On Valentine’s Day in 2003, Genesis Breyer P-Orridge and wife Lady Jaye celebrated their love by undergoing cosmetic surgery so that they could have matching breasts. It was only the beginning of a process of attempting to become identical that involved many more operations, turning the now 59-year-old P-Orridge into a voluptuous puffy-lipped siren with an unabashedly masculine voice.
P-Orridge’s transformation to a state of pandrogyny is part of a very serious plan to rectify the human condition. "I’m not trying to be female. I’m trying to be everything!" P-Orridge explained in a 2003 interview. "The two different lineages of human species -- male and female, for lack of better terms, were fine when we just needed to replicate and build up the population. But now it’s time to create a third being." (For pronouns, P-Orridge prefers "s/he" and "h/er.")
So it’s no wonder that collage -- the union of disparate parts to form an unexpected whole -- has always been h/er favorite form of visual art. Seventy examples can now be found in a show, punningly titled "Thirty Years of Being Cut Up," on view at Invisible-Exports on Orchard Street on the Lower East Side until Oct. 13, 2009.
P-Orridge’s first forays into cross-dressing are documented in a small untitled work from 1975 that commemorates his 1969 stay at Exploding Galaxy, a notorious London commune ruled by constant change. No one could sleep in the same place for more than one night; the toilet and the tub were open to public view; and clothing was chosen from a big box in a supposed daily re-invention of identity.
One year later, P-Orridge founded a performance collective called COUM Transmissions, a sort of British version of Viennese Actionism that lasted until 1976, when it turned into Throbbing Gristle, the first industrial rock band. "I drank a bottle of whiskey and stood on a lot of tacks. And then I gave myself enemas with blood, milk and urine, and then broke wind so a jet of blood, milk and urine combined shot across the floor. . . ." is h/er description of a typical COUM event.
P-Orridge was also producing a prolific assortment of sexually explicit mail art that got him into trouble with the British General Post Office (he sent out engraved invitations to the trial). Some of the choicest examples are combined into Genetic Fear (1974), a large grid of postcards that previously hung in P-Orridge’s New York living room. Images of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth are combined with pictures of nurses and hard-core porn, helping to launch a contemporary line of British blasphemy that runs from the Sex Pistols to Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas.
P-Orridge developed an interest in the occult in the 1980s, and several sigils (magical symbols that are essentially two-dimensional records of spells involving automatic writing and bodily fluids) are among the most compelling works in the show. Sigil (To Eternity) (1994), for example, was made for Derek Jarman when he was dying of AIDS. The renowned filmmaker and fellow member of the Exploding Galaxy commune needed a spell to help him live long enough to finish Glitterbug, his final film.
At the top of a black background, a snapshot of a man hanging upside down and another of a penis festooned with piercings and bondage equipment are placed below an image of a female torso cut out to resemble a chicken carcass. Below, a reproduced engraving of Gustav Dore’s Last Judgment, with its spiral of intertwined naked bodies descending from heaven to the abyss, is surrounded by flame-like red and yellow paint and obscured in the center by a patch of white sprinkled with gold glitter. A tiny photo of Jarman in his famous garden is placed in the lower left corner, and enigmatic fragments of silver lettering and symbols form a running frame around the edge.
A video playing in the hallway between the front and back galleries also combines the grotesque with the beautiful. Shots of Lady Jaye’s graceful hand practicing automatic writing are juxtaposed with sequences showing gory surgery; rose petals floating down the screen accompany images of swollen post-operative lips; and more roses are seen next to earthworms (nature’s most famous hermaphrodites). Forty of the 70 works on view (many never before exhibited) are available for sale, at prices ranging from $1,400 to $12,000.
K8 Hardy at Reena Spaulings
Work by another performing artist with an unusual name can be seen a few blocks away in "To All the G#%$! I’ve Loved Before," 31-year-old Brooklyn-based artist K8 Hardy’s first solo exhibition in New York. The show is at Reena Spaulings Fine Art, a gallery also notable for being named after a fictional artist, performer and subject of a 2004 novel by the artists collective, Bernadette Corporation. The three core members enlisted over 150 co-authors to help write this drama about the life of a nonexistent underwear model and nightclub-hopping anarchist.
