5 Artists Capturing the Spirit of Nightlife

Osman Can Yerebakan
Feb 2, 2022 3:00PM

Installation View of the group exhibition “Late Night Enterprise” at Perrotin New York, 2022. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of the artists and Perrotin.

“At that point the music is always good, there’s plenty of room on the dance floor, and only the serious discoers are left,” wrote the late art historian and queer activist Douglas Crimp in his autobiography, setting the scene of a late night in the disco era. “But the best of all your body has quit resisting. It has unstoppable momentum. That is the one thing about disco comparable to any other experience. It’s like what happens in distance running or swimming.”

Crimp’s illustration of his and his peers’ nocturnal routine captures the ethos that once shaped downtown New York’s cultural landscape, particularly from the 1970s until the rise of gentrification into the mid-’90s.

Still from Keiuoui Keijaun Thomas, Come Hell or High Femmes: Act 2. The Last Trans Femmes on Earth: Dripping Doll Energy, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.


Nostalgia for the grungy DIY soul of that bygone era’s after-hours continues to populate the art-world lexicon. Yet simultaneously, contemporary New York artists are articulating their own cosmos of nightlife, where geography is broader (hello, Brooklyn and Queens); gender terminology is inclusive; and racial visibility is diverse. Echoing the intersection of art and AIDS activism that took place at bars and sex clubs a few decades ago, a similar sense of camaraderie and community permeates queer venues, as well as the streets, today.

Perrotin’s current New York group exhibition “Late Night Enterprise” sheds light on the dimmed corners of nighttime social dynamics, from clubs, bedrooms, and shops to computer screens, where the moon’s mauve-colored veil reveals more than it hides. In the featured artists’ works, we see temples of the night that are backdrops for vagabonds to retreat, shelter, and thrive: homes for chosen families to bond; hubs for minds to converse; and nooks for pleasure seekers to play. In addition to portraying club culture as a platform of performativity and reverie, the exhibition steps into moments of nightlife, when time and reason operate on alternative rhythms. The waning of sunlight, as the curatorial premise suggests, exposes possibilities of self-fashioning, introspection, commerce, and pleasure.

Installation View of the group exhibition “Late Night Enterprise” at Perrotin New York, 2022. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of the artists and Perrotin.

The show’s roster of artists is a party of cross-generational attendance: The statements of seminal artists Lyle Ashton Harris, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge, Betty Tompkins, Sophie Calle, and Robert Yarber mingle with a suite of new generation voices, including Kayode Ojo, Caitlin Cherry, Sam McKinniss, Alina Perez, and Ryan Wilde. Sculpture, painting, film, and photography capture various rituals of life in the early a.m., ranging from those as collective as sleep, to deeply intimate experiences of BDSM.

“You pass a point where you’re beyond tired, beyond pain, beyond even thinking about stopping, thinking only that this could go on forever and you’d love it,” Crimp wrote in his accounts. “It’s pure ecstasy.” Living at night is an art of anarchy, a rebellion against the productivity and normalities of the day, as well as against the traditional flow of time on the clock.

Here, we feature five of the show’s artists—and their recollections of the nightlife that inspires their work.

James Bartolacci, Throughout the Night, 2021. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Night’s hallucinatory impact on memory is a sensation conjured in the neon-lit paintings of James Bartolacci. The Brooklyn-based artist’s green-washed Throughout the Night (2021) is a psychedelic club scene picturing dance floor elation.

Despite the multitude of instances and sensations Bartolacci translates onto canvas, he counts a singular night as a transformative moment. “I will always remember the final night that the Spectrum was opened before it closed down in January of 2019,” he recalled of Bushwick’s beloved yet short-lived queer club and art space. “To know this was the last time that my friends and I would dress up and spend the night dancing made me want to preserve it even more in my memory and practice. That night in particular, the blaring music, strobe lights, and smoke machines seemed to completely engulf us—almost encapsulating the crowd in this joyous but bittersweet moment.”

