Posts Tagged ‘gay man

31
Oct
19

Text and photos: Marcus Bunyan. “Punk jacket,” in Chris Brickell and Judith Collard (eds.,). ‘Queer Objects’ MUP, 2019

November 2019

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958) 'Self-portrait with punk jacket and The Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt' 1992

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958)
Self-portrait with punk jacket and The Jesus and Mary Chain T-shirt
1992
Gelatin silver print
© Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Many thankx to University of Otago academics Chris Brickell and Judith Collard for inviting me to write a chapter for this important book… about my glorious punk jacket of the late 1980s (with HIV/AIDS pink triangle c. 1989). Aaah, the memories!

Please come along to the Australian launch of the book at Hares Hyenas bookshop (63 Johnston Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne) on Wednesday, November 6, 2019 at 6pm – 7.30pm. The book is to be launched by Jason Smith (Director Geelong Gallery). Click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

Marcus

 

 

“Gay and lesbian identity (and, by extension, queer identity) is predicated on the idea that, as sexualities, they are invisible, because sexuality is not a visible identity in the ways that race or sex are visible. Only by means of individual expression are gay and lesbian sexualities made discernible.”

.
Ari Hakkarainen. “‘The Urgency of Resistance’: Rehearsals of Death in the Photography of David Wojnarowicz” 2018

 

 

Punk Jacket

 

I arrived in Melbourne in August 1986 after living and partying in London for 11 years. I had fallen in love with an Australian skinhead boy in 1985. After we had been together for a year and a half together his visa was going to expire and he had to leave Britain to avoid deportation. So I gave up my job, packed up my belongings and went to Australia. All for love.

We landed in Melbourne after a 23-hour flight and I was driven down Swanston Street, the main drag (which in those days was open to traffic) and I was told this was it; this was the centre of the city. Bought at a milk bar, the Australian version of the corner shop, the first thing I ever ate in this new land was a Violet Crumble, the Oz equivalent of a Crunchie. Everything was so strange: the light, the sounds, the countryside.

I felt alienated. My partner had all his friends and I was in a strange land on my own. I was homesick but stuck it out. As you could in those days, I applied for gay de facto partnership status and got my permanent residency. But it did not last and we parted ways. Strange to say, though, I did not go back to England: there was an opportunity for a better life in Australia. I began a photography course and then went to university. I became an artist, which I have now been for over 30 years.

Melbourne was totally different then from the international city of today: no café culture, no big events, no shopping on Sundays, everything shut down early. At first living there was a real culture shock. I was the only gay man in town who had tattoos and a shaved head, who wore Fred Perrys, braces and Doc Martens. All the other gay men seemed to be stuck in the New Romantics era. In 1988 I walked into the Xchange Hotel on Commercial Road, then one of the pubs on the city’s main gay drag, and said to the manager, Craig, ‘I’m hungry, I’m starving, give me a job’, or words to that effect. He thought a straight skinhead had come to rob the place, but he gave me a job, sweet man. He later died of AIDS.

I went to my first Mardi Gras in Sydney the same year, when the party after the parade was in the one pavilion, the Horden at the showgrounds, and there were only 3000 people there. I loved it. Two men, both artists who lived out in Newtown, picked me up and I spent the rest of the weekend with them, having a fine old time. I still have the gift Ian gave me from his company, Riffin Drill, the name scratched on the back of the brass belt buckle that was his present. I returned the next year and the party was bigger. I ventured out to Newtown during the day, when the area was a haven for alternatives, punks and deviants (not like it is now, all gentrified and bland) and found an old second-hand shop quite a way up from the train station. And there was the leather jacket, unadorned save for the red lapels. It fitted like a glove. Somehow it made its way back with me to Melbourne. Surprise, surprise!

