I’ve never seen a spoiler alert for an art show, but I learned two unexpected facts as I perused the Greer Lankton exhibition at Participant Inc. I had just happened to be passing by the gallery when I glanced inside and saw the two giant troll dolls standing guard — one with a penis and testicles and the other with a vagina. They drew me in.
Genitalia are a major aspect of Lankton’s work, and one critic aptly compared her to Egon Schiele, an artist who went to jail for drawing nudes. In Lankton’s case, sex is not so much an obsession as a problem that she seems to be working on.
In fairness, this exhibition is about much more than sex. We get a wonderful array of celebrity send-up dolls — Diana Vreeland, Andy Warhol, Divine — as well as smaller dolls that almost look like the voodoo variety. Some of the campier ones look like they just stepped off the stage from the old Vaudeville days at the Pyramid Club of the 1980s. The “Candy Darling” doll is a recurring subject for Lankton, as she discusses in a video shot during the 1995 Whitney Biennial. Indeed her entire life is on display here.
The exhibition includes everything from little memorial portraits of friends who died during the AIDS pandemic to tiny corsets she designed for her figures, as well as drawings, postcards, writings, and journals that shed light on Lankton’s work and her amazing life. It was in this portion of the exhibition that my first surprise came: Greer Lankton was born Greg Lankton and, at the age of 21, was sexually reassigned, which shed light on why some of the dolls shared in this sexual conundrum. But the dolls have multiple functions.
Some seem more like children, or, to see Lankton posing with one in a photo, they appear to serve both as alter-egos and companions. These aren’t mass produced chassis with different appendages or expressions quickly stitched on. The immense detail that she put into fashioning their little fingers and toes, the attention to color and fabric and doll mascara, even the positioning and at times interactions of the dolls are all meticulously thought out. Each one is unique. Some of them are heavy and difficult to pose; others are light and simply stuffed. Some are even overstuffed — in a very American tradition, some of her dolls appear morbidly obese.
The level of devotion that went into the dolls indicates nothing short of a mother’s love. Yet Lankton was also a professional. A number of the dolls were models in the window of Einstein’s, a shop in the East Village where Greer worked, and you can see that sensibility come through. She was very much one of that scene’s denizens. Nick Zedd, Peter Hujar, and Iggy Pop were all friends. Photos of Greer can be found in Nan Goldin’s landmark book The Ballad of Sexual Dependency as well as Cynthia Carr’s phenomenal biography Fire in the Belly, where Greer poses lovingly with her friend David Wojnarowicz. It was at this point in the exhibition that I learned the second unexpected detail about Greer – she died in 1996 from a drug overdose. Still, her work is vivid, surreal, insightful, and larger than life.
Greer Lankton: Love Me continues at Participant Inc. (253 East Houston Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until December 21.