Co-founder of an independent gender queer feminist art journal called LTTR, Hardy is also fond of collaboration. In addition to experimental films and music videos, she works as a fashion stylist, which seems to have informed her current self-portrait photographs, in which she presents herself as an outré dresser, free to be butch and femme at once.
The show is approached by way of a narrow blue carpet that leads the viewer through the unfinished portion of the expansive and informal Reena Spauling Chinatown space. Passing a bar and a black sofa, the carpet arrives at an empty stage in front of a freestanding blank white wall on the slightly raised plywood floor of the gallery area.
Nineteen framed C-prints hang on the opposite wall, documenting episodes of an ongoing dress-up game with various wigs, glasses and clothing. Cindy Sherman comes irresistibly to mind, but Hardy’s confrontational masquerade is more open-ended than Sherman’s nightmarish transformations. While Sherman endeavors to hide her identity, Hardy’s personality always comes through, even when her sister Halie stands in.
Posing as a tough outdoorswoman in Position Series #13 (2009), Hardy is seen standing in front of a rustic log cabin wearing a pair of oversized jeans and a backwards baseball cap, her ostensible masculinity countered by a purple wig and black eye make-up. #15 is an image of elfin ambisexuality, featuring unlaced knee-high black leather boots and a testicular black sack that hangs between Hardy’s legs as she holds up a narrow weed. And in #20, she poses in jeans and a large flower headdress that brings Caravaggio’s portraits of voluptuous boys crowned with blossoms to mind.
Sculptures incorporating costume elements can also be seen, including Head Posse A-C (2009), a mannequin head wearing several wigs that is poised on a cardboard tube. The eyeless face painted purple and Day-Glo orange gazes blankly at Hardy’s photographs. The show is up until Oct. 11.
The Bernadette Corporation
The Bernadette Corporation is coincidentally having its own exhibition in Chelsea at Greene Naftali until Oct. 16. Titled The Complete Poem, the show consists of a 130-page poem displayed page by page in 13 custom-built vitrines. In addition, there are 38 framed photographs by David Vasiljevic, styled to resemble the pictures he shot for a recent series of Levi advertisements.
The impeccably printed poem begins with a reference to a fart. Interesting random lines include: "The city is a rat’s vagina in a good way;" "Sometimes I am always lying;" "Shopping is my favorite;" "Acne is very sensitive;" and "Skinny jeans are very tight" -- reflections on contemporary life that are almost profoundly banal.
The photographs (and two large banners) feature those skinny denim jeans (as well as denim shorts, skirts, vests and jackets) adorning young men and women with graceful bodies and dour expressions, cavorting together or alone. The poem’s final words are: "You aren’t made for reality, you just exhaust it," suggesting that Bernadette aims to reflect corporate vacuity back at itself through an endless mirror. Prices range from $4,500 to $18,000.
My Barbarian at Participant
More excitement (and reality) can be found at Participant on East Houston Street, where seven videos by the Los Angeles based performance trio My Barbarian, are on view until Oct. 18. Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade have dreamed up a mordant contemporary science fiction television series titled The Night Epi$ode, a takeoff on Rod Serling’s The Night Gallery, which aired on NBC from 1970 to 1973.
Extensive introduction and end sequences resemble modern video versions of Weimar cabaret. Often wearing masks made from papier-mâché, the trio sings and dances to music they compose themselves. In between, a series of tongue-in-cheek debacles unfold, mingling pseudo occult encounters with very contemporary dramas of unemployment, loss of health insurance and catastrophic illness.
Purgatorial Curatorial, the main installment, plays on a large screen above an upraised conference table with three chairs and microphones ready for a panel discussion. Three tough young curators trapped in a windowless room plan an important exhibition. Gaines, playing a member of an eyeless alien race from another planet, explains, "It is difficult to situate painting in a sightless context," while the pigtailed Gordon announces, "I will wear a suicide bomb to the opening." Segade, in blackened eye makeup opines, "The now is about the individual and his or her rotting corpse. Collectivity has failed!"