Then I started making the jacket my own. Studs were added to the red of the lapel and to the lower tail at the back of the jacket with my initials MAB (or MAD as I frequently referred to myself) as part of the design. A large, Gothic Alchemy patch with dragon and cross surrounded by hand-painted designs by my best mate and artist, Frederick White, finished the back of the jacket. Slogans such as ‘One Way System,’ ‘Oh Bondage, Up Yours!’ and ‘Anarchy’ were stencilled to both arms and the front of the jacket; cloth patches were pinned or studded to the front and sides: Doc Martens, Union Jack, Southern Cross … and Greenpeace. I added metal badges from the leather bar, The Gauntlet, and a British Skins badge with a Union Jack had pride of place on the red lapel. And then there was one very special homemade badge. Made out of a bit of strong fabric and coloured using felt-tip pens, it was attached with safety pins to the left arm. It was, and still is, a pink triangle. And in grey capital letters written in my own hand, it says, using the words of the Latin proverb, ‘SILENCE IS THE VOICE OF COMPLICITY’.

I have been unable to find this slogan anywhere else in HIV/AIDS material, but that is not to say it has not been used. This was my take on the Silence = Death Collective’s protest poster of a pink triangle with those same words, ‘Silence = Death’ underneath, one of the most iconic and lasting images that would come to symbolise the Aids activist movement. Avram Finkelstein, a member of the collective who designed the poster, comments eloquently on the weight of the meaning of ‘silence’: ‘Institutionally, silence is about control. Personally, silence is about complicity.’1 In a strange synchronicity, in 1989 I inverted the pink triangle of the ‘Silence = Death’ poster so that it resembled the pink triangle used to identify gay (male) prisoners sent to Nazi concentration camps because of their homosexuality; the Pink Triangles were considered the ‘lowest’ and ‘most insignificant’ prisoners. It is estimated that the Nazis killed up to 15,000 homosexuals in concentration camps. Only in 2018, when writing this piece, did I learn that Avram Finkelstein was a Jew. He relates both variants of the pink triangle to complicity because ‘when you see something happening and you are silent, you are participating in it, whether you want to or not, whether you know it or not’.2

Finishing the jacket was a labour of love that took several years to reach its final state of being. I usually wore it with my brown, moth-eaten punk jumper, bought off a friend who found it behind a concert stage. Chains and an eagle adorned the front of it, with safety pins holding it all together. On the back was a swastika made out of safety pins, to which I promptly added the word ‘No’ above the symbol, using more safety pins, making my political and social allegiances very clear. Both the jumper and the jacket have both been donated to the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives.

By 1993 I had a new boyfriend and was at the beginning of a 12-year relationship that would be the longest of my life. We were both into skinhead and punk gear, my partner having studied fashion design with Vivienne Westwood in London. We used to walk around Melbourne dressed up in our gear, including the jacket, holding hands on trams and trains, on the bus and in the street. Australia was then such a conservative country, even in the populated cities, and our undoubtedly provocative actions challenged prevailing stereotypes of masculinity. We wore our SHARP (Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice) T-shirts with pride and opposed any form of racism, particularly from neo-fascists.3

Why did we like the punk and skinhead look so much? For me, it had links to my working-class roots growing up in Britain. I liked the butch masculinity of the shaved head and the Mohawk, the tattoos, braces, Docs and Perrys – but I hated the racist politics of straight skinheads. ‘SHARPs draw inspiration from the biracial origins of the skinhead subculture … [they] dress to project an image that looks hard and smart, in an evolving continuity with style ideals established in the middle-to-late 1960s. They remain true to the style’s original purpose of enjoying life, clothes, attitude and music. This does not include blanket hatred of other people based on their skin colour.’4

By the very fact of being a ‘gay’ punk and skinhead, too, I was effectively subverting the status quo: the hetero-normative, white patriarchal society much in evidence in Australia at the time. I was subverting a stereotypical masculinity, that of the straight skinhead, by turning it ‘queer’. Murray Healy’s excellent book, Gay Skins: Class, Masculinity and Queer Appropriation, was critical to my understanding of what I was doing intuitively. Healy looks into the myths and misapprehensions surrounding gay skins by exploring fascism, fetishism, class, sexuality and gender. Queer undercurrents ran through skinhead culture, and shaven heads, shiny DMs and tight Levis fed into fantasies and fetishes based on notions of hyper-masculinity. But Healy puts the boot into those myths of masculinity and challenges assumptions about class, queerness and real men. Tracing the historical development of the gay skin from 1968, he assesses what gay men have done to the hardest cult of them all. He asks how they transformed the gay scene in Britain and then around the world, and observes that the ‘previously sublimated queerness of working class youth culture was aggressively foregrounded in punk. Punk harnessed the energies of an underclass dissatisfied with a sanitised consumer youth culture, and it was from the realm of dangerous sexualities that it appropriated its shocking signifiers.’5 There is now a whole cult of gay men who like nothing better than displaying their transformative sexuality by shaving their heads and putting on their Docs to go down the pub for a few drinks. Supposedly as hard as nails and as gay as fuck, the look is more than a costume, as much leatherwear has become in recent years: it is a spiritual attitude and a way of life. It can also signify a vulnerable persona open to connection, passion, tenderness and togetherness.

