"Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde," Feb. 5-Apr. 4, 2010, at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, 20 Ames Street, Cambridge, Mass. 02139
Cross-dressing is not your typical exhibition fare, and allegedly puritan Boston (Cambridge, actually) would hardly be a likely site for such a show. But the curator, Michael Rush (former director of the Rose Art Museum), gets away with his theme by cleverly connecting the cross-dressing phenomenon to its Surrealist antecedents (Rrose Selavy; the transvestite music-hall performer Barbette) and by proposing that this "virtuoso illusionism" refers not only to a new medium, video, but also to a new "avant-garde" that includes -- among its younger video practitioners -- Michelle Handelman, Kalup Linzy, Ryan Trecartin and the Polish artist Katarzyna Kozyra, with Charles Atlas, John Kelly, Brian O’Doherty and Andy Warhol among the senior role models.
What this avant-garde offers, in addition to its photo- and videographic format, is a new approach to the subject of sexuality, whereby, to use Rush’s words, "gender assignments have become fluid.’’ The selected artists want to "normalize" cross-dressing, by turning the routine activity of putting on clothes into an investigation of alternative identities and gender definitions. I for one was totally fooled as to the gender of the feline though obnoxious young blond who plays the leading role in Trecartin’s fast-paced if overly long video K-Corea (Section A) (2009). And had I not seen John Kelly in the flesh, I might have not have guessed that he was the Madonna Di Loreto, the Penitent Magdalen, the Magdalen in Extasy in the DVD entitled Cara Vaggio (2007), where he appears with long hair, costumed as the figures in the original paintings. Now endowed with slow motion, the saintly figures take an identity other than that intended by the painter who gave them life several centuries ago, one that is much more entertaining, and perverse.
In this new kind of "avant-garde," the artist digs deeply into the craft of self-transformation, and requires elaborate make up, over-the-top costuming and an expressive body language. While Trecartin and Kelly present their diffuse identity as a near-perfect case of trompe l’oeil, narratives by Michelle Handelman and Katarzyna Kozyra feature the more stereotypical drag queen. In the four-screen video installation entitled Dorian (after Oscar Wilde), Handleman places us in the antechamber of the cross-dresser going through facial transformation and psychological decay. In her video play Summer Tale (2008), Kozyra stages a man and wife team, the man modeled after the Joel Grey character in Cabaret, and the wife played by a man obviously in drag. Their servants, a covey of mostly blond dwarfs dressed like girls, alternately cajole and threaten the duo, creating an atmosphere that breathes artifice, and emanates the hyperexpressionism of modern Polish theatre.
Whether the artists are acting in front of a video camera, or posing for a still photograph (as does the gender-bending Beijing artist Ma Liuming, who poses as an adrogynous modern-day geisha girl, and the veteran Swiss photographer Manon, who presents herself as a demure gentleman in business attire), their images not only capture the "virtuoso illusion" in the show’s title, but also have the same visually unsettling uncanniness as the Surrealist images also on view, among them Man Ray’s image of Duchamp in drag, Claude Cahun’s self-portrait with her mirror-image as a man, and Pierre Molinier’s erotic melee, a medusa-like figure with multiple black silk stockinged legs arrayed around her/his upper body.
According to the curator of "Virtuoso Illusion," the recent and not-so-recent artworks in the show -- including a rarely seen video of a coquettish Warhol watching himself being made up for his self-portrait in drag -- are not only avant-garde in medium and subject matter, but also send a political message in support of the non-actors who cross-dress, be they bisexual, homosexual, transsexual or heterosexual. In short, the show is a male curator’s counterpart to Maura Reilly and Linda Nochlin’s "Global Feminisms" exhibition at the Brooklyn Museum in 2007, where one encountered Jenny Saville’s 2004 portrait of a transsexual female in the nude, a video from the same year of Mary Coble in the process of binding her breasts, and Orert Ashery’s 2000 photo-self portrait as Marcus Fisher.
Both shows seek to raise consciousness and sympathy for gender groups long excluded from the social mainstream, both shows have a certain affiliation to Surrealism, and both quote from Judith Butler’s 1990 text, Gender Trouble -- though according to Rush, the artists in his show have moved beyond the binary split between men and women that Butler bemoaned. With them, the multiplicity of sexual expressions that are actually present in human beings is fully acknowledged via cross-dressing.
However, whereas the "Global Feminisms" show left viewers with a pessimistic outlook on the future of women as wives, mothers, grandmothers and lovers, and pointed an accusatory finger at men, and at mankind in general, the artists in "Virtuoso Illusion" do not show bitterness toward anyone, and seem to have fun doing what they are doing. Asked if the blurring of gender signified the beginning or the end of an era, Charles Atlas replied with an odd smile on his aging face, marked by sideburns painted red, "the beginning." Pushed further, he added that sex change operations now enable young men who prefer a feminine identity to lead normal lives, marry, and adopt kids, though of course not to procreate.
The agenda of a show like "Virtuoso Illusionism" reminds us that social if not sexual mores are in transition. The "metrosexualization" of the sons of patriarchy is now old hat, and indeed a certain feminization of men’s dress is taking place, if you believe the recent photos of Paris haute couture seen in the New York Times. Such ambiguity has extended itself to art featuring adolescents as well [see "Lolitos in Fag Limbo"], and the same can be said of adolescents in real life.
Culturally speaking, times like ours have precedents that go further back than the show suggests. The 16th-century castrati in Rome who performed the role of women in early Italian opera embodied similar gender ambiguities. What put an end to the castrato performer in the 19th century was a humane concern for the young men who were forced into a gender identity not necessarily of their own choice, via an eviscerating operation that was frequently fatal. If today’s science offers a less lethal outcome from a sex change operation, it does not change the human life cycle, and castrati do not age well. Or so Balzac, the author of the novella Sarrasine, would have us believe through his description of an over-the-hill castrato once adored by both men and women, as he makes his entrance at a society event, looking like a sad caricature of the beautiful cross-dresser youth that he once was.
"A feeling of profound horror for mankind gripped the heart when one saw the marks that decrepitude had left on this fragile machine. The stranger [the former castrato opera singer, La Zambinella] was wearing an old-fashioned gold-embroidered white westcoat, and his linen was dazzlingly white. A frill of somewhat yellowed lace, fell into ruffles on his breast. . . . His dark face was angular and all sunk in. The chin was sunken, the temples were sunken, the eyes were lost in yellowish sockets. The jawbones stood out because of his indescribable thinness. . . his cadaverous skull was covered by a blond wig whose innumerable curls were evidence of an extraordinary pretension. For the rest, the feminine coquetry of this phantasmagorical personage was rather strongly emphasized by the gold ornaments hanging from his ears, by the rings whose fine stones glittered on his bony fingers, and by a watch chain which shimmered like the brilliants of a choker around a woman’s neck."
MICHÈLE C. CONE is a New York-based critic and cultural historian whose books deal with France during the Nazi occupation.