DETROIT — When UK artist Lucy Owen arrived in Detroit in 2014, it was to pursue an interest, developed from afar, in Juggalo culture — the dynamic cult scene centered on the local music duo Insane Clown Posse (ICP). Founded in 1989 by hip-hop artists 2 Dope (now Shaggy 2 Dope) and Violent J, ICP has formed a horrorcore subculture of epic proportions, which has unfolded in a series of albums detailing the mythology of a “Dark Carnival,” which includes an extended “family” of devotees who dress in emulation of their heroes. Owen’s first body of work on the subject, Where the Juggalos Roam, based on images collected during her first Gathering of the Juggalos — an annual festival that’s part concert, part camping trip, and part ICP Renaissance fair that’s the must-attend event for serious ICP followers — found a surprisingly receptive audience when she showed at Start Gallery in Detroit in December of 2014.
“I noticed a pattern of inquiry from journalists and fellow artists regarding what my experiences were, as a woman, at the Gathering and other events I had been to in the course of my research,” said Owen via email. “It seemed there was a level of expectation for me to denounce the subculture as misogynist and assert that Juggalettes are unwitting victims of exploitation.”
Harboring complex feelings on the subject, Owen made Juggalette culture — ICP’s female fans — the focus of her second deep dive, and Start Gallery is once again host to Owen’s work. BEAUTIFUL (INDESTRUCTIBLE) Women of the Juggalo World features not only a colorful array of Owen’s watercolor portraits of Juggalettes (most of which were completed over the course of a three-month residency at the Russell Industrial Center and Popps Packing), but an installation of cardboard signs collected in trade at the last Gathering, as well as the results of her top-secret “Project Ninjette” — a 17-minute video installation that is the culmination of a year-long effort to collect Juggalette selfies and first-person messages. These email missives which accompanied the selfies were overwhelmingly positive, and Owen engaged local performance art duo Faina Lerman and Bridget Michael to audio-record them; this audio component is rife with “Woop woops!” and brings a personal voice to the image feed. “It has been an absolute pleasure to observe visitors to Project Ninjette arriving with an air of derision and mockery and leaving with a sense of acceptance and realization that these women are real people — and very attractive people at that,” says Owen.
Indeed, Owen’s work is not just solid, engaging portraiture of inherently dynamic subjects, but also brings a great deal of nuance to a subculture that is easily dismissed on the grounds of goofiness or overt sexism. “I learned that I was guilty of a few wrong assumptions about Juggalettes myself,” said Owen, “and was quickly enlightened as to how narrow my preconceptions were.” Owen refers to a grassroots movement within the subculture called ‘Lettes Respect’ — according to her, it has been a powerful force for change, addressing issues of sexism within the community. This may be hard to swallow, as even the cardboard sign installation features exhortations to “show titties” and “get fucked right in the pussy,” but Owen’s personal experience with Juggalo culture was uniformly respectful of her boundaries, and the messages iterated by the women in “Project Ninjette” indicate a deep solidarity and sense of belonging within Juggalo society. The selfies showcase a diverse demographic — women of many ages, races, and geographic locations (including all 50 states) are represented among the 98 participants — and most of them cite the bonds of their “Family” as a wellspring of support and encouragement.
“My work has become a celebration of these women as a result, I have enjoyed every minute of it,” says Owen. The paintings and artifacts on display at Start Gallery capture Owen’s affinity for her colorful subjects, parlaying their upbeat messages and offbeat modes of self-expression in a way that is not just fun and engaging, but fundamentally human. In the end, BEAUTIFUL (INDESTRUCTIBLE) Women of the Juggalo World is not just a strong aesthetic body of work, but a candid demonstration of art as a force for cultural anthropology.
BEAUTIFUL (INDESTRUCTIBLE) Women of the Juggalo World continues at Start Gallery (206, E Grand River, Detroit) through December 19.