In 1992 I took this spiritual belonging to a tribe to a new level. For years I had suffered from depression and self-harm, cutting my arms with razor blades. Now, in an act of positive energy and self-healing, skinhead friend Glenn performed three and a half hours of cutting on my right arm as a form of tribal scarification. There was no pain: I divorced my mind from my body and went on a journey, a form of astral travel. It was the most spiritual experience of my life. Afterwards we both needed a drink, so we put on our gear and went down to the Exchange Hotel on Oxford Street in Sydney with blood still coming from my arm. I know the queens were shocked – the looks we got reflected, in part, what blood meant to the gay community in that era – but this is who I then was. The black and white photograph in this chapter (below) was taken a day later. Paraphrasing Leonard Peltier, I was letting who I was ring out and resonate in every deed. I was taking responsibility for my own being. From that day to this, I have never cut myself again.

These tribal belongings and deviant sexualities speak of a desire to explore the self and the world. They cross the prohibition of the taboo by subverting gender norms through a paradoxical masculinity that ironically eroticises the desire for traditional masculinity. As Brian Pronger observes,
.

“Paradoxical masculinity takes the traditional signs of patriarchal masculinity and filters them through an ironic gay lens. Signs such as muscles [and gay skinheads], which in heterosexual culture highlight masculine gender by pointing out the power men have over women and the power they have to resist other men, through gay irony emerge as enticements to homoerotic desire – a desire that is anathema to orthodox masculinity. Paradoxical masculinity invites both reverence for the traditional signs of masculinity and the violation of those signs.”6

.
Violation is critical here. Through violation gay men are brought closer to a physical and mental eroticism. I remember going to dance parties with my partner and holding each other at arm’s length on the pumping dance floor, rubbing our shaved heads together for what seemed like minutes on end among the sweaty crowd, and being transported to another world. I lost myself in another place of ecstatic existence. Wearing my punk jacket, being a gay skinhead and exploring different pleasures always took me out of myself into another realm – a sensitive gay man who belonged to a tribe that was as sexy and deviant as fuck.

Dr Marcus Bunyan

 

Marcus Bunyan. “Punk Jacket,” in Chris Brickell and Judith Collard (eds.,). Queer Objects. Manchester University Press, 2019, pp. 342-349.

Word count: 2,055

Endnotes

  1. Anonymous. ‘The Artist Behind the Iconic Silence = Death Image’, University of California Press Blog, 1 June 2017: https://www.ucpress.edu/blog/27892/the-artist-behind-the-iconic-silence-death-image
  2. Silence Opens Door, ‘Avram Finkelstein: Silence=Death,’ YouTube, 4 March 2010:
    https://youtu.be/7tCN9YdMRiA
  3. Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice was started in 1987 in New York as a response to the bigotry of the growing white power movement in 1982
  4. Anonymous, ‘Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice’:
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skinheads_Against_Racial_Prejudice
  5. Murray Healy, Gay Skins: Class, masculinity and queer appropriation (London: Cassell, 1996), p. 397
  6. Brian Pronger, The Arena of Masculinity: Sports, homosexuality, and the meaning of sex (New York: St Martin’s Press, 1990), p. 145

 

 

Marcus Bunyan. 'Punk Jacket' c. 1989-1991

Marcus Bunyan. 'Punk Jacket' c. 1989-1991

Marcus Bunyan. 'Punk Jacket' c. 1989-1991 (detail)

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958)
Punk Jacket
c. 1989-1991
Mixed media
Collection of the Australian Lesbian and Gay Archives (ALGA)
© Marcus Bunyan and ALGA

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958) 'Self-portrait with punk jacket, flanny and 14 hole steel toe capped Docs' 1991

