Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose, Kim Jones, Johanna Went
At Western Project
By Tucker Neel
Originally published in ART LIES No. 68 Spring/Summer 2011 p. 94-95
Western Project’s group exhibition of work by Bob Flanagan & Sherre Rose, Kim Jones, and Johanna Went provides an excellent opportunity reflect on the enduring practices of four of the most ground-breaking, controversial, and influential performance artists of the last half-century. This exhibition presents new and older work that fearlessly plumbs the extremities of human existence, reflecting our own frailties, inadequacies, fears, and fates. It’s not an easy show to see, but an important one nonetheless.
Some artists make work that reflects their life, but Bob Flanagan & Sherre Rose’s artwork literally kept Bob alive. Flanagan was afflicted with cystic fibrosis, an extremely painful and incurable disease causing thick mucus build up in the lungs, usually claims its victims in their mid 20s. But Flannagan was able to live with the disease until he was 44, due largely in part because he was able to embrace the tremendous pain by engaging in heavy S&M play with Sheree Rose, the S to his M. The controversial artwork they created addressed questions of pleasure and pain, life and death, while problemetizing conventional gender roles and exploring the emancipatory possibilities of dominance and submission.
In this exhibition most of Flanagan & Rose’s work documents their relationship, such as Implements of Love, a series of black and white photographs of Flanagan’s face as he holds up objects used to spank him: a whip, a fist, a pronged wooden pasta spoon, etc. The most fascinating displays in the exhibition are two vitrines holding dozens of the artifacts from the artists’ life together: Flanagan’s journals, detailing accounts of his pain, sexual activities, and psychological states, alongside other, more banal objects, like a leather fountain pen, a gold rose pin, and Porky Pig figurines. The vitrines also display butt plugs, whips, piercings, and numerous photographic documentations of performances and snapshots that capture the couple’s S&M relationship, with Bob always the primary photographed subject, Sheree the photographer. These vitrines testify to how deeply intertwined art and life were for the two artists. While Rose is still alive, still making work, the absence of Flanagan becomes a ghost that haunts the rest of the show.
The sadomasochism in Flannagan and Rose’s work is echoed in Kim Jones’ frenetic drawings of human caricatures engaged in all manner of libidinal acts of copulation, penetration, and bondage. Jones rose to critical acclaim in the late 1970s with his public performances as Mudman, an alter ego slathered in grime, lugging confusing architectural masses of sticks and wire on his back. With controversial past performances that included the immolation of live rats, Jones’ entire body of work address the artist’s traumatic experiences in Viet Nam, and larger issues of war, unmanageable bodies, and the inhumanity we carry with us on a daily basis. In four of his more recent drawings in this exhibition Jones continues this investigation through the use of signature corporeally charged forms.
In one drawing, Structure, a mass of decaying figures, all delineated with black line against a grey ground, group together in an orgy of flesh. It reminds one of the brutal, sometimes comic, narratives in de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. A figure on the left with five grotesque and weathered faces, spits jittery lines from one of his eyes to leaning beams in the background which look like telephone poles and wires tangled by a tornado. An emaciated figure, bound with bandages, or logs, inserts his fist into one of the two rear-ends of a large worm/woman. She too has multiple masculine and feminine faces resembling Renaissance cameos that, like ghosts from the past, get bigger as they recede into the distance. A phallic protuberance made up of what appears to be intestines, rises from this group of bodies like a monstrous eye overseeing the entire scene. The drawing embodies Jones’ unmistakable draftsmanship, his repeated depictions of wires, sticks, exposed and eviscerated bodies, and drippy phallic forms. Additionally, with the incongruous title, Structure, this work comes across as a skewering comment on the uncomfortable violations of bodies and minds employed to ensure order and progress.
As one of the artists whose work drew the ire of conservative culture-war congressmen in the early 90’s, Johanna Went is another artist whose career was marked by censorship and controversy. Went’s work has always involved the body as confrontational element, sometimes covered in blood and other effluvia. Grey-ish Gardens, Went’s contribution to this exhibition, is a theatrical setting including two monitors playing documentation of Last Spring at Grey Gardens, a two-day performance the artist created with Lily Greenfield-Sanders in 2001. In the two videos the artists play the characters of Big Edie Beale and Little Edie Beale, the eccentric mother and daughter from the famous 1975 documentary Grey Gardens.
The aunt and first cousin of Jacqueline Onassis, the two Beale women lived as destitutes in wealthy East Hampton, NY, in a derelict house along with a menagerie of cats, raccoons, and other furry creatures. Their comic performances, especially Eddie’s dancing, singing, and asides to the camera, made them cult icons, eventually inspiring a Broadway musical and an HBO movie. Went and Sanders’ Edies wander about caked in makeup, through a crowd of spectators, amongst a sumptuously decorated set, packed with overstuffed furniture, psychedelic fabrics, and a maze of knickknacks. Displayed on two side-by-side monitors, video documentation of this performance is hard to watch due to discordant audio tracks that compete for the viewer’s attention. With their unmistakably unique New England accents, it’s clear that the two artists are playing the Beale duo, but this isn’t a one-dimensional parody. Their video resonates as a symbolic meditation on the very nature of performance, exploring who one actually “is” in public, and who one “plays” for others, and the porous, sometimes non-existent, line that demarcates the two.
However, these two videos risk being upstaged by their surroundings. They are presented atop a kind of pagan shrine, a sprawling accumulation of strange artifacts: potted succulents, bones, candles, a collection of old dentures, framed photos of the artists in costume, rocks, moss, and, the show stopper: a taxidermied housecat seated in a red velvet brocade-lined glass case. The work extends the very essence of the Edies into the real world, presenting a space where each situation is an opportunity for improvisation and embellishment. It’s a world and a state of mind that literally runs wild, germinating with an imposing fecundity, a life that revels in it’s own eventual destruction.
With Smithsonian head Wayne Clough’s spineless capitulation to right-wing homophobic calls to censor David Wojnarowitz’s Fire In My Belly from the National Portrait Gallery’s Hide/Seek exhibition, it’s worth thinking back to the culture wars from 20 years ago, which were also fueled by ignorant people who wanted to disappear that which they refused to understand, afraid of uncontrolled, desiring bodies. In light of the recent censorship at the Smithsonian, Western Projects’ show registers as both timely and inspirational. By presenting work that still manages to viscerally connect with viewers despite censorship, disease, aging, and death, this exhibition stands as a true inspiration to all artists who strive to create work that pushes boundaries and reflect the sometimes hard-to-handle physical and psychological realities of today.
Tucker Neel is an artist, writer, and curator in Los Angeles.