Tabboo!, June 5-July 31, 1998, at Wooster Gardens, 558 Broadway, New York, N.Y. 10013.
How could an artist named Tabboo! come up with such innocent looking paintings? It must be an act. And in a way it is. Tabboo!, whose everyday name is Stephen Tashjian, is a celebrated drag performer. His film and video appearances include Wigstock, Howard Stern's New Year's Eve Pageant and Ru Paul's Christmas Special. But that is another career.
These days, Tabboo! is concentrating on creating illusions in paint instead of performance art. And the star of some of his paintings, recently on view in a June exhibition at Wooster Gardens, is the spectacular city of New York.
Tabboo!'s luminous cityscapes are perfectly ordinary, almost banal. In thin acrylic, dusted with glitter, he paints the familiar New York skyline, every tourist's favorite snapshot. But with his virtuoso wet-on-wet watercolor technique and highly specific color sense (perfect tools for depicting changing urban weather and light), the paintings are reminiscent of traditional Oriental landscapes, or Marquet's Impressionist shorthand, or even Constable's cloud studies.
Snow Blankets the City, at 19 x 98 in. the largest painting in the show, is a winter panorama of buildings and trees. The long horizontal format and the dry surface quality of acrylic paint bring Pollock to mind, as do the big puffy snowflakes, white splashes of paint that seem to be thrown at the canvas. But if this painting pays homage to Pollock, it's a very special Pollock -- one with glitter!
In the rest of the works, we seem to be looking down at a liquid city. Details are obscured by an indistinct haze of clouds and sky that weaves in and out among the buildings. As if New York were trying on different costumes.
Brown and Blue Manhattan captures that very specific moment, just after sunset, when the sky turns intensely turquoise and windows begin to glow like traffic lights in the rain. The buildings sway in the gloom like ghostly dancers, or sea monsters poking their slimy heads out of the brine.
Calligraphic brushstrokes flutter across New York at Night, Blue. The deep watery sky turns Manhattan into a reflection drowning in the Hudson River, or perhaps it's only a puddle. With windows wobbling like the bubbles in a glass of champagne, the tipsy city seems to be seen through the window of a smoky cocktail lounge. The buildings, which only come into focus from a distance, sway and totter like they've been out much too late.
Darkest midnight descends over Silver & Black Manhattan at Night. With their crusts of silver glitter, the roofs of the Chrysler and Con Edison towers could be pagodas on a black lacquer Chinoiserie tray. More silver drifts across the black sky like distant fireworks. Even the vertical signature on the side of the painting seems oriental.
The show included a group of twelve acrylic paintings on paper, all 22 x 30 in., some of them featuring words. In curlicued lettering, "New York New York!" barrels its way over the buildings of midtown Manhattan. The skyscrapers press against each other like a chorus line on a Broadway stage. You can almost hear a muted echo of the late Frank Sinatra belting out his famous song, which would have made a perfect soundtrack for the show.
Tabboo!'s city is not the place most New Yorkers see, full of crowds and litter, cars honking and people pushing. His New York is a distant tinseltown; the kind of place that animates the proverbial dreams of artists arriving in the big city, filled with ambition and naive hope. And Tabboo!'s usually prominent signature even gives the work a mildly spicy edge.
In these jaded times, painting such clichés is almost a performance in itself, yet there is an undeniable poignancy in Tabboo!'s insistence on their continued meaning. Their simple joy is tainted with sadness. Dissolving the plastic artificiality of acrylic paint with the immediacy of his technique, while still holding on to artifice with a sprinkling of glitter, Tabboo! maintains a delicate play between campy glitz and extreme sensitivity to the visual world. His conscious craft culminates in a studied effect that still feels as heartfelt -- and as deliciously phony -- as a well-loved torch song.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist who writes on art.