Performance

Beloved Drag Artist Subverts Art School Dogma

Brooklyn drag artist Untitled Queen performance on February 17 extracted the earnest out of art.

Untitled Queen performs Erykah Badu’s “On & On” during Untitled (Rosemont), (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

Though Untitled (Rosemont) doesn’t start until 10:30pm, bodies begin to fill the banquettes, floor, and hallway in front of the stage at Brooklyn gay bar The Rosemont well before. Developed by Brooklyn drag queen and artist Untitled Queen, it’s an “art experience installation, studio visit, process-as-piece DIY drag show” making its debut.

Long beloved by the Brooklyn drag community — she won the 2015 Brooklyn Nightlife Award for Drag Queen of the Year — Untitled Queen has also made a name for herself beyond the borough, appearing in The New York Times, Billboard, Out, and more, and performing at Vienna’s annual Life Ball at the invitation of nightlife legend Susanne Bartsch. Her work as a drag queen is informed by her work in sculpture and drawing. In all three realms, she seeks to understand the repercussions and origins of citizenship in post-colonial America, to dismantle gender and ideological binaries, and to write new self-empowerment narratives. Untitled (Rosemont) is borne of the work she is making currently at the Elizabeth Foundation’s SHIFT artist residency.

Untitled Queen performs Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” during Untitled (Rosemont)

About the residency, Untitled writes that she has been “asking, answering, confusing, and wondering about what it means to come from somewhere and how to reconcile these histories and legacies.” She tells Hyperallergic that she has also been thinking about her own island history — she was born on Governor’s Island to Filipino and Puerto Rican parents — and “what it means to be a working American gay artist of color.” With Untitled (Rosemont), she hopes to share her process of asking these questions and invites an audience to be a part of it, a way to bridge the gap between her studio practice and the Brooklyn drag stage.

When the show begins, Untitled’s face is painted white, her eyes patterned in dots that look like rainbow sprinkles accented by thick swaths of black eyeliner and long dark lashes, her lips a candy pink. Her shaved head is anchored by a black wig split in two, and her already elegant fingers are extended by long nails twinkling with color.

In three sets — examining historical and personal themes as they pertain to the past, present, and future — she performs lip-syncs to monologues of her own voice speaking prose poetry, similar to how she might present during a studio visit. She accompanies each with a lip-sync to a relevant song. In the first monologue, she introduces herself, her thought processes as an artist, and the light personal histories cast on artwork. “My strongest ghost is out there,” she says, “I am a ghost of that ghost,” she says. She lip-syncs Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi,” triggering an ache of nostalgia. Untitled enters the next set at 11:30 in a vellum-esque paper dress she designed, covered in drawings of stones and flowers connecting her body to ideas of landscape and environment. Her monologue addresses the now. “What can I grasp in the present that hasn’t already been taken?” she asks. “Some people are so much better at the future than I.” A lip-sync of Erykah Badu’s world-weary “On and On” comes next. Her final monologue addresses the future. “I still take shoes off of a table if I ever see one because it signifies death, even though I don’t want to live that long,” she says, and contemplates the past in order to experience the future with the same hope she once had. It’s trailed by a performance of Joni Mitchell’s ode to coming home, “California.” The room erupts regularly in applause and shouts of “YAAAAAAS” with fingers snapping in the air.

DJ Jessamess plays during Untitled (Rosemont)

Each set also features a lip-sync performance by guest drag artist Lucy Balls, whose particularly noteworthy performance of Frank Ocean’s “Moon River” bathes the room in literal and figurative blue light. Her performances are punctuated by a soundscape created by aural artist DJ Jessamess. In between sets, people dance and drink the same way they would if there were pop divas exiting the speakers instead of deep house beats. A go-go dancer named dreamboi dances to the music onstage while selling Untitled’s art prints and wearing giant black patent leather boots and a swirled yellow wig.

In seeking to answer the questions that fuel her own artistic work, Untitled has subverted a form already known for its subversion. She has reimagined a drag show as she would construct it as an artist, from traditional hosting duties to costumes and song choices, and even the music that plays between performances. And in Untitled’s work, the drag show, ever the destroyer of traditional gender binaries, also becomes the hammer to the glass of traditional art world presentations. The whole idea of “Come to the studio, hear about the artist’s work, sell a painting, go to an art fair, participate in critique, go to art school,” and so on becomes pastiche. Instead, in Untitled’s world, you present your work in a do-it-yourself atmosphere. It is night. A disco ball spins in the corner. A go-go dancer sells your prints, stuffing payment into a skintight ensemble. It is at a gay bar, a meeting place for the community you love and are inspired by. You speak your artist statement in poetry. You toy with the systems used to define you, finding ways to define yourself.

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