He dares you: For all the world’s a hand-held mirror, and all the men and women merely arrivistes–like cicadas–in the life-challenging canvas of gallerist Peter Makebish. Sit for him (clothing optional)…
“The tree sloth. Where…in…Madagascar…is that TREE SLOTH? And those tranny hula dancers? Earth to Tonga! I can’t…HEAR…youuuu!”
Peter Makebish is having a “Makebishian moment.” Twirling precariously on his Beverly Semmes-designer Lucite clogs, matched with his signature furry dice-motif LimoLand by Johnny Pigozzi sari, he trills: “Can-APES? The HORS-derves? Whatever those little things on Ritz crackers are…” Just getting started, he runs directly into an empty wall. Telling, that.
The highly-anticipated works in question–rendered by alchemist-imagist Kika Karadi and “ShotGun” painter William Anskis–have yet to arrive to Mr. Makebish’s eponymous gallery. Nor has his staff, whom took flight in matching hoodies the night before, walking out on his bounty of bodacious acrylics and “neo-thrillics” not a moment before his close-up. Mr. Makebish had asked too much of them, he knows, he knows. But only as much as he tries not to give.
The exhibit is entitled “Controlled Substance,” but chaos–how Mr. Makebish likes it–is the order of the day. How will the show go on?
On this breezy early May afternoon, earmarked by a single Koons-ian cumulus in an otherwise Turner-azure sky, the man who famously chauffered Jack Kevorkian for a decade (and free-lanced as a SPANX model for nearly as long) is feeling the gravity of his self-imposed solo predicament. That is, until one-time nemesis (now merely a “frenemy”) David Blaine peeks into Mr. Makebish’s far-flung West Village space. The magician-turned-escape-artist scans the unfamiliar turf, drops a strategic ash on the travertine floor, and vanishes. Then…he re-appears, flits a one-eyed Jack playing card on the day-glo “WELCOME” mat (purchased from Ricky’s NYC on this very day)…and vanishes yet again. Magicians: can’t live with them…can’t see them.
It isn’t over.
Seconds later, Lou Reed scooters past the front window, expectorates on the cigar-shop wooden Indian perched next door, speeds off. (No walk on the wild side for the Big Man today.) As if stalking the crotchety legend, renaissance man-turned-Schwinn enthusiast David Byrne cruises past the open door and tosses a flaming Zip-loc bag of “mystery contents” into the lofty confines. Nonplussed, the gallerist stomps the rancid projectile out, raises a middle finger. “That Byrne,” he characteristically quips.
The inflammatory finger then directs southward toward the Gavin Brown Enterprises–a behemoth of a space famous for its “Amish crafts.” It will come to be his erstwhile competition. “Mr. Brown, you’ve got a lovely daughter,” Mr. Makebish quite-nearly whispers, divining with his digit the figurative pulse of the zeitgeist. A threat? A pining for the Fjords? A first date with fate? All merely whispers in the wind of an ever-morphing Manhattan art world, now in its second year, as the fickle crowd has fled Cincinnati, its longstanding hub.
Spontaneity, thy name is Makebish.
With a semi-formal education in the School of Hard Knocks (Barstow, Fla.), the bootstraps-insured former canine radiologist, Malibu rum “regional ambassador,” 16thCentury rickshaw restorer, and nightclub impresario (Mingles Murray Bay East Upstairs VIP Lounge, 2005-06)–whose name is quizzically pronounced “Marge-jah-REEN”–struggles with the English language. “Words—incontintental,” he once intoned (translation: “inconsequential”). No matter.
In the high-flying world of curatorial tap dancers, where talk is cheap but yellow-chip paintings sell for literally hundreds, he is known for second acts. And controversy. The tales, they are legion. He walked off his own one-man show, “Take a Picture: It’ll Last Longer #3,” when his sidekick, dressed as the Quaker Oats Man–Mr. Makebish, like his spiritual adviser Jim Dine, loves product mascots and purports he was one in another life–forgot to bring the perfectionist-dervish’s cheat sheet. At last year’s MET Costume Institute Ball, he was ejected for knocking over ghost trainer Patricia Arquette, his papier-mache Mrs. Butterworth outfit devoid of eye slits. (A lawsuit ensued, remains unsettling). At Miami’s much-ballyhooed Art Basel, he came to fisticuffs with “style guy” Glenn O’Brien, confusing him with Glenn Close after being “ignored” by the acerbic wordsmith. At least this time, words were exchanged (as well as a paisley neckerchief). Mr. Makebish called Mr. O’Brien “gratufluous.” He has no regrets for smearing Silly Putty on Keith Haring’s influential multi-media subway-hangar opus, “Riddle Me This, Caped Crusader,” 1947.
And there was the reputation-devastating “Flashlight Incident,” which he still refuses to talk of, “on the record, that is,” he said.