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958)
Self-portrait with punk jacket, flanny and 14 hole steel toe capped Docs
1991
Gelatin silver print
© Marcus Bunyan

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958) 'Marcus (after scarification), Sydney' 1992

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958)
Marcus (after scarification), Sydney
1992
Gelatin silver print
© Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Other Marcus photographs in the Queer Objects book

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958) 'Two torsos' 1991

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958)
Two torsos
1991
Gelatin silver print
© Marcus Bunyan

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958) 'Fred and Andrew, Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria' 1992

 

Marcus Bunyan (Australian, b. 1958)
Fred and Andrew, Sherbrooke Forest, Victoria
1992
Gelatin silver print
© Marcus Bunyan

 

 

Marcus Bunyan website

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive

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14
May
19

Exhibition: ‘The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day’ at ONE Gallery, West Hollywood, California

Exhibition dates: 1st March – 17th May 2019

Curator: David J. Getsy

 

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor' October 1975, printed 2018

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor
October 1975, printed 2018
Digital print
© Greg Day 2019

 

 

“Varble’s total irreverence is no more evident than in his willingness to “cross party lines,” as he did when he wore his Suit of Armor, constructed with gold VO labels from Seagram’s boxes, to both the 1975 Easter Parade and to West Village leather bars! He was an equal opportunity offender, rubbing up against conformity in all forms.”

Bob Nickas. “Stephen Varble: Now More Than Ever,” on the Affidavit website [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

 

Confusing queen reigns, on parade

In an era of reactionary religious and right wing hypocrisy – Christian sleaze and paedophilia anyone, anti-Muslim and gay Facebook posts in the Australian election, murderous right wing rampage in New Zealand – now more than ever, we need artists like Stephen Varble.

I love doing these posts on artists that certainly I, and I suspect a lot of the readers of this website, would have never have heard of. Artists full of spunk, full of daring-do, artists who rise to challenge the patrons of patriarchy, and the colluders of capitalism (Varble became ever-more critical of commodification and capitalism). Artists who declaim the value of the individual, who shine a light on the plight of the downtrodden and discriminated against. Can you not once bring yourself to utter the word “AIDS” you bigoted president?

“Varble made the recombination of signs for gender a central theme in his increasingly outrageous costumes and performances… [He] sought to make a place for himself outside of art’s institutions and mainstream cultures all the while critiquing them both.” Australian artists such as Leigh Bowery and Brenton Heath-Kerr have a lot to thank Varble for.

He might have risen from the gutter, but his intentions were full of stars.

Dr Marcus Bunyan for Art Blart

.
Many thankx to the ONE Gallery for allowing me to publish the photographs in the posting. Please click on the photographs for a larger version of the image.

 

 

Varble’s work wasn’t drag in the conventional cross-dressing sense, or “gay art,” which was often defined from a predominantly masculine perspective in the immediate post-Stonewall years. His intention was to stretch and break down the very idea of binary identities, confuse the concept of gender, leave it optional. And this goal puts him well in the framework of queer and transgender thinking now. …

For a series of mid-1970s performances he called “Gutter Art,” he would arrive, elaborately dressed, by limousine (paid for by a Japanese patron, Miyazaki Morihiro) in front of luxury stores on the Upper East Side. Once parked, he unloaded old kitchen utensils from the trunk and started washing them with black ink, as if referring to the domestic life of sweatshop labor. He soon gained notoriety as a kind of cultural terrorist. (Tiffany’s hired guards to keep him out.) He turned up, uninvited, at red carpet events – film premieres, the Met’s Costume Institute gala – to dazzle and deride the guests.

.
Holland Cotter. “Stephen Varble: The Street Was His Stage, the Dress Was His Weapon,” on The New York Times website January 10, 2019 [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble in the Demonstration Costume with Only One Shoe (for the Chemical Bank Protest)' 22 March 1976, printed 2018

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble in the Demonstration Costume with Only One Shoe (for the Chemical Bank Protest)
22 March 1976, printed 2018
Digital print
© Greg Day 2019

 

 

“A chauffeured Rolls Royce glides glacially to the curb in front of the Chemical Bank at New York’s Sheridan Square. The uniformed driver, out in an instant, holds open the passenger door. Rather than a well-heeled person to which such a car would belong, a more hallucinatory sight will emerge, equally glamorous and ridiculous. Two legs appear, only one of which has a shoe. The full length of the body gradually appears, improbably covered in netting and not much else, the entwined nets adorned with crumpled bills. What seem to be bare breasts droop from the chest of a figure of otherwise unidentifiable gender, further confused by a toy fighter jet, poised for takeoff, at crotch level. While no words are spoken, a cartoon speech bubble overhead proclaims, cheerily but with a disgruntled undertow: Even Though You May Be Forged, Chemical Still Banks Best!”

