Brits like to say that Americans don’t understand irony. Maybe that’s true. But then Brits don’t understand the singular American obsession with black-drag-queen humor -- or so it would seem, at least, from the audience’s largely wooden reaction to Kalup Linzy’s performance as a honey-haired, salty-tongued soul singer at a private dining room in the Saatchi Gallery's restaurant, Oct. 14, 2011.
Dressed in a southwestern-patterned vest, a tulle skirt and a flat-ironed blonde wig, the bearded performance and video artist crooned about men who are assholes, using “dirty drinks” to get laid and dropping it like it’s hot.
The event’s organizer, secondary-market dealer George Annin, said he’s been a fan of Linzy’s for years and emailed the Brooklyn-based artist out of the blue to propose the show. Linzy's performance was part of a preview for “L’Aperçu,” a group show organized by Annin that is slated to bow sometime in 2012. Annin said he thought that “it was time” for Londoners to get to know Linzy as well as New Yorkers did, so he flew Linzy out for the performance timed with the Frieze Art Fair, Oct. 13-16, 2011.
But after Linzy finally emerged from his dressing room (i.e. the bathroom) that evening -- about an hour late -- the crowd, many of whom said they’d never heard of the artist, held out for maybe 10 more minutes before returning to their conversations. By mid-set, most of the 100 or so guests had left -- typical behavior, one supposes, for many a Vegas lounge act.
The two-dozen who remained, however, were enrapt. A woman in the front who said she first saw Linzy perform in New York in 2009 pointed out, “This crowd just doesn’t get it. Someone behind me actually said, ‘I think he’s gay’.” She paused to twist her face into stupefaction. “Um, yeah, he’s a drag queen!”
“I used to think London didn’t feel me at all,” said Linzy post-show, aboard a double-decker bus headed to the after-party at Amy Sacco's London version of Bungalow 8. “But I knew it was going to be different here so I can’t worry anymore about whether they stayed or left.” And he didn’t mind that those who stuck around were so openly amused. “I’m not offended. In New York, people would classify that as rude. But, culturally, British people are very direct, so it was probably really funny to them.” They also really like dirty language, he added.
For his fans, Linzy’s melodramatic female archetypes amount to more than mere parody or camp -- they have a sense of earnest empowerment, and whether the reference is minstrel shows, soul singers or soap operas, Linzy refuses to embody any singular identity or esthetic category. Yet as his subversion of sexuality and gender norms becomes a given, Linzy seems to be transitioning out of a man playing his usual divas -- Katonya, Labisha and Taiwan -- into a kind of third space that’s more just Kalup Linzy.
He retired his most famous alter ego, Taiwan, in Spain in February. He’s said he’s gradually grown apart from some of the characters. “I don’t actually identify as a drag queen,” he said. Nonetheless, he’s planning to bring Taiwan back soon as a newlywed, married to a man who can’t “perform.” “I just can’t retire the songs,” so she’ll return, but changed and a little lost.
In June, he released a five-song EP called Turn It Up with James Franco, who performed live and recorded videos with Linzy as well. (The pair even starred together during a stint on General Hospital.) Linzy had originally wanted to record a full-length album, but the actor’s chaotic schedule made it untenable. “He was in, like, Detroit and then doing three summer movies, and I didn’t want to rush it,” Linzy said. “You can record the vocals in four or five hours, but it takes a lot of work to do a whole album.”
Then, Franco seemed to disassociate himself from the album, telling New York magazine, “That’s not my EP. Kalup Linzy is doing the EP, I think I, like, do some spoken word on it, but that is not my EP.”
“I heard it through the tabloids,” Linzy said. “I guess maybe I tried too hard to rush it.” It also means that it’s unlikely Franco will co-produce and co-star in the feature film Linzy has finished writing, as the artist had once hoped.
The collaboration hasn’t fizzled entirely though. “James asked me to do a monologue for a project he’s doing with that artist Laurel Nakadate.” When asked to elaborate, he replied in kind. “I don’t know what it is, it’s his thing. I just know I’m doing a monologue.”
Now, Linzy might be letting the original screenplay go, at least for the time being. He’s still intent on moving into full-length films, citing crossover artists like John Waters and Yoko Ono as inspiration, and has already set to work writing a new screenplay.
To be shot on a handheld camera, it follows a group of young artists as they begin to find success in the art world -- all except for one of them. Played by Linzy, the character is “totally fabulous” but unable to achieve any fame as an artist. In a new twist, Linzy said he plans to play the star as “a he.” It’s a move that seems fitting now that Linzy is distancing himself from the public personae who perhaps distracted him from just being himself, whoever that may be.