Now this: Will the opening of his debut gallery elicit such rampant disregard for the hallowed halls of buttoned-up benefactors and Pop-pilling art stars? Will the ghost of his one-time Westbeth Housing Projects roommate Taylor Mead make a cameo, pocketing some crudités, whining for a dime bag? Will said crudités even arrive? What indeed has Mr. Makebish up his Agnes B. sleeve? (It appears to be a toy soldier, gripping a hand grenade—apt.)
But Mr. Makebish, known to chew a dozen stalks of fennel a day (“they’re the new Twizzlers!”) does not see himself in a pickle, a jam, or the proverbial stew. In fact, he looks famished, and grabs for a potted daffodil, which he gnaws upon seductively, while considering his next words of wisdom.
“Look,” he pauses, crosses his legs, reflecting, then genuflecting to the man upstairs, a landlord that this reporter cannot see (or isn’t deemed worthy enough, nay?). Then, re-crossing his legs, Proustian to a fault, he scratches his right nipple (confiding he is allergic to “performance wear”), and the Master of Unceremonious purrs: “I forgot what I was saying…Oh, look…Ex-actly.”
“As Francesco Clemente said: ‘Life is overrated…and then you marry one.’”
And: “Please put this sentence in italics.” We comply.
On cue, faster than Warhol’s so-called “13 Seconds,” in saunters the Countess LuAnn de Lesseps, dressed in a camel-foot Pucci jumpsuit that Mr. Makebish bestowed upon her (despite his meager earnings) when the dynamic duo worked together at a Bennigan’s fern-bar chain in Brandon, Florida. Bending over to air-kiss his slim hips (hips Kate Moss would die for), the Countess monotones: “I, dear boy, will be your Tonga. I shall be your mirror.” A reporter cannot keep up, as the two, thick as thieves, complete each other’s sentences, until the puckish provocateur excuses himself, as he puts it, to “release the Kraken.” (Somewhere Jean-Michel Basquiat is tittering.)
[Mr. Makebish turns the tape recorder off. Then back on.]
It wasn’t always like this: fabulous housewives in patterned cat suits, Basquiat tittering, eruditely pregnant pauses. To be sure, it has been a long road to hoe for Peter Makebish, fraught with social barricades (he still eschews silverware), bouts with halitosis, the heartbreak of psoriasis, and mere fleeting glimpses of fame on his careening trajectory to the Big Apple.
The son of a stage-door Johnny from Sidney, Ohio, and a model-good-looks mother who made Marzepan figurines exclusively for a Lithuanian bakery (which shall go unnamed), this real-life Chauncey Gardiner sold mail-order flower seed packets to neighbors to pay for the Sears pup tent that he called his bedroom. (That pup tent would later inspire his sole public canvas-on-canvas installation,“Finnigan’s Cake…and Eats it Too,” #18; a single hard-plastic stake (a la Claes Oldenburg) with a velvet rope surrounding it, uprooted a day later by vandals in Tompkins Square Park.)
It wasn’t until unicycling to New York’s artsy “ChiBeCa” neighborhood that Mr. Makebish got his first taste, as it were, of “how the other third lived,” as he put it, being recruited to clean up after surfer-groupie photographer Bruce Weber’s narcoleptic golden retriever stable.
By night he worked the Hobart, a regular Sammy Glick, as the pots-and-pans man at art-world stalwart Jerry’s, on SoHo’s Prince Street, hording the leftovers of such gallery deities as Castelli and Shafrazi. Schnabel was a regular–the latter whom Mr. Makebish suffered many a broken-plate indignity upon his now-scarred cranium. (He shows his war wounds to this interlocutor like some modern-day Private Ryan.)
Loyal to a fault–unless you are generous to him–Mr. Makebish remains friends with one less-mercurial patron, none other than the artist Marc Kostabi, who hired the then-paper-thin waif away from Jerry’s to render the details on his rough drafts at Kostabi World during the go-go ‘80s.
As Mr. Makebish spoke on an imaginary Blackberry–a pantomime device from his early days as a “silver robot” on Jackson Square (“consistency is nothing if not all”)–we asked him to appraise a few challengers from the incestuous gallery gang having second acts of their own:
Mr. Makebish, who places his age at “either 17 or 82,” installed his monocle, fell to a lotus position, and recited (in a Madonna-English accent):
Koons: “A balloonatic!”
Hirst: “Damaged goods–next!”
McCarthy: “A Commie…like Lennon.”
Gagosian: “A WHO-sian?”
Deitch: “Tres Chicago School…by way of Teaneck.”
Koons: “Trick question. Please leave.”
And with that, we did, bidding him adieu on his opening exhibit, which is being underwritten by Sears & Roebuck.
“Controlled Substance,” with works by Kika Karadi and William Anskis,” runs at MAKEBISH gallery, from May 15-June 7. Visit petermakebish.com for details. The gallery is located at 681 Washington St. (at Charles St.).
Mr. Makebish approved this magazine profile parody–as he is more than game and nothing like this depiction (but for the fennel affinity).