Bob Nickas. “Stephen Varble: Now More Than Ever,” on the Affidavit website [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

The Chemical Bank Protest was Varble’s most notorious and widely reported disruption, and it encapsulated his disdain for commerce, capitalism, and propriety. To contest a forgery against him, Varble went to the Sheridan Square bank to demand his money returned. He created his Demonstration Costume with Only One Shoe from Christmas tree packaging, gold leaf wrappers, and fake money. His costumes often combined different signs of gender, and here he wore tow condoms filled with cow’s blood for breasts and a toy jet fighter as a codpiece. The toy referenced the plane ticket the forger purchase with the money, and one shoe was missing to “symbolise his economic loss.” Hovering over his head, a speech bubble touted, “Even Though You May Be Forged, Chemical Still Banks Best!”

Varble’s performances often affected an ironic enthusiasms for his targets (be it a bank, a boutique, a gallery, or a presidential candidate), and his insincere flattery was meant to provide cover for his disruption of business as usual.

Arriving in a borrowed limousine, Varble boldly entered to make his demands as the line of customers at the teller window gawked. On being told by the manager that he could not be helped, Varble punctured the blood-filled condoms and dipped a pen in the spilled blood to write checks (for “none-million dollars”) in his dramatic, mime-like movements before sweeping out to the sound of applause from the customers.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

“Varble began to truly set himself apart from other gender-focused 1970s performance artists with his outré 1976 performance at Chemical Bank in Sheridan Square. After hearing that someone had forged his signature and emptied out his bank account, Varble walked into the bank dressed in fake money, with breasts made out of condoms and filled with cow’s blood. He demanded his money back. When the bank teller could not comply, Varble punctured his condom-breasts, spilling blood all over the floor, and wrote checks in blood for “none-million dollars,” which he addressed to his companion at the bank, Peter Hujar. The exhibition includes a photograph Hujar took that day, evoking a time when the lax security in banks allowed artists to perform and express themselves, however outrageously (although Varble was then escorted out of the cow’s blood-filled bank by security).”

Extract from Michael Valinsky. “A Forgotten Precursor of Genderqueer Performance Art,” in Hyperallergic website [Online] Cited 14/05/219

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation views of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery showing, at left top, Greg Day’s Stephen Varble with the Enormous Pink Satin and baby Doll (1975); left below Stephen Varble Performing in a Garbage Can at his Loft on Franklin Street (1975); and at centre, Closing Party with Varble’s Enormous Pink Satin Skirt (1975)

 

 

Franklin Street Exhibition and Party Performance

in 1976, Varble organised an exhibition of his own work in the loft her share with Jim McWilliams on Franklin Street. He painted the interiors pink, built large decorations, and displayed all his costumes on cut-out mannequins mounted on the walls. The largest piece in the exhibition was a new work the Enormous Pink Satin Skirt, some fifteen feet in length. The object played a central role in the “Gala Ending” party that closed the exhibition, as can be seen in the photograph (main above). For this major event Varble enlisted the help of established gender non-conforming performers such as Mario Montez, Jackie Curtis, and Taylor Mead to act as living mannequins for his most iconic costumes. Modelling Varble’s art they paraded with his satin silhouette dolls through the crowd and did impromptu performances – such as when Agusta Machado enacted a campy drama of claustrophobia in Varble’s refrigerator. Day was there to capture the wild party, managing to take individual portraits of some of the major performers in attendance…

In the midst of the playful chaos, Varble gathered these Warhol stars and others (such as Paul Ambrose and New York drag personality Ruth Truth) inside the Enormous Pink Satin Skirt, and at a designated time they al burst forth dancing. As the exhibition gave attendees a retrospective view of his output the performance provided a testament to Varble’s place in the queer performance culture of New York. As the art critic Gregory Battock remarked, “It was the kind of event only Stephen Varble could have planned: chaotic, meandering, spurious and very New York […] Even though invitations were hard to come by, everybody was there.”

