The metaverse is a lofty and nebulous concept. It’s also a purple storefront on Franklin Street in New York.
At least that’s the idea behind Olive Allen’s new exhibition at the Postmasters Gallery, which claims to recreate the world of Web3 in the white cube. The title is coupled with an ominous invitation: “Welcome to the Metaverse.”
A collection of new NFTs includes most of the show’s offerings, ranging from pasted digital paintings to animating a lush virtual landscape to several artist-designed avatars. This latest group scans as a shipment of Bored Apes, CryptoPunks, and other collectible characters. One features a Furby decked out in streetwear, another a bull-bear hybrid with arrows on his stomach. They look silly, and that’s the point.
With its cheap rink lighting and glitchy soundtrack, Allen’s exhibit doesn’t actually capture the essence of the metaverse, at least not the utopian vision peddled by Mark Zuckerberg and other tech evangelists. But it touches on some of the effects we associate with the word in 2022: 90s nostalgia, corporate co-optation, video game aesthetics, the venomous vibes of replicas.
The show marks the first solo outing for Allen, a young NFT pioneer who looks set to do what few of her crypto art contemporaries have done: establish a foothold in the mainstream art world. A common thread between the two registers of his work: one a sincere belief in the promises of the blockchain, the other a sardonic criticism of the culture that has developed around it. Whether or not they found it IRL or via URL, the public took notice.
“Olive doesn’t enter the NFT space with her eyes wide open and innocent fascination. Her work is essential,” Postmasters co-founder Magda Sawon said of the latest addition to her roster, which has embraced digital art since the late 1980s and includes pioneers like Eva and Franco Mattes and Kevin and Jennifer and Kevin McCoy. “There’s a good understanding of what’s behind it all, of the pitfalls and dangers we see with Web 2.0 and the complete corporate takeover of this space.”
Born in Russia, Allen immigrated to the United States after turning 18 about a dozen years ago. She first came to Los Angeles, where she says she learned English by going to parties and made money modeling on the side. Then came New York, and with it, a greater sense of turmoil. Rent, she explained, was often paid by “returning Supreme merchandise” online. To do this, she mastered fashion strategies to manufacture hype – gimmicks that she would later exploit in her artistic practice.
It was also during this time that Allen began creating digital artwork on a tablet, slowly becoming part of the then fledgling communities forming around crypto art. She founded her own NFT marketplace and social platform, called Decadent, and moved to San Francisco to launch the startup.
Decadent did not prosper, but its failure made other lasting contributions to NFT culture. On Halloween 2019, Allen posted “13 appalling and disappointing articles“, a series of collectible NFT figures that looked like they should be sold at Hot Topic: a neon green alien, a voodoo doll, a “mean” Beanie Baby. Decadent’s site crashed when the tokens went live, but along with the project, the artist introduced the idea of the “drop” – a borrowed-from-fashion promotional tool in which limited amounts of products are introduced in a short time – to the NFT world.
“I’ve always been fascinated by these techniques, used by streetwear brands,” Allen said in an interview for super rare. “I understand the mechanics of this one. You buy and you return. It’s an adrenaline rush. Achievement unlocked.”
The ears of the crypto community perked up, especially Nifty Gateway founders Duncan and Griffin Cock Foster, who consulted with Allen as their own NFT platform – now a mainstay in the space – took shape, has she declared. Allen was included in the site’s second drop of 2020, for which she contributed several “unbearablea series of teddy bear collectibles battling decidedly modern issues: one is coated in crude oil, the other is deemed non-essential by Amazon.
Like Sports Cards, his NFTs were offered in “sealed” packs; buyers had no idea who”Unbearable” they were going to get. Gamifying the release was both a marketing ploy and a way to turn the market around his work. The series quickly sold out.
Since then, Allen’s work has been auctioned at Christie’s and on SuperRare; it was included in the exhibition of the König Galerie “THE ARTIST IS ONLINE,and one of her tracks became the first NFT sold at an art fair, at Art Basel in 2021. Earlier this year, Allen made headlines when she burned her Russian passport in protest against the invasion of Ukraine by his country of origin. She created a video of the act as an NFT, auctioned it off for 3.66 ETH (about $7,500), and donated the proceeds to help war-affected children in Ukraine.
“If any artist in the crypto/NFT space deserves a huge show right now, it’s her,” Sawon said. “The vision is there.”
“Olive Allen: Welcome to the Metaverseis on view through May 28 at the Postmasters Gallery, 54 Franklin Street, New York, NY 10013.
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