MIAMI BEACH — Amidst the overabundance, overproduction, and overstimulation of the spectacle that is the Miami art fairs, it becomes progressively harder by the day to recollect what I have seen or even what I have liked. And yet, the thing about authenticity is that it can persist, despite an environment designed to shout it down. Authenticity has both lay and philosophical definitions, but it is difficult, if not impossible, to come up with a recipe that imparts authenticity to a work of art. As has been famously said of pornography, “I know it when I see it.” And I saw it in Conrad Ventur’s installation Montezland, at Participant Inc’s booth at the Untitled art fair.
Ventur’s installation is a series of photographs taken of Mario Montez toward the end of his life. Montez, born René Rivera in Ponce, Puerto Rico, became famous in the ’60s. Referred to as the first “drag queen superstar,” he acted in the films of Andy Warhol and Jack Smith, among others. In 1972 he starred in Agripina é Roma-Manhattan, an unfinished film by artist Hélio Oiticica, and then Montez seemingly vanished into thin air. In fact, he had simply moved to Florida and retreated into private life. Conrad Ventur came into Montez’s life in 2010, when Montez appeared at a symposium in New York. Ventur was interested in the ’60s and had been working on restaging Warhol’s screen tests with those actors who were still alive and willing to work with him. He met Montez, who had done “Screen Test No. 2” with Warhol in 1965, and convinced the former superstar to participate in the project.
Ventur’s approach is not wholly unfamiliar. There are critical strategies that examine the contemporary landscape in order to explore what transpired in the past against what’s visible or elided or forgotten in the present. And there are filmic strategies, most notably Michael Apted’s Up series, that revisit lives at intervals to see how time and circumstance have altered the participants in the intervening years. One thing that distinguishes Ventur’s project is his rebellion against throw-away consumer culture. He sees a genuine value in his subjects — not only what they contributed as cultural icons, but what they continue to have to offer. This is not a resurrection; Montez was not dead. What began as part of a specific project evolved into a genuine collaboration between artist and subject. Ventur creates a space in which Montez can revive his drag persona, this time as an old woman.
Montez was not just a persona, though; he was a gifted actor. He evoked, with a certain showiness and self-consciousness but also with genuine vulnerability, his understanding of aging and faded beauty. Born in 1935, he understood with alarming clarity what aging meant to the women of the generation in which appearance was everything. I remember being told, as a school girl, that Marilyn Monroe killed herself because she feared getting old and losing her looks. I was both horrified by this concept and baffled by what my eyes told me: at 36, she had never looked more beautiful. And I remember, in my 20s, an elder gay man lamenting to me the indignities of aging (something difficult to relate to at that age) and concluding with the remark, “Nobody wants an old queen.” How harsh that sounded. For a generation of women who relied so strongly on their looks and “feminine wiles” to make their way in life, aging was in fact a slow form of poisoning. Montez understood this. He had both empathy and compassion. He managed to convey interiority (or at least a convincing screen onto which we could project it), yet he was ever present. He gave us both sadness and earnestness.
Ventur was working with Montez on a performance work. It was to be part of Performa, produced with the help of Franklin Furnace, set to open on November 1. Montez had been a founder of the Ridiculous Theatrical Company in 1967, and the Performa work was to be a reunion of the company performing a multimedia stage work written by Ventur, called Mario Montez Returns. Then, on September 26, Montez died suddenly, at the age of 78.
Montez left us a rich history of performance work done when he was young and a new set of performance works initiated by Ventur, shot in Berlin, New York, Orlando, and Key West, in which he was able to accomplish something quite different. Through the auspices of Ventur, whom he clearly had come to trust, he conveys his trust in us as an audience. And Ventur lets Montez speak. In an interview on You Tube we see Montez seated between the interviewer on the right and Ventur on the left. Montez occasionally defers to the younger man, but he is center stage; it is the confidence of the younger artist that enables the older actor to represent himself to his audience. Montez understood camp, melodrama, sarcasm, and humor. Yet here, he represents old women — women who still have a relationship to glamour, but one that’s often scorned by others. He shows us loss and the gradual encroachment of death. With his mantillas and fans and tropical clothing, his slightly garish makeup, Montez displays so much dignity and love for his persona (one wonders how he felt about his mother) that it’s impossible not to be seduced by this old Puerto Rican woman. Now that’s a superstar!