Imagine the faces of Joni Mitchell, Caravaggio, Pierrot, Jean Cocteau, the Mona Lisa, Orpheus, Antonin Artaud and especially the Viennese expressionist Egon Schiele shuffling above and below one another every time you look in the mirror. For the actor and performance artist John Kelly, as he constantly portrays himself masquerading as someone else, his transformations both affirm and transcend his singular identity.
"Perhaps I am both an exhibitionist and a chameleon," Kelly has said, while relating his interest in disguise to the childhood role-playing forced on him in the heterosexual world of athletics and school. Although he pointedly expressed his opinion of sports one Halloween by cutting a football in half and turning it into a brassiere, his real initiation into extreme theatrical transformation occurred at the age of 17, when he saw a New York performance by the legendary San Francisco Cockettes, decked out in full drag with beards and glitter makeup.
No matter what role he plays, however, Kelly’s own personality always shines through, as if his love of masquerade is tempered by impatience with falsehood. And even when he impersonates women, his exquisite characterizations are rarely campy. His most famous performance as Joni Mitchell, for example, is a miracle of subtle facial expressions and hand movements accompanying heartfelt renditions of her songs. At the end of the show, he always removes his blond wig, revealing himself to the audience.
As a teenager, Kelly studied classical dance on scholarship with the American Ballet Theater. "I went from the dance-studio mirror. . . to the self-portrait mirror." Kelly once told a Miami reporter. "I chose to have my image as my vehicle." After deciding that he’d started his ballet training too late, he switched to visual art at Parsons, and numerous drawings and photographs are always an integral part of the evolution of his performances. He went on to study mime, trapeze, tightrope walking and operatic song (even sharing a vocal coach with soprano Frederika Von Stade).
Pass the Blutwurst Bitte, Kelly’s most recent production, is the third and final version of a multiple award-winning staged biography of Egon Schiele that was born in 1982 as a skit at the Pyramid club, the celebrated 1980s venue for drag performance that nurtured Ethyl Eichelberger, Antony and Tabboo!. Four years later, a full-length version premiered at Dance Theater Workshop, and a second adaptation toured in the nineties. The latest incarnation just finished a run at La Mama’s Ellen Stewart Theatre, accompanied by an exhibition of related photographs at the nearby La Mama La Galleria.
A series of farcical sequences featured Schiele’s mistress Wally (Tymberley Canall). When they meet in a café, Wally shoves an entire blood sausage into Kelly’s mouth, and in a moment of grotesquerie that stands out like an exclamation point, he promptly spits it out. They dance a waltz and then retire to the studio for posing and sex, until Schiele goes to jail for making pornographic drawings. Later, Schiele leaves Wally to marry the bourgeois Edith (MacKenzie Meehan) who gets pregnant and dies in a terrible influenza epidemic. Schiele dies three days later.
While the interaction between Schiele and the women often resembled puppetry’s exaggerated slapstick, the production’s real drama took place within the relationship between Schiele, his self-portraits, and his doppelgangers. Projected on a screen hanging over the stage, the ghost of a younger Kelly also participated, appearing in some German Expressionist-tinged black-and-white films made in collaboration with filmmaker Anthony Chase for the production ten years ago.
Played by Kelly, Eric Jackson Bradley and Luke Murphy, three Egon Schieles (two of them punningly called Alter Egon) danced together and apart throughout in homoerotic combinations that morphed from classical ballet leaps and lifts into violent twisting movements derived from Schiele's drawings. At the end, they circle Edith’s lifeless body, outlining it in chalk as if it is a corpse in a crime scene. Finally, Kelly sings an aria of mourning from Boito’s "Mefistofele," as his younger self dies onscreen, his face disappearing under a ferocious Schiele self-portrait.
In live performance, Kelly’s personal beauty almost overshadows his portrayal of Schiele’s awkward torment. Made in the privacy of studios, however, Kelly’s photos magnify poses and facial expressions, intensifying movements that unfold more spontaneously under the pressure of an audience’s presence. Stationary viewers can contemplate them at leisure, while the camera provides vantage points unavailable when viewing a stage.
In one series, Kelly twists his face into exaggerated expressions reminiscent of the 18th-century sculptures by Franz Xaver Messerschmidt on view at the Neue Galerie (which are also self-portraits). In another, he lies dressed in rags on a hard wooden cot that rests on a red brick floor. Next to an orange, representing the fruit Wally threw to him over the wall when he was in jail, he clutches his crotch and twists his body and face. The camera’s position makes it seem that the bed could be hanging from the ceiling, increasing the uneasiness the photograph conveys.
In the images that best encapsulate Kelly’s hybrid of visual art and performance, Kelly has marked his body with slashes and discolorations that could represent scars or drawn lines, and painted his fingernails white. The result is an eerie combination of flesh and artistic representation.
The poet, filmmaker, actor and artist Jean Cocteau similarly worked in both static two-dimensional images and living theater. For Cocteau, the camera and the mirror were gateways to other worlds. For Kelly, they are tools to search for himself in the guise of others. Perhaps, for both, this has something to do with the difficulty of finding one’s own reflection growing up in a heterosexually dominated world.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and critic.