The creative stimulus and the bodily rituals of Spectrum also inspire Richard Kennedy, a multidisciplinary artist whose practice expands to theater, music, and choreography. After touring with mainstream theater productions, such as Fosse and Wicked, Kennedy turned to painting to embody the strictly collective and, at times, tolling labor of stage acting. The War of the Rose? and It’s Giving > Torn Florals (both 2021) materialize performance through the abrupt gestural swipes of acrylic paint. The artist later cuts the canvas into long strips and weaves the pieces back together to capture the same energy in a fresh format.

The last New Year’s Eve when Kennedy performed the queer anthem “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” at Spectrum still lives with him. “Looking around the audience of familiar faces and carrying on well beyond the sunrise, I was in a room full of some of the most creative people in the universe; I didn’t want the dream to end,” he said. “Spectrum was a time in space that will reverberate for generations, which I don’t think I fully appreciated, but looking back, being in [Spectrum owner] Gage’s room for the usual ‘after afters’ made me see a new reality.”

Keioui Keijaun Thomas

Still from Keiuoui Keijaun Thomas, Come Hell or High Femmes: Act 2. The Last Trans Femmes on Earth: Dripping Doll Energy, 2021. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

Outside of the club and the familial links it yields, nighttime promises escape from the daily haste, a sliver of repose and care unburdened by the day’s productivity economy. Keioui Keijaun Thomas’s video Come Hell or High Femmes: Act 2. The Last Trans Femmes on Earth: Dripping Doll Energy (2021) mediates on such internalization of leisure through a utopian realm where only femme trans women have survived. Systemically limited to after-hours labor, such as sex work and performance, trans women here are freed from impositions within a nocturnal landscape of transcendence.

Thomas’s own formative moments, in her words, “under the blanket of the stars, music, and dancing” echo a similar tranquility and bond. “I remember my family having cookouts under the night’s sky: they would dance and tell stories about growing up with my aunties, uncles, and cousins,” she recalled. “This was my first understanding of the power of nightlife—after working all day, they would find freedom at night by coming together over food, music, games, and drinks.”

Betty Tompkins, Sex Painting #4, 2013. Photo by Guillaume Ziccarelli. Courtesy of the artist and Perrotin.

If the labor economy holds a monopoly on the body during the day, carnal pleasures belong to the night. On beds, in bathrooms, or online, sex often finds its backdrop as the moon rises. Betty Tompkins’s seminal “Fuck Paintings” series monumentalizes sexual acts focusing on orifices, penetrations, and climaxes. Sex Painting #4 (2013) zooms in on fetishistic intercourse, lit by a lunar gray glow. The act of licking over the foot is ceremonial and determined, not unlike the gesture of raising one’s arms on the dance floor.

A downtown fixture herself, Tompkins’s idea of nighttime flirts with that of the past. “When my husband, Bill Mutter, and I were a young couple in our thirties, after openings and parties, we would end the day by going for a meal to Chinatown where the restaurants were open 24 hours a day,” she recalled. After dinner, they went on walks until sunrise. “There was something so refreshingly new finishing your day as a new one was dawning,” Tomkins said. “I would feel it for days in everything.”

The social dynamics after dark have long produced its inequalities—access and visibility have been privileges of the white and the wealthy. An energized scene, however, has been burgeoning in queer spaces where art, performance, and activism coalesce. Calli Roche’s Hollywood (2021) is a red velvet rope—a symbol of strict club door access guarded by Saint Peter–like bouncers—formed in a hangman’s knot, finished with brass hardware.

Access, in fact, is critical in Roche’s understanding of the night. “I remember being in a basement, filled with smoke and strobes, looking fly, loving the DJ, but not seeing all of my people,” they said. “My work is an expansion on the spaces we call safe and inclusive.” The tension between the velvet’s soothing texture and the rope’s disturbing knot embodies the systematic exclusion and vulnerability that many face. “Were my Black trans siblings getting home safe? Or where were my Black disabled and sober friends finding community?” the artist asked. “These objects are portals, an invitation to dream of spaces for us all; reimagining the figurative space of ‘nightlife’ of ‘safe space of liberation’ free from capitalism, hierarchy, capital, and imbued racism.”

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