Photo by Ted Soqui

Joel Mesler is fond of pranks. For months, he had been needling and taunting the new Mountain Bar on Chinatown’s Gin Ling Way in his self-published newsletter (“Why not a bookstore or a flower mart or a spa/brothel?”; “Now all the swells won’t come to Hop Louie’s!”). But on a night last September, he finally decided to strike. The plan: Send a diaper-clad artist who called himself the Nude Breakdancer into the sparkling, Mao-red yuppie watering hole to relieve himself on a barstool while his fawning “entourage” (other C-town artists) bought him drinks and orgasmed over his every witticism. Mercifully, the Breakdancer decided to dress as an alien instead. Had this been a couple of years ago, he wouldn’t have hesitated to implement Plan A. But that was before “the curse.”

Between Thanksgiving and Christmas 2002, Chinatown’s internationally celebrated art scene experienced an appalling double tragedy: the New York heroin overdose of 34-year-old Giovanni Intra, owner of the China Art Objects gallery, and the apparent breakdown two weeks prior of another local gallery owner, Inmo Yuon, who early one morning began smashing windows and mailboxes of other businesses on Chung King Road (including Mesler’s) and throwing a giant model-plane installation through his own front window. Police found Yuon sitting naked on Hill Street, defecating into his hands and smearing feces all over his body. Reportedly, it took eight rubber bullets to subdue him. After 36 hours in a mental ward, Inmo showed up at the local artists’ hangout Hop Louie, heavily medicated and robotically calm, asking for a snifter of Courvoisier. It was bartender Joel Mesler who served it to him.

Mesler himself is a gallery owner — his tiny Pruess Press opened in October in a cul-de-sac complex on Bernard Street. It’s a smaller, more sedate offshoot of his former Dianne Pruess gallery on Chung King Road, where this graduate of San Francisco’s Art Institute pulled a lot of sneaky shit and got away with it. Along with China Art Objects and Black Dragon Society, Dianne Pruess embodied a confrontational, Fluxus-like absurdism that represented Chinatown in its druggy salad days (’99–’02). The gallery’s eponymous Austrian owner never seemed to make an appearance, leaving curator Mesler to unleash genre-bending, Andy Kaufman–esque spectacles meant to infuriate, insult and generally thumb a nose at the concept of art happenings: phony “fashion shows,” lap dancers from Jumbo’s Clown Room, guys in dog suits performing pop-rock hits in Scooby-Doo voices; a twisted minstrel calling himself Mr. Banjo, who sat atop a 10-foot-high stool performing murder ballads and sea chanteys peppered with tasteless jokes about child molestation; and, of course, the Nude Breakdancer (who popped Viagra before the performance to enhance his, er, “poise”). When art critics or journalists came to interview him during the “New Chinatown” media blitz, Mesler had them sit on a couch that was missing a leg; when they nearly toppled over, he’d cover it up with faux concern (“Ohmigod, I’m so sorry! Are you all right?”).

Dianne Pruess, it turns out, never even existed. The alleged owner was invented by Mesler to keep “the art snobs” at bay and allow him to focus on his myriad projects, like his jeremiad-spouting art newsletter, The Rambler (“The Real Story of the good and bad things about Chinatown”), and the Chinatown Arts Academy, a “university without borders” that offered curriculum to one student per semester. True to Mesler’s inside-outski form, some of the provocatively weird classes might or might not have really existed (“Indoor and Outdoor Gardening With Steve Hansen”; “Art Theory While Soaking in a Custom Hot Tub with Dave Deany”). Giovanni Intra was on the faculty, as was the reclusive novelist Thomas Pynchon, who was listed because “Maybe he’ll decide to show up,” said Mesler with a trademark cheese-eating grin that said, Isn’t this great? Isn’t this fun? Can you believe we’re getting away with this?

Around the time of Intra’s death and Inmo’s meltdown, Mesler’s goofy grin disappeared and was replaced by a slight prickliness, a weariness that usually befalls someone headed for some sort of personal crossroads. He closed Dianne Pruess without explanation and sold the building that housed it. (The space is now home to a gallery galled Xing.) His involvement in the new Bernard Street complex with two newcomers, Golinko/ Kordansky and Daniel Hug, could be considered a clean-and-sober chapter two for Chinatown art, only now there’s a sour feeling of lines being drawn, of an ensuing fight to preserve the loosey-goosey, anything-can-happen feel that birthed this vital scene in the first place. It’s a quality some now see as tenuous with the recent push for neighborhood gentrification, symbolized by the Jackie Chan outdoor films shown for the last three summers and the obnoxious “Chinatownland” sign erected last year along Hill Street to mirror the Hollywood sign and its phantoms of boosterism.

“There are four basic groups in Chinatown right now,” says Mesler. “The old gallery owners who don’t want anything to change, the old businessmen who don’t want anything to change, the real-estate speculators who want to carve the place up into high-priced chunks, and the business-improvement people who want to bring in Starbucks.” And through all this, The Rambler continues its taunts: “Mr. RH continues to employ devious business devices to improve revenue. One of his tenants has already left because of a rent hike. Will you jack it up again, RH? How much will they pay?”

Recently, Mesler recalled the odd twilight sleep between Inmo and Intra — a time frozen by a sepia-toned photograph that hangs on his office wall of the whole Chinatown gang at Hop Louie — as the dropping of two very heavy shoes. “People started saying that Chinatown is cursed,” he says on a miserable rainy morning between American Spirits. “People in New York started calling Chung King Road ‘Junkie Road.’” He questions the integrity of Intra’s “friends,” who allegedly left his cooling corpse on the couch in a Lower East Side Manhattan apartment for several hours before summoning authorities. Mesler even bitterly remembers the memorial service at China Art the day after his death. “People weren’t even saying ‘heroin.’ If you look in the obituaries, they even say ‘unknown causes.’ Just total bullshit. Why couldn’t they just be honest with it?”

Of late, Mesler has begun keeping a compendium of facts, gossip and noirish lore about Chinatown, devising a tongue-in-cheek street map of Chung King Road with blueprints of the galleries — including his own — drawn to scale and outlining their most-favored drugs (“Heroin”; “Cocaine”; “Weed”; “Alcohol”; “Ecstasy”; “PCP”), which he plans to publish. Seeing this, one understands why Mesler pulls his pranks: It’s like sending suicide bombers to knock people out of their denial.

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