Most of my performer friends feel about “drag” the way most of my painter friends feel about “abstraction”: that they represent historical languages so deeply absorbed, and indebted to, that they are no longer adequate for talking about what is going on now. For certain communities in the NY scene, gone are the camps of warring binaries—except against binaries themselves—so that talking about “abstraction” as against “figuration” in painting, or “drag” as a burlesque of femininity rather than a deconstruction of the idea of the gender binary itself, is to somehow miss the point.
I thought about this during a panel for the closing of “Correspondences: Ad Reinhardt at 100” at TEMP art space in SoHo, a show that tried to bring together contemporary artists engaging with the legacy of that complex painter. When Reinhardt was living there was a polemic atmosphere, one that pinned moral and political dimensions to these painting questions, along with imperative to choose sides. However, one of the young painters I know in the show, Nathlie Provosty, recently told me how uncomfortable she feels describing what she is doing as “abstraction”. “Do you prefer calling them figurative? Or non-representational?” I asked—”Well, I guess abstraction is the best for now, but only for lack of something better” she said. Recently I had the pleasure of talking to Josephine Halvorson who describes her paintings as both “abstract and representational”—she said that choosing between the two is like being asked to choose between your mother and father—who do you love best?—when clearly you owe them both a lot.
I thought about this too during Justin Sayre’s performance at Joe’s Pub “In my Girlish Days” when he came out with black rose pinned in his messy brown hair, bearded, false eyelashes fluttering—in an oversized black blouse with slit sleeves, black tights and high-heels. At some point he announces during his torch-song-laced monologue “just so you know, this isn’t drag.” Sayre’s performance was funny but utterly without irony: about growing up gay in a small town; about being lonely and dreaming of singing his heart out in a dingy New York club. (I was personally delighted when he sang the trash-anthem “FANCY” —the only other time I’ve seen it performed live was karaoke by two drunk girls in a bar in the Appalachian mountains when I was twelve.) The most beautiful moments were the sad songs, when watching Sayre you can see him becoming the gay bearded Billie Holliday he dreamed of as a young boy, in front of the room of friends he always wanted.
Both cases—drag and abstraction—are about the ever-splendoring complexity of representation and the tools we use to disclose ourselves to the world. Contemporary artists are pushing to fresh places, both our emotional and critical vocabularies need to catch up.
-Contributed by Jarrett Earnest
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