.”
If the Quilted Giraffe, the restaurant he owned from 1975 to New Year’s Day of 1993 with his then-wife, Susan, was “pretty well-known,” then Studio 54 was a “fairly popular dance hall.” Both establishments helped define their era — the boom years of 1980s New York (the Giraffe was located first on Second Ave. and E. 50th St., then at E. 55th St. and Madison Ave., where incoming tenant SONY would buy out Wine’s lease).
Wine was not merely the proprietor of the Quilted Giraffe; he was its first serious chef. Amazingly, given the acclaim he garnered in that role (the New York Times repeatedly bestowed four stars), he was an autodidact in that realm, too. Good food was not part of his upbringing. “My parents owned a plastics business together” and there was not much cooking at home. “My grandmother had one dish, veal tongue.”
For the most part, he lets his collection dictate the work, his days behind the stove redux: “I would make dinner from the best ingredients available, not from the recipe. I make art the same way, as though the parts came out of my walk-in refrigerator.” The window “ingredients” are acquired from several sources, including the legendary Old House Parts Company in Kennebunkport, Maine, and on W. 25th St., between Sixth and Seventh Aves. (the wholesale “Mannequin Street” of Manhattan).
The tableaux in Wine’s window are sometimes naughty — during the holidays a sign near the heads read: FOR THE MAN WHO HAS EVERYTHING GIVE HIM HEADS FOR XMAS — but today they send a darkly funny political message.
The current window is an indictment of the two Donald Trumps, Junior and Senior. Its centerpiece is a male, child-size mannequin wearing a T-shirt, with a bandolier of bullets slung across the chest. In front of the child is a tiger head, signifying Junior’s love for big-game hunting. Above him hangs a whiteboard whose black letters read: DADDY YOU TOLD ME TO TAKE THE MEETING NOT BAD BOY. To the side, a panel of heads whose foci are in various directions, and masks, including one of a Pinocchio-nosed Nixon. Melania Trump and Vladimir Putin each present platters of Donald-Senior heads.
Were those severed heads meant to evoke Kathy Griffin’s notorious prank?
“No,” said Wine adamantly. “I was depicting an image of victory, not violence.”
Despite his manifest dislike for Trump, Wine made a point of stating: “I am not an activist,” nor a “left-wing Democrat.”
With prodding, Wine talks about process — the heads, for example, adhere together by application of expanding foam called Great Stuff — but is reluctant to opine about the meaning of his art. He does offer that the groups of heads were designed to look as though they were carved into a mountain, Mount-Rushmore-style, and the mirror was meant to reflect the people viewing the tableau, so they would see themselves as part of the drama (unfortunately, it could not be positioned to perform that task).
Asked about influences — James Ensor’s mask paintings, Robert Rauschenberg’s found objects, or Tony Oursler’s electronic creatures, perhaps? — Wine shook his head; there is none. He freely admits that his knowledge of art is less than comprehensive, and added, “I am not in favor of the artistic statement that helps a gallery sell someone’s work.”
On the other hand, Wine does not see himself as an outsider, working in the spirit of eccentric Chelsea past, when his street was described by Martin Amis as “unleashed, unmuzzled.” Wine identifies with new Chelsea.
That’s understandable. The Quilted Giraffe achieved the kind of breathtaking allure associated with Chelsea today. It was reckoned in the 1980s to be the most expensive restaurant in the country, attracting A-listers by the score, including, on a few occasions, one real estate mogul named Donald Trump. (“He was concerned that our granite table tops encouraged germs and worried that people hadn’t washed their hands before coming over to his table,” remembered Wine.) One dish, with the ironic name, beggar’s purse, was a bite-full of crème fraîche and beluga caviar, wrapped in pastry, and topped with a gold leaf. In 1990 it cost $50, and would be ordered dozens at a time by Masters of the Universe.
But even those more inclined to eat the rich than be fascinated by how the rich eat may admire aspects of the Quilted Giraffe. At a time when French restaurants made a fetish of hiring French workers, Wine consciously brought in an American staff. “We tested to see if they knew who Howdy Doody was,” he joked. He removed what he called the “brutalized” atmosphere of most professional kitchens, paid his workers well, and hired women to cook, something practically unheard at the time.
His windows may not have yet generated the buzz of the Quilted Giraffe — about which Town&Country published a rhapsodic, nearly 5,000-word remembrance two decades after its closing — but Wine insists that he garners equal satisfaction from both pursuits.
“Creating a special restaurant experience was thrilling. Like having made a good movie.”
When people walk by the window and exuberantly send thumbs-up, Wine again is the successful auteur.