Artist Joel Mesler Takes Over New York with Midtown Pool Party and an Upper East Side Gallery Show

On a recent afternoon, a couple was walking through the latest show by Joel Mesler, at Lévy Gorvy Dayan gallery’s Beaux-Arts townhouse on New York’s Upper East Side, when Mesler himself stopped them and asked a jarring question. “Have you seen the secret clown room?” the art dealer–turned–artist said. “You really have to see the secret clown room.”

The “secret clown room” is hidden behind a sliding door on the gallery’s first floor and has eight painted portraits of, you guessed it, clowns, who are shown in varying states of joy (or distress). These works are outliers in Mesler’s show, titled “Kitchens are good rooms to cry in,” which is made up of new paintings, sculptures, and installation. They’re kind of an inside joke. “If someone hasn’t seen that room,” Mesler said in an interview, “they probably left too soon. When they do hear about it, maybe they’ll feel they have to come back.”

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“More foot traffic,” he said, flashing a wide, toothy grin.

The Lévy Gorvy Dayan show is, in a way, the end of a chapter of Mesler’s life—and also the start of something new. “It really feels like the end of the first act,” the 50-year-old artist said. “After this, I won’t have to tell my story again. I can stop living in the past and start just being in the world, in the present. Maybe I’ll even help other people tell their stories.”

Walking through the show is like stepping gingerly through the molted Technicolor skins that Mesler has sloughed off over the years, from his childhood in Los Angeles, to his time as an booze-addled art dealer in the Manhattan’s Lower East Side, to his move out the Hamptons in 2016. It was there, out East, that he Twelve Stepped into sobriety. In the basement of his art space Rental Gallery, he began making paintings: brightly colored pictures often adorned with text written in jaunty bubble letters. 

The first room of his current Lévy Gorvy Dayan show is covered in wallpaper that mimics the way summer light dances and slithers across the top of a swimming pool. Mesler co-designed it with the brand Martinique specifically for the show. On small pilasters sit 200-pound beach balls, cast in bronze and painted to match the room. Each is decorated with a different word—“LIFE”, “LOVE”, “MOM”—and painted to look like the metallic helium-filled balloons that are ubiquitous at children’s birthday parties.

The second room downstairs is darker in tone. The bright, six-foot-tall paintings featured here contain phrases like “PLAY THE HITS” and “GO GO” in ’70s-inspired fonts. The words are set above scenic mountain ranges, the snow on top acting as a not-so-subtle reference to cocaine binges and the subsequent come-downs that follow. One picture captures that feeling with the words “ITS FINE”, thick and brown, melting into a murky river below. Rising above it all is a crisp white mountain “slopes” with a rainbow peeking out. A disco ball gleams from the top left, as if it were hung from an unseen cloud. Another has the words “PARTY TIME” cut out in messy lines. The rainbow this time feels menacing behind the shadowy white slopes.

Joel Mesler, Untitled (Party Time), 2024

Upstairs is where it gets interesting. In one gallery, among display cases filled with little drawings, tchotchkes, and childhood ephemera, Mesler has placed a desk and a sofa. There are two cozy chairs, a rug, and a table. “It’s an extension of my office, really,” he said. “I call it my office.” Mesler was not joking: he is there every day. He keeps banker’s hours, sitting in the chair behind his desk under a hanging balloon sculpture that spells out the word “JOY.” There’s even a working phone. In one corner, next to a pile of CDs, there’s an easel on which he’ll make portraits of the LGD staff.

“I literally just sit here and wait to see what will happen,” Mesler said. “People peek in and ask if they can come in. I say, ‘Of course!’ Soon, they’re sitting. We start chatting about the art, about whatever. It creates a whole different experience.” 

Art galleries in general can be intimidating, even unwelcoming. Lévy Gorvy Dayan’s space, with its regal staircase and elegant molding, has the air of a venerable institution. It’s definitely not somewhere you’d come to shoot the breeze. But that’s what makes Mesler’s project work. 

While the pictures and sculptures downstairs have sinister undertones—he said the first room was inspired by “those awkward childhood pool parties where the grownups drink too much”—the upstairs is filled with messages of healthy positivity and acceptance. Words like “PRAYER” and “FEELINGS” are painted on tie-dye backgrounds. The office space functions similarly, acting as a symbol of an artist at peace, finally comfortable at middle age.

Mesler’s expansive rolodex has led to a mass of visitors. Over the course of one morning in mid-June, visitors to the office included a gossipy art adviser who used to work at Pace Wildenstein, a lovely older couple from Florida who were visiting their granddaughter, art advisor and podcaster Benjamin Godsill, and Mesler’s friend, the artist Rashid Johnson, who brought sushi. The staff at the gallery’s front desk told me that, on some days, between 80 and 100 people pass though.

Joel Mesler, Untitled (Courage), 2024

If the show at Lévy Gorvy Dayan were the only thing going on for Joel Mesler this summer, he’d be batting 1000. But it’s not. In late May, he threw out the first pitch at Mets Stadium in Queens as part of the two “artist series” giveaways. That Saturday night, the first 15,000 fans through the gate were given a beach tote he designed. Later this month, it’ll be Rashid Johnson behind home plate. 

What can be bigger than throwing the first pitch at a New York City ball game? How about taking over Rockefeller Plaza. On Tuesday, a grand public installation turned 30 Rock’s Ice Rink into a Mesler-designed “pool party.” The wavy, deep blue wallpaper from the first room at Lévy Gorvy Dayan was spread over the ground, making the whole plaza from above look cool enough that your feet felt pleasantly wet. Extra-large versions of his beach-ball sculptures, weighing in at more than 500 pounds, were installed along with giant versions of his balloon letters that spell out “LOVE” and “JOY.” Each of the 193 flags that surround the plaza was replaced with rainbow-colored banners straight out of Mesler’s mind. Massive pool noodles really drive home summer vibes. 

Phil Collins’s “Take Me Home” gently swept through the air and during the ribbon cutting on Tuesday morning. A few tracks later, it was “I Can’t Go For That” by Hall & Oates. It was a real ’80s pool party. 

Kids were decorating actual beach balls on picnic benches, sitting on the pool noodle sculptures and posing pictures while hanging off the letter “L” or hugging the letter “Y.” Pink and white beach balls were floating in the Prometheus statue’s fountain. Art-world heavies like Hank Willis Thomas, Rujeko Hockley, Sarah Harrelson, Hiba Schahbaz, Brett Gorvy, and Glori Cohen mingled with French Canadian tourists slathered in sunscreen and would-be influencers who snapped pics of their dogs for Instagram. Mesler-designed swag, including the Martinique wallpaper, was on sale in the gift shop. Later in the day, ice cream was served.

“Joel stands out for his humor, yes, but also his pathos,” Gorvy told me while standing next to a hefty pink and white beach ball emblazoned with the word “YOU.” “To him, the public is as important as the collector. How many artists today have really touched the public in a way that isn’t ironic or cynical, or filled with false sentiment? Joel’s putting his tremendous positivity out there in the world and it works, because he’s an honest guy, a good guy.”

Every so often, it seems, the good guys do win.

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