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Bowie, art and pandemic/Trump anxiety mingle in Tribeca exhibit

BY LINCOLN ANDERSON | Amid a jungle of construction lights and 16-foot-tall, white Corinthian columns in a 4,000-square-foot Tribeca gallery space, Jennifer Elster’s “Take Heed” asks provocative questions — literally.

“When Is It Enough? When We’re Dead?” one sign asks. There are many such signs.

There are also paintings. In one, a figure in ochre is flanked by the blood-colored words “How Do We Not Answer the Cries of the Day.”

“Harrow Head,” a work Elster painted last year, features an anxious face trailed by an inky, roiling cloud that looks a bit like a caterpillar.

“Harrow Head” (2022), by Jennifer Elster. (Photo by The Village Sun)
“Untitled” (2022), by Jennifer Elster. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Composed of hand-lettered signs, artwork and photography, the show is spread out through the cavernous space, The Development Gallery, at 75 Leonard St., which sports rugged, exposed-brick walls and a soaring ceiling.

“A journey through the apocalpytic predictions of an anxious artist with a sparkling creepiness,” is how a press release aptly describes the show. “Evoking urgent themes, eerie prescience and strokes of mania, the artist probes our current times with a critical analysis, offering new insight.”

“The World Is So Creepy Should We Even Interact With It?” this piece asks. (Photo by The Village Sun)
“Charge” (2015), a repeated photo self-portrait of the artist. (Photo by The Village Sun)

The exhibit is essentially a distillation of Elster’s reactions living through the dual realities of the pandemic and Trump.

She’s a self-taught artist, touting her style as “untrained, raw and aggressive.”

“I’ve always painted and drawn, every since I was a kid,” she said.

She’s a multimedia artist, as well. In one nook is an installation of Elster’s work from David Bowie’s cult 1995 album “1. Outside” — specifically a photo of the singer as Ramona, one of the various personas she styled him for — a different one for each of the concept disc’s tracks.

The artist with a T-shirt she styled for David Bowie, featuring the area below the collar cut out. (Photo by The Village Sun)
A bullet belt she bought on Canal Street for the photo shoot. (Photo by The Village Sun)
Jennifer Elster in 1995 styling David Bowie for another one of the offbeat personas for his “1. Outside” art-concept album. (Photo by The Village Sun)

Elster, who was working at Mademoiselle magazine at the time, said she and Bowie immediately hit it off. A team worked on the concepts for the personas, and then she and the “Ziggy Stardust” singer refined them.

“We spent a lot of time on the phone talking about the characters,” she recalled. “We got along so well because he was such an imaginative person and so was I. We could go anywhere together.”

The Ramona character sports a punk-style torn shirt, fishnet stockings, a knife and a bullet belt that Elster, a native New Yorker, bought — where else? It must have been Canal Street, right?

“Yes, hello! Of course you know that,” she said, “because that’s old-school New York City. That place right below Canal Street.”

Elster grew up on the Upper West Side, where she attended Brandeis High School, back then known as one of the most notoriously tough schools in the city. Nearly every day, as soon as she came through the door, she had to fight, she said. She went on to attend New York University.

For the Bowie installation, she painted on a blown-up photo of the rock star à la Ramona — adding the words “GET AWAY FROM ME” — plus framed the picture with a radiating, spider web-like construction of cut-up black material.

“Everyone likes Bowie,” she noted of the grounbreaking rock icon. “I’ve had people come here from San Francisco because they’re obsessed with the “1. Outside” album. It means a lot to people — because he means a lot to people. … I’m actually thinking of inviting Iman to come by to see it.”

(Photo by The Village Sun)
(Photo by The Village Sun)

She recalls the singer as very gentlemanly, noting how he graciously walked her to the elevator after a photo shoot.

“Very caring, sensitive, smart,” she said. “He put windows in walls. He made people see things that they never would have seen. What he did for the L.G.B.T. community was leaps and bounds. He made being different acceptable.”

Juxtaposed with that aspect, though, were the edgy characters she styled him as for the album photos. That dichotomy could almost sum up the show.

Per the press release, “The exhibition presents an alternative universe, where awareness of our current world crisis is all around, and yet…an odd serenity abounds.”

Although Bowie wanted her to style him for another album, it ultimately didn’t work out. Elster also styled actor/model Chloe Sevigny and Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails, putting herself through N.Y.U. with this kind of work.

She also is a writer and filmmaker. Her 2004 feature film “Particles of Truth,” in which she also acted, played on Netflix.

Plot synopsis: “A struggling New York painter (Jennifer Elster) falls for an obsessive-compulsive writer (Gale Harold) who has a fear of germs.”

Downtown art critics have given “Take Heed” a thumbs up.

“Pitch dark clarity,” declared Anthony Haden Guest in Whitehot magazine.

“She feels the wider, macro pain and trauma of the world deeply,” wrote Kurt McVey, also in Whitehot.

“Serrated rage” is how Tyler Nesler of The Interlocutor described it.

After this exhibit, Elster plans to do “a group show of real New Yorkers,” follow by a “to be announced show” that will run through the summer.

“Take Heed,” which opened at the end of last year, was originally slated to close in January but has been extended until Sun., March 19. For more information or to arrange a private tour, call 212-524-9281 or e-mail For more information about the artist, visit

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