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Savannah Dispatch


by Emily Nathan
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Performance artist Kalup Linzy (b. 1977) is a sweet, quiet Southern boy, though the midriff-baring, drag-dressing, sassy-tongued personas he adopts in his videos might lead you to believe otherwise. Speaking with Artnet Magazine on the campus of the Savannah College of Art and Design last week, where he was participating in the school’s annual art showcase (titled “defINE ART,” Feb. 21-25, 2012), he described his work, in a slow, honeyed drawl, as an outlet for unexpressed emotions that occasionally becomes exhausting. “From time to time,” he confessed, “Kalup just needs a break.”

That might explain why he retired one of his more aggressive alter egos, a notoriously crass, quick-talking diva named Taiwan, last year. “Taiwan always wanted to indulge in the blues, she didn’t want to let go of it,” Linzy mused. “She’s sad and depressing, and at a certain point, I had to give her up and let Kalup get out. Whatever character I’m playing, I have to go into that space and really embody that mood in order to pull it off. Sometimes, it’s too much.”

Though Taiwan’s fans might miss her, her absence -- which Linzy says is only temporary -- has apparently given the artist the space he needed to try something different. Now he has developed a brand new character, Kaye, who is less dramatic and indulgent than her “distant relative,” and a bit closer in sensibility to Linzy himself. She is the protagonist of his first-ever feature film, Melody Set Me Free: Introducing Kaye, which is currently in progress and will debut at New York’s Tribeca Film Festival in April, 2013.

The film is a spin-off from Linzy’s web series, a comic soap-opera featuring a slew of his performed personas and overdubbed voices, which screens regularly on James Franco’s website Rabbit TV and does not include Kaye. Franco has been Linzy’s on-and-off collaborator for a few years now, dipping in and out of their friendship and occasionally leaving Linzy stranded -- most infamously when he didn’t show up for their joint performance at an Academy Awards after-party -- but Linzy asserts that things are solid between them now.

“James is definitely going to record a song for the film,” he said, then added, “whenever he has time. It will be up to him if he wants to go on the tour with me, because we have already performed so many songs together that they can just go on the set list when he is available.”

So who is Kaye? “Kaye wants to be liberated,” Linzy mused. “Unlike Taiwan, he is not inspired to stay in such a melodramatic space. He is haunted, of course, but he’s more down-to-earth than any of my other characters.” It is noteworthy that Kaye is male, unlike most of Linzy’s other identities, and that he is the only one whose voice is Linzy’s own, entirely un-modulated.

While Linzy plans to keep signature personas from the show on board as the film’s supporting cast, he says that the flick won’t actually have much more than characters in common with its inspiration. “The film is more art-house, less sitcom,” he said. “There are no rules; it might be narrative and it might not. I’m currently in the process of writing it, and then I’ll get to recording all the voices and then finally I’ll fill it out emotionally, with visuals -- so there could be montages of layered images, and definitely some music and character performances. It will have original elements and sources, and of course it has to be ‘melodramatic’ -- it wouldn’t be my work if it wasn’t.” Got that?

Rumor has it that the screening of the film next spring will coincide with a major performance, for which Linzy will adopt the guise of Grace Jones. “We’re still waiting for confirmation,” Linzy said, “but I would love to perform as Grace. That’s really how I got started when I was little -- lip-syncing to those great performers like Whitney Houston, Tina Turner, even James Brown. My family would dress me up in towels or whatever we had lying around the house, and then one day someone told me I had a little ‘Ru-Paul thing going on.’ As I grew up and my personality developed, I became more monotone in my regular life, and my energy would only come out in full force when I performed.”

Kaye, in fact, came to life by accident while Linzy was performing, when a musical collector asked him to make a video for the collector’s own recorded song. Linzy cast fellow artist Nate Lowman as the vid’s lip-syncing star, and Linzy played a backup character. “I wanted to be careful about how I was approaching the video since it wasn’t my voice,” he said, “so I bought a new wig, and I got this sequined top, and we shot the thing on my Canon 5D. I wasn’t in the spotlight, so I think I felt a bit more grounded, more like myself. And while we were filming, I suddenly realized that I was really feeling this new look and attitude.”

Linzy introduced Kaye to the public for the first time on Saturday night, Feb. 25, 2012, in what he described as a “transitional performance” called Sweet, Sampled, Kaye at the newly renovated SCAD Museum of Art. After a brief welcome by the school’s new curator-in-chief, Isolde Brielmaier, Linzy took the stage with his six-man band, which was flown down to Georgia for the event and set up with a truckload of rented equipment.

Wearing low-slung, black pleather leggings (“I say my characters have all their own clothing, but Taiwan has performed in these before!” he admitted), a silver-sequined, tummy-baring bolero that fell just above his bellybutton, and a kinky wig, Linzy performed seven “covers,” some soulful, some jazzy, a few of them his own compositions and others by the likes of Otis Redding and Creedence Clearwater Revival.

Between songs, Kaye was calm and a little bit shy, and he didn’t riff much, instead using the time to sip from a bottle of water and to graciously thank the audience of gyrating, hollering art students. But when the music started, Kaye let loose, proving that he’s got crazy pipes even when they aren’t augmented. Without Linzy’s usual vamping or banter, the show felt more like a good old-fashioned concert than an art performance -- flamboyant outfit aside -- but it’s safe to say that he is still working out the kinks and trying Kaye on for size, and to assume that the character’s quirks will emerge with time.

“I guess I figured out early on how to own and embody the image of a character and to allow that to take over,” Linzy said. “I’m still learning where I fit in with all these personas, but Kaye definitely allows me to try on another part of myself. Sometimes these roles are embarrassing -- but as my cousins have always told me, the more embarrassed I feel, the better it is for the audience. That creates a space of real freedom.”

EMILY NATHAN is assistant editor at Artnet Magazine. She can be reached at Send Email