Wall text from the exhibition

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery with, from left, Greg Day’s Stephen Varble Destroying his Blue and Green Corrugated Paper Dress from the Camera (October 1975); Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale; and Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery

 

'Stephen Varble, Gutter Art flyer' [recto] 1975

 

Stephen Varble, Gutter Art flyer [recto]
1975
Xerographic print on paper
Courtesy Greg Day and the Leslie-Lohman Museum
Photo: Courtesy Greg Day and the Leslie-Lohman Museum

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale' October 1975, printed 2018

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale
October 1975, printed 2018
Digital print
© Greg Day, 2019

 

 

In costumes made from street trash, food waste, and stolen objects, Stephen Varble (1946-1984) took to the streets of 1970s New York City to perform his “Gutter Art.” With disruption as his aim, he led uninvited costumed tours through the galleries of SoHo, occupied Fifth Avenue gutters, and burst into banks and boutiques in his gender-confounding ensembles. Varble made the recombination of signs for gender a central theme in his increasingly outrageous costumes and performances. While maintaining he/him as his pronouns, Varble performed gender as an open question in both his life and his work, sometimes identifying as a female persona, Marie Debris, and sometimes playing up his appearance as a gay man. Only later would the term “genderqueer” emerge to describe the kind of self-made, non-binary gender options that Varble adopted throughout his life and in his disruptions of the 1970s art world.

At the pinnacle moment of Varble’s public performances, the photographer Greg Day (b. 1944) captured the inventiveness and energy of his genderqueer costume confrontations. Trained as an artist and anthropologist and with a keen eye for documenting ephemeral culture as it flourished, Day took hundreds of photographs of Varble’s trash couture, public performances, and events in 1975 and 1976. Varble understood the importance of photographers, and Day was his most important photographic collaborator. This exhibition brings together a selection of Day’s photographs of Varble performing his costume works and also includes Day’s photographs of Varble’s friends and collaborators such as Peter Hujar, Jimmy DeSana, Shibata Atsuko, Agosto Machado, and Warhol stars Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, and Mario Montez.

Varble sought to make a place for himself outside of art’s institutions and mainstream cultures all the while critiquing them both. The story of Varble told through Day’s photographs is both about their synergistic artistic friendship and about the queer networks and communities that made such an anti-institutional and genderqueer practice imaginable. Together, Varble and Day worked to preserve the radical potential of Gutter Art for the future.

The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble builds upon the 2018 retrospective exhibition of Stephen Varble’s work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, titled Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, as featured in the New York Times on January 11, 2019. The new ONE Gallery exhibition, with its focus on the collaboration of Varble with the photographer Greg Day, will explore the ways in which Varble’s disruptive guerrilla performance art has lived on primarily through vibrant photographs that captured his inventive costumes, transformed trash, and public confrontations.

The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s photographs by Greg Day is curated by David J. Getsy, Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History at the  School of the Art Institute of Chicago. The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble is organised by the ONE Archives Foundation, Inc. Generous support is provided by the City of West Hollywood.

About the ONE Archives Foundation, Inc.

The ONE Archives Foundation, Inc. is an independent 501(c)(3) dedicated to telling the accurate and authentic stories of LGBTQ people, history and culture through public exhibitions, educational projects and trainings, and community outreach programs. Our exhibitions, school programs, and community outreach programs are free. We depend entirely on members of the public and private foundations for support.

Press release from the ONE Gallery [Online] Cited 10/04/2019

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery showing, at left, a still from Stephen Varble’s video Journey to the Sun (1978-1983); and at right Greg Day’s Stephen Varble in the Piggy Bank Dress (1975)

 

Stephen Varble (American, 1946-1984)
Journey to the Sun
1978-1983
U-matic video transferred to digital, 2018
Courtesy David J. Getsy

 

 

