"My life is like a Christmas stocking filled with glittering things," said the irrepressible New York artist Lil Picard (1899-1994), who certainly did know how to shine. A Phyllis Diller vision in white feathers (a la Terence Koh), she cavorted in wigs and sunglasses at her 75th birthday party in 1974, dancing with Hannah Wilke, Carolee Schneemann and others half her age. "I was always very good looking," she later recollected, "but I didn’t want to go to Cartier’s and get a diamond like Zsa Zsa Gabor. I wanted a career."
She had a few. Born in Germany in 1899, Picard was a Berlin cabaret vamp, a journalist, a Surrealist-influenced milliner, and an artist who fled from the Nazis in 1939. After studying painting with Hans Hofmann and having affairs with Al Jensen and Ad Reinhardt, Picard threw herself into the world of Pop Art, and supposedly never missed an opening. She took up performance in 1965 and made friends with Andy Warhol the same year. Conjuring up hints of Robert Rauschenberg, Jasper Johns and Saul Steinberg (and foreshadowing Schneemann), her sculptures, drawings, paintings and performance props and documentation can be seen in "Lil Picard and Counterculture New York" at NYU’s Grey Art Gallery, Apr. 20-July 10, 2010.
Picard was drawn to strong textures, covering corrugated cardboard and fabrics with white and brightly colored paint. Lady Woolworth, a wonderful assemblage from 1963, is a miniaturized version of one of de Kooning’s women made with lipstick cases, curlers and combs. Her genitals are framed with a diamond shaped brooch; her breasts and belly are outlined in cheap beads; and her face is scribbled on the inside of a little box, suggesting that women are empty containers assembled from used cosmetics.
A section of the show was devoted to Construction / Destruction / Construction (1967), a performance that took place at Judson Memorial Church and also at Warhol’s Factory. Like a mother superior, Picard presided in paint-splotched pants and shirt over superstars Taylor Mead and Viva, as other performers blew up balloons and wore picture frames around their necks. Newspaper photos of the Vietnam War were burned and the ashes put in plastic bags, peace incantations were chanted, and Warhol filmed it all.
For Messages (1971), Picard covered a bed sheet with tabloid and magazine pages and flyers in German and English, including a Newsweek cover portrait of Gloria Steinem, a New York Post headline reading "Strange Story of Venereal Disease" and an Interview cover titled "Tits." Worn like a poncho with a hole for her head cut in the center, the outfit turned Picard into a walking billboard for the feminism and sexual liberation of the time. It also replaced the living body underneath with a Warholian surface of media and shadows.
A naked Kathy Acker (who was becoming celebrated for her postmodernist novels, and who died prematurely of cancer in 1997) co-starred in Tasting and Spitting (1976). Wearing a white Afro wig adorned with bits of parsley, Picard mixed unpleasant newspaper articles with water, nutmeg and Pepto-Bismol in a blender. The concoction was spoon-fed to Acker, who spat it out like a voodoo priestess, sometimes at the audience. Ingesting and regurgitating the media, they expressed their disgust to a sophisticated group of viewers, some of whom fled for fear of soiling their expensive clothing.
Picard reveled in the absurd, but she could also convey a quiet sense of tragedy. In a series of modest drawings inspired by critic Lucy Lippard’s 1973 book about conceptualism, Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object, Picard explored the idea of the disappearing trace. A series of self-portraits from 1974 begins with a photograph of Picard in sunglasses. Copying it in a drawing, then successively photocopying, piercing, re-photocopying and finally splotching it with white paint, she laboriously and thoroughly cancelled herself out. And a searing group of black marker portraits of her husband in bed was made when he was dying in the hospital, often masked and connected to tubes. The drawn-on top sheets are sometimes framed with the sheets that were underneath them in Picard’s drawing pad. Spots from the marker bled through, like mortality’s fading imprints.
Frustrated by the difficulties facing an aging woman who desires an art career, Picard fought back with flamboyant costumes and performances that garnered attention while masking the changes that take place with the passing of time. During her final decades in New York, she was seen as an art-world eccentric making slightly derivative works, but the very specific delights of her quirky vision conjoined to a fascinating biography have now become clear. Picard died in 1994 at the age of 95. The exhibition, organized by Kathleen A. Edwards, is drawn from the Lil Picard archive at the University of Iowa Museum of Art.
Lizzi Bougatsos and "Slut Freak"
The opening salvo of "Slut Freak," the artist and musician Lizzi Bougatsos’ raucous solo exhibition of altered readymades at James Fuentes Gallery, Apr. 7-May 2, 2010, was an autographed sign in the window offering "my pussy" "For Rent." The rest of the show, according to Bougatsos, was a series of self-portraits. The largest, a giant inflatable rat (often seen in picket lines), crouched on the floor, wearing the same kamikaze bandanna Bougatsos often sports on stage. To make its gender clear, the rat wore a pair of plastic breasts on its back. A perimeter of caution tape surrounded it on the floor, keeping viewers at a distance.