The six other episodes include Another Dimension Where There is Life, in which an unemployed husband leaves his wife when he finally gets a job because her pre-existing condition will mess up his new health insurance. Looking for coverage from another spouse, she falls in love with an alien (seen as a pulsing blob of light), but they can’t get married because they are a same-sex couple.
Yoga Matt features a young man covered with horrible sores who is cured by an African witch doctor wearing Obama pajamas, but can’t afford the $10,000 fee. And in Watery Grave, the trio, squeezed side by side into a small inflatable raft floating in the ocean in front of the California coast, sings a song of poverty with a refrain of, "Hey, Ho, sinking so low, watery, watery grave." They then confess their crimes: Segade has raped his nephew, Gordon has murdered her niece, and Gaines has cheated his grandparents out of all their money. Prices range from $3,500 to $5,000.
Naomi Fisher at Leo Koenig
Such socioeconomic concerns are left behind back in Chelsea, where Miami-based artist Naomi Fisher’s exhibition, "The Brave Keep Undefiled, A Wisdom of Their Own," can be seen until Oct. 24 at Leo Koenig Inc. The centerpiece is Bette Davis Primativo (2009), a 25-minute-long video Fisher made with a group of four female performers in the mangrove swamps of Florida’s Oleta State Park, where they camped for nine days, cooking on an open fire, hiking, swimming and improvising in front of a camera.
Dressed in a trove of animal-print outfits that Fisher acquired when the contents of an unpaid storage unit in Miami were sold, the actors sway and frolic among the branches and roots of a large mangrove tree. Sometimes their movements are graceful, and sometimes they hang from the branches by arms and legs, move on all fours, or scratch and hiss at each other like wildcats. They also call out in a language of guttural noises that rarely coalesces into words.
Costume details that are difficult to make out in the video become clear in the related group of C-Prints hanging in the main gallery. Metallic and sequined fabric, glitter eye makeup and dramatic lipstick make the women look more like models in Versace than animals in the wild. In Untitled (2009), for example, a blonde woman in red and black pants leans precariously on a branch in the midst of a bewildering tangle of mangrove roots, seemingly unable to move.
But such solitary powerlessness is uncharacteristic -- most of the photographs document group interactions that often seem full of concern. Hold Her Up (2009) features a central figure seen from the rear as her three companions -- one standing, one squatting, on lying on the ground -- reach out and gently lay their hands on her back and head.
There are also a number of wonderful drawings dashed off in bravura technique using watercolor, ink and acrylic. The glaring artificial light Fisher used for the photos is replaced by flickering reflections of flames bouncing off faces in fluorescent reds. Oranges and pinks are played off leopard-skin’s earth tones and yellows, resulting in images resembling Emile Nolde’s paintings of savage dances recast for a fashion magazine. Prices range from $3,500 to $9,500 for the video.
Austé at Mitchell Algus
Another magical feminine world unfolds at Mitchell Algus, in paintings and drawings by the Connecticut-based Lithuanian-American artist Austé, who showed quite a bit in the mid-1970s and ‘80s East Village and then took a break to have a child. With whip-like brushstrokes and calligraphic lines, she combines foreboding blacks, moody purples, glowing reds and light pastels into ornamental portraits of a wide-eyed, snake-limbed woman that could be compared to works by Leonor Fini and Salvador Dali as updated by Kenny Scharf.
Ornament Thine Self with Modesty (1984-5) features this refined young sorceress materializing out of a mountain of black hair and delicately sticking out her tongue at a lithe black cat. Elegant folk art flowers dance over her fantastic quadruple cone hat, as the black silhouette of another tiny witch strides across the sky. And in a black and white drawing called All Manner of Incognito (1985), she emerges from a tree trunk in front of the sea with eyes, lips and strands of hair constructed from stalks of grass and weeds. Prices range from $1,600 to $16,000. The exhibition is on view till Oct. 10.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and critic. A new exhibition of her recent ceramic works, "Bazavalon: Drawings and Ceramics," Oct. 13-Nov. 30, 2009, is on view at Rose Burlingham / Living Room Gallery, 15 Park Row, Apt. 16e, New York, N.Y. 10038