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  • Tara Zia

Through the Looking Glass

Finding escape in Chelsea’s eclectic gallery scene.

By Tara Zia

Illustration by Betel Tadesse

“It smells of cheap champagne … and sweat,” remarks a woman, laughing, as she fans herself with a delicately tattooed hand. I concur as an expert myself on the hallmark scents of the first-year college experience. Only this time, far from the bowels of a dorm or frat party, I am standing in the Jack Shainman Gallery on a Thursday evening gallery crawl in Chelsea.

Thursday night is Opening Night for most Chelsea art galleries. Each week, a selection of these galleries open their doors from 6 to 8 p.m. to celebrate the launch of their new shows. It has become something of a tradition for me to get slightly (or egregiously) overdressed and bring a friend for an evening of art, refreshments, and people-watching.

On my most recent trip, I began with a show called Myself When I Am Real, which exhibited the works of portraitist Barkley L. Hendricks. Hendricks is known for his vibrant, nuanced portrayals of the Black experience, and this particular exhibit features his private studio collection of photographs. One series depicts a set of televisions projecting iconic moments in American media from beauty pageants to Louis Armstrong’s performances. Others show nude mirror portraits which my gallery-hopping companion Yam Pothikamjorn, CC ’26, described as “not sexualized but instead quite thoughtful.”

I chat with an employee managing the exhibit at the Shainman Gallery who shares that she is a Columbia alum. She differentiates daytime viewers from the gallery-hopping crowd of “regulars,” saying that gallery hoppers are “more inquisitive and stay in the space for longer.”

This crowd of regulars encompasses quite a range, including everyone from denim-wearing friend groups to a smaller set of linen-clad art curators who are whisked off to liaise with the gallery owners. For Liam Downey, CC ’26, gallery-hopping has evolved “from a networking event to a fun way to start the weekend. You get to meet a lot of really interesting people. It’s a way to relax while also being introduced to the field I’m interested in.”

A refreshing sense of authenticity pervades the diverse set of characters. The crowd takes their art seriously, but not necessarily themselves. One viewer remarks that one of the artists is “a very close friend” before clarifying, “or rather I think she’s a close friend.” On an elevator ride down, an old woman remarks that she was “dancing on the roof” to a young couple who manage a White Claw, champagne glass, and water bottle between them.

For all its eccentricities, gallery-hopping sometimes requires a more solemn disposition. In a Gladstone Gallery exhibit, I wander around black-and-white portraits and long-form essays about community healthcare workers in Baltimore, all curated by artist LaToya Ruby Frazier. The room is contemplative—and uncharacteristically quiet.

I recognize faces as I travel between galleries. “I’ve been coming here for six years,” explains Antonio Rosales, one of the well-dressed 20-somethings I’ve observed in multiple exhibits. “I work in an art gallery during the day, so this is my after hours break.” A sort of escapism.

Rosales’ story offers a helpful insight for Columbia students looking to find respite from the school’s competitive and fast-paced environment. Through gallery-hopping, I myself have found the importance of looking beyond the traditional college experience and embracing what the city has to offer. As Downey explains, “these galleries are showing the premier artists of our time and they are free, just a subway ride away.”

The last stop of the evening is Mirror Milk, an exhibit at Satchel Projects inspired by a quote from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass. Pieces include intricately designed mirrors and distorted, surrealist portrayals of the breaking of reality. In the gallery, I spot a girl who looks around 10, leaning against the wall reading. I fondly recall my childhood form of escapism: bringing a book to any function and immersing myself in a fictional world. Having spent the last two hours wandering around art exhibitions and talking to strangers, I can’t help but feel a tendril of my childhood excitement resurface. But I realize that this time, starry-eyed and sweaty, I’m no longer peering through the looking glass.


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