Articles

Art Needs Drag

by Jessica Baran on February 4, 2014

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Raja performing Hi Fashion’s “Amazing” at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (all photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

ST. LOUIS — The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts recently hosted a week-long series of exhilaratingly unconventional events collectively titled RESET, during which yoga, break-dancing, fort-building, nail art, drag performance, and more unspooled on a commissioned installation by New York-based artist David Scanavino. Renowned for its durably elegant Tadao Ando design and consistently graceful exhibitions of masterworks by Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, post-minimalism, and, more recently, Buddhist sculpture and contemporary African art, the Pulitzer has rarely been defined by aesthetic inclusiveness or experimentation.

Well, may conventional identities die hard.

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Maxi Glamour performing M.I.A.

Conceived by poet Philip Matthews, painter Kristin Fleischman Brewer (the Pulitzer’s current program coordinators) and curator Gretchen Wagner (who selected Scanavino for the series’ centerpiece), RESET broke not only the austere institution’s self-defined rules, but those shared by most “refined” art contexts. In a week of scene-stealing, easily grabbing the crown was the series’ dazzling swan song: the About Face Drag Show. Featuring six local king, queen, and skag drag performers — plus the spectacular, L.A.-based headliner, Raja Gemini, winner of Season 3 of RuPaul’s Drag Race — the show flung flaming shade in the face of drag’s marginal status in the canonized cultural avant-garde.

Over 700 people flooded the Pulitzer’s church-like chambers for the show, hosted by the ever-saucy Siren (Tyler Cross) and DJ Charlie Buttons (collectively, Glitterbomb Productions, the Pulitzer’s local collaborator for the event). Opening with Siren’s raging rendition of the B52′s “Dance This Mess Around” — an anthemic thesis statement, if there could be one, for the night’s irreverent performative critique — the show included three individual sets by Maxi Glamour (Maxwell Wright), Robyn Hearts (Brantz Bulard), Rydyr (Rhiannon Iha), Pinko (Jarrod Stetina), and Raja (Sutan Amrull).

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Pinko performing “I Can Make You a Man (Original and Reprise)” from the Rocky Horror Picture Show

What ensued was gloriously trashy trailblazing that enthralled brows high, low, and in-between. Vamping down Scanavino’s multi-colored linoleum tile runway, Robyn Hearts finally confirmed that Beyoncé’s mythic persona is best realized as a drag act. Rydyr, a drag king, gave innumerable new faces to screaming rage in his alternately bound, top-hatted, and bearded-and-gowned New Wave performances. Pinko, also bearded but undoubtedly a queen, simply charmed; “I Can Make You a Man” sounded more poignant from her mute green lips than it perhaps ever has. And Maxi defied all physical boundaries, spasmodically flipping and shivering in blue-face and silver-leaf tears to the riotous barks of M.I.A. and Nina Hagen.

As of Raja — oh, gorgeous Raja. She slithered before the alternately crazed and awed crowd like an undiscovered specimen of exotic marine life — her live version of Hi Fashion’s “Amazing” pretty much summing it all up.

And the performers shared the love, as recounted after the show.

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Robyn performing Beyonce’s “Sweet Dreams”

“It’s refreshing not to have to worry about heckling drunks or flying beer bottles,” reflected Siren, poised in a blonde wig and pill-patterned tube dress. The brilliantly comedic emcee made no concession to the potentially vanilla crowd, gleefully wielding the f-bomb while schooling the unschooled on other key terms, like “serving fish.”

“Having performed in St. Louis bars for 10 years now,” she continued, “I’ve found that most local drag shows focus on the pageant-queen aesthetic, and I’m much more into gender-fuck and alternative drag performance. This show allowed me a lot of freedom to go beyond the typical gender binaries — and to perform Joni Mitchell.”

Even a celebrity personality like Raja — who has appeared in venues from Madison, Wisconsin to Shanghai — has never performed in an art museum.

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Ryder performing the Deftones’ “Change (In The House of Flies)”

“I once did a show in a small gallery in Seattle — but never a museum,” she said, pulling offer her massive black mesh saucer hat. “It’s great — the energy here [at the Pulitzer] is very positive. And, really, that’s why I do this — to give people a glimpse of mysterious beauty.”

The gymnastic Maxi Glamour, a college student pursuing a degree in linguistics by day, was also pleased with the performance. “Mostly because I was able to do my demon crawl (thank you Linda Blair.)”

Far beyond its provocations to gender-norms, the entertainment value and essential populism of drag performance seems to have perpetually kept it on a shelf below blue-chip cultural acceptance. An unsubtle dividing line exists between Marcel Duchamp’s Rrose Sélavy, a Polaroid of Andy Warhol in drag, Martha Wilson dressed as former First Lady Barbara Bush — and the many drag alter-egos of Jack Smith, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s “Ethel Dull,” Divine, and even the revelatory cross-over pioneer Rupaul himself. The issue seems to be the degree to which an artwork is for art’s sake: drag is transgressive even within the counterpublic of art discourse, as it is as entertaining as it is conceptually challenging, and still remains a safe-haven for misfits, outcasts and the economically liminal. Unfortunately, art culture’s upper firmament hasn’t yet shaken its age-old distain for unmediated kitsch.

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Raja coming out of drag, after the performance

Must everything still be put into scare-quotes to be deemed art-worthy? Maybe not.

“We’re really, really thrilled,” said a blissed-out post-performance Philip Matthews. Cross-legged on the upper balcony floor, he and his Pulitzer cohort Kristin Fleishmann Brewer exchanged white wine giggles, while she showed me her vivaciously blue-painted nails (courtesy New York’s Vanity Projects, who were also on-site for the event) and he pulled up the collar of his fake fur coat.

“This whole event series succeeded as wildly as it did because all parties involved operated on the same level: as artists and equal collaborators,” said Kristin.

“It really was the perfect marriage of curatorial and programming magic,” echoed Philip, smiling.

Drag may not need the art world, but the art world certainly needs drag.

The About Face Drag Show took place Saturday, January 25 at the Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts (3716 Washington Ave., St. Louis). It was the last installment of the institution’s weeklong RESET event series (January 17–25), celebrating the forthcoming group exhibition curated by Gretchen Wagner, The Art of Its Own Making.

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  • Daniel Larkin

    Oh Jessica… You are so right that avant-drag has a real future… I loved your line about scare quotes…thanks for turning me on to what’s going on in St. Louis… It was a great read on the long line at trader joes

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