Manhattan transfer

The Lower East Side of Manhattan is not exactly a slice of New York known for its cinematic beauty, what with its crowded tenement buildings, grime-baked streets, and indigenous odors of vomit and urine. Yet for a handful of years, it has been the last bastion of downtown bohemia for young art types who have been forced by astronomical rent increases to abandon the very neighborhoods they cultivated: Chelsea, SoHo, TriBeCa. The Lower East Side is all that these young pioneers have left (save Brooklyn), the only chunk of real estate on the 13-mile island that hasn't been gentrified by the Gap and Starbucks and cash-laden Wall Streeters. And by the look and smell of it, it may be a while before the corporate bigwigs care to set up shop in the middle of this urban sprawl.

But the neighborhood's frayed character doesn't prohibit all outside invasion. In fact, smack in its center, on Rivington Street, there's an extraordinary attack going down, an invasion of artists from Denton, Texas of all places. It's happening insidiously, optimistically, and all within the crumbling brick walls of an art-performance space called ABC No Rio, a five-floor walk-up with a living-room-sized exhibit space on the street level and a brick-walled basement once used as a punk-rock venue. The building's façade is windowless and blanketed with graffiti, giving no hint of the buzz and frustration seething within.

Because on this early July night, a gaggle of nearly 20 exhausted young Texans has claimed this space, gutted it, and been invited to transform it. In less than 24 hours, Denton's Good/Bad Art Collective is making its New York debut.

These young artists, together, make the kind of unblinking art that will give you pause by the very strength of the ideas behind it. They are champions of concepts rather than tangible forms, though their technical and material achievements can be breathtaking.

After no less than 150 events in a half-dozen years, Denton's Good/Bad Art Collective has certainly carved out its niche in North Texas -- hard not to when it's the only force in the region creating conceptual art en masse and regularly. And with that, several key members have decided New York is the ripest spot for the collective's logical expansion.

Their New York opening signifies so much -- almost too much -- for Good/Bad, making it the collective's most crucial event to date. It encompasses two years of talk about starting a Good/Bad in New York to accommodate the smattering of member migrations from Denton to Brooklyn. And to accommodate Good/Bad's own explosive ambition.

But this is New York -- unforgiving, ever-scrutinizing New York. The swishy hub of the international art scene, the land of high-dollar galleries and big-money dealers, the weathered stomping grounds of nearly every celebrated artist of the past century. Art movements are born and put to death here. Artists are born and put to death here. The mystique alone is enough to keep most North Texas artists away, safe in the cocoon of a more financially amiable region. No slackers or amateurs are given keys to New York -- they are driven out by the sophisticated masses that demand no less than the edgiest, most professional, most ambitious visionaries. Any weaker artist is seen right through, a nuisance to be expelled or buried the way Mayor Rudolph Giuliani expels (or buries) the homeless.

Here, no rookie can take for granted any shard of success. Here, an artist might slave twice as hard to achieve half as much.

Is Good/Bad, the little collective that could blow your mind in North Texas, ready for this giant leap, this physical and spiritual invasion of The Big Apple?

At this stage in the installation, things don't look so good. It's 11 p.m. on Thursday; the show opens in less than 24 hours. Seems as if the handful of Good/Bad members sweating it out at No Rio sans air conditioning have accidentally dragged a tornado indoors with them: Ancient, rotting brick goes head-to-head with new, still-wet drywall; ceilings are riddled with holes the size of turkey platters; the floor is scattered with trash to be hauled out. There's debris from a half-dozen "pieces" -- the individual sculptural elements that, together with more pieces still in transit, will form the visual bulk of their one-night-only art event titled "Joey on I.C.U."

Most of Good/Bad's bigger events revolve around some perverse theme: war crimes, waste management, kiddie carnivals. The collective constructs its (always droll) implications through thematically linked objects and activities and performances. "Joey on I.C.U." surges beyond that into full-blown storytime; but at this point, there is no sign of the installation's narrative: something to do with Joey, a young hospitalized kangaroo telling the tale of his misadventures through a world populated by hostile Indians, a kindly circle of knights, and a stagecoach pulled by an injured jackalope. This is Good/Bad surrealism taken to an extreme, and nothing is ready.

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Christina Rees

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