Varble receded from the art world and from street performance around 1977, becoming ever-more critical of commodification and capitalism. As he told an interviewer that year, “This is the age of pornography and contempt. The dollar is good. […] The end of capitalism is coming.” Varble instead began to develop private performances and videos about his private mythologies and messianic dreams. His last five years were consumed with working on an epic, operatic work of video art: Journey to the Sun. It started in 1978 as a performance about the mythology of Greta Garbo, and Varble invited friends to his Riverside Drive apartment to view his monologues accompanied by project slides. His ambitions soon outgrew this format, and he turned to video for its ability to combine text, image and performance. He considered these videos to be revivals of illuminated Medieval manuscripts with their rich visual play between words and pictures, and he called his group of collaborators in the video the “Happy Arts School of Manuscript Illumination.” The aim of the “school” was to promote Varble’s vision of societal transformation through the making of modern fables in the form of videos, books, and prints. His “video books,” as he called the tapes, offered an “antidote to nature’s ruin on this heavenly globe.”

Journey to the Sun tells the story of a musician, the Grey Crowned Warbler, who undergoes tribulation and metamorphosis on a journey to transcendence. The tale is a loosely autobiographical fable of an artist who encounters a stern mystical teacher, Sage Purple Pythagoras (played by his partner, Daniel Cahill) who tests the Warbler. Many of Varble’s iconic costumes feature in the video, and he combined elements of his own history with references to literature, religion, and popular culture (notably, Garbo). Combining heavily scripted monologues with improvised performances. Journey to the Sun does not offer a tidy or easily understood narrative. Rather, it sketches a fantastic and surreal visual world in which dreams are realised through the transformations of everyday objects, popular imagery, and rubbish.

To make this “rodeo-paced” video, Varble filled his apartment with drawings and writings on the walls, blacked out the windows, and began filming scenes both scripted and improvised with collaborators. Journey to the Sun is remarkable for its time due to the complexity and density of the video editing – all of which was done by Varble in his apartment. He only completed about thirty percent of his planned work before his death from AIDS-related complications in January 1984. This screening copy presents a continuous segment of around 80 minutes that has been selected from the three surviving U-matic master tapes, but no changes have been made other than the choice of where to begin and end this combined excerpt. This is but a fragment of the much longer video epic Varble hoped would be his major contribution.

Wall text from the exhibition

 

Installation view of the exhibition 'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day' at ONE Gallery

 

Installation view of the exhibition The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day at ONE Gallery showing Stephen Varble’s Blue Boy

 

 

“One afternoon, Stephen invited me to accompany him to a performance in midtown Manhattan. He bought Blue Boy with him. We took the F train uptown from Washington Square. Sitting on the subway car bench and wearing his Chemical Bank Protest attire. Stephen hugged, kissed, fondled and poked Blue Boy. He spoke to him in an affectionate and sometimes argumentative language of moans, “ohs” and clicks. I sat across from him and watched as people entered the car. They stared, laughed, gasped, and made disparaging remarks about his sanity before moving to another part of the subway car. Even riding the train was an opportunity for Stephen to shock.”

Greg Day
Wall text from the exhibition

 

Gutter Art: Stephen Varble and Genderqueer Performance on the Streets of 1970s New York with David J. Getsy from Leslie-Lohman Museum on Vimeo.

 

Gutter Art: Stephen Varble and Genderqueer Performance on the Streets of 1970s New York with David J. Getsy

 

Greg Day. 'Stephen Varble at the 12th Annual Avant-Garde Festival' 1975

 

Greg Day (American, b. 1944)
Stephen Varble at the 12th Annual Avant-Garde Festival
1975
Digital print
© Greg Day 2019

 

 

ONE Gallery, West Hollywood
626 N. Robertson Boulevard
West Hollywood, CA 90069

Opening hours:
Thursday – Sunday: 11.00 am – 2.00 pm and 3.00 pm – 6.00 pm
Closed Monday – Wednesday

ONE Archives website

ONE Gallery, West Hollywood website

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Dr Marcus Bunyan

Dr Marcus Bunyan is an Australian artist and writer. His art work explores the boundaries of identity and place. He writes Art Blart, a photographic archive and form of cultural memory, which posts mainly photography exhibitions from around the world. He holds a Dr of Philosophy from RMIT University, Melbourne, a Master of Arts (Fine Art Photography) from RMIT University, and a Master of Art Curatorship from the University of Melbourne.

Marcus Bunyan black and white archive: ‘Mask’ 1994

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