Another incarnation of the opposite sex could be found in Good Hair (2010), a dressing room mirror facsimile that dominated one wall. A shelf below a vanity mirror frame of lit bulbs held makeup, a glass of wine, an electric hair straightener and a cigarette butt. An oversized poster of the African-American comedian Tracy Morgan holding up a gun (from the 2010 movie Cop Out) was hung where the mirror should be. Reflecting the same skewed persona to all, the picture played havoc with everyone’s self-image. Outside in the garden, an elongated pink inflatable air dancer sculpture activated by a blowing machine jerkily swayed and writhed, a bit like the way Bougatsos dances when she sings and plays the drums for her bands, Gang Gang Dance and IUD.
The back gallery contained three found posters with additions by Bougatsos. Oversized heads of artificially grinning American faces -- a clean-cut young man and a woman with dark hair -- are defaced like subway billboards with braces and facial piercings. But instead of being scrawled in ink, the teeth are made from spray painted clay and the braces and jewelry from wire, all attached to the posters behind frames.
And in an advertisement for Carhartt Jeans, a macho construction worker poses on a scaffold, his masculinity and whiteness undermined by the large 3D African bracelets Bougatsos has collaged over his entire forearm.
At the 2008 Whitney Biennial, Gang Gang Dance performed behind a mirror wearing homemade masks. The audience saw only itself at first, but bit by bit, the mirror was covered with paint and the reflection was replaced by a projection of the hidden performers. Similarly, Bougatsos both hides and reveals herself. By turns representing herself as prostitute, rat, comedian, defaced generic portrait and inflatable doll with nothing inside her but air, Bougatsos exposes her sympathies, moods and frustrations while remaining an invisible fluctuating subject that refuses to be pinned down. The prices ranged from $500 for the "For Rent" sign (which is an unlimited edition) to $9,000 for other pieces.
Lee Bul at Lehmann Maupin
The celebrated South Korean artist Lee Bul first became known in the late 1980s for bizarre costumed performances on the streets of Seoul. Dressed in a bodysuit made with fabric, foam rubber and sponge and covered with bulbous protrusions painted red, pink and white, she transformed herself into a soft-sculpture octopus with a human face and hands. In 1997, she created an installation at the Museum of Modern Art that consisted of rows of plastic bags filled with dead fish ornamented with hand-sewn glitter -- a mordant and smelly comment on decorative decomposition that had to be removed after two days.
Lee represented South Korea in the 1999 Venice Biennale, and had solo exhibitions at the New Museum in 2002 and Deitch Projects in 2004 among others around the globe. In the ’90s she produced white silicone sculptures of fragmented female cyborg warriors that refer to Japanese comic book super-heroines, manufactured bodies and prosthetic limbs; her elaborate monster sculptures prefigured the tentacled ghouls guarding Davy Jones’ Locker in Pirates of the Caribbean.
The futuristic karaoke pods Lee showed at the New Museum turned group amusement into a solitary pursuit and transferred the responsibility to perform from artist to audience. They also marked a shift in her concerns, from bodily transformations of single female beings to architecture -- which is, in a way, just a larger form of human protective covering that is communally worn. Her work became more delicate, featuring hundreds of crystal particles threaded on thin wire armatures. In 2007, Lee created On Every New Shadow, a stunning environment for Paris’s Foundation Cartier that included a silver scaffold tower, a mirrored floor reflecting an enormous hanging sculpture, and a pool of ammonia and India ink.
More glittering architectural hybrids of chandeliers and monsters can be found in Lee’s latest New York exhibition, at Lehmann Maupin Gallery on Chrystie Street on the Lower East Side, Apr. 21-June 19, 2010. The exhibition opens with two deceptively droopy objects hanging from the entryway ceiling like carcasses in a slaughterhouse, bringing sadomasochistic harnesses to mind. The white one is made from polyurethane covered with gauze and paint and looks like a giant convoluted jock strap. The other is hard and studded with tiny squares of mirror, resembling an ominously sparkling disassembled disco ball.
Seven more sculptures are suspended from the main gallery ceiling and two others hang on the wall. Fabricated with metal rods, plywood, fabric stiffened with paint, portions of metal screens and black laminate, these pristine and dangerous objects resemble models of exploded buildings cleaned up and transformed into weapons. They draw the viewer in with their reflective shiny surfaces, but their sharp points repel.
Smaller, more benign maquettes made of polyurethane and acrylic paint can be found in the upstairs gallery, along with a group of renderings of prospective sculptures in white and grey, floating against black backgrounds like vessels in outer space. There’s also Study for the Infinite Starburst of Your Cold Dark Eyes (2009), a drawing of a dissolving female figure in india ink, marker, pencil and acrylic paint. And Sternbau No. 28 (2010), a curvier sparkling metal sculpture shaped rather like a head, hangs from the ceiling of the balcony overlooking the main gallery. In addition to metal and mirrors, it’s studded with oval and round crystals.
If they were enlarged, Lee’s bristling, suspended structures might resemble shiny versions of the forest shacks and shelters built by the Canadian outsider architect Richard Greaves; or the booby-trapped mansion constructed between 1884 and 1922 by Sarah Winchester, the gun magnate’s widow (as she tried to stave off death). Self-representation as disguise and body armor is extended to models of uninhabitable fantasy dwellings. Impressive as they are, these works are really chamber sculptures that hint at what Lee will do next. Prices range from $10,000 to $100,000.
ELISABETH KLEY is a New York artist and writer.