“You’re all too young and too clean-cut to remember, but I was a star in the golden age of Times Square sleaze,” snears burlesque superstar Tigger-James Ferguson, playing a washed-up Times Square prostitute in my favorite of his performances. That piece kept popping up in my mind while visiting Scott Ewalt’s exhibition Back in the Night: Psychotronic Landscapes, Objects & Souvenirs at Participant Inc.
Back in the Night is a wild and tacky descent into the decadence, depravity, and downright outrageous world of old Times Square strip joints, porn theaters, and cruise spots. From queer pulp and titty-bar advertisements to the keyhole marquee of Eighth Avenue’s former Peepland, which featured live girls and adult videos, Ewalt has collected, foraged, and occasionally garbage picked the artifacts of filth from this bygone era for decades.
Known for his digital artwork, Ewalt is also a frequent collaborator with the Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black’s Kembra Pfahler, video artist Charles Atlas, and the always fun donut-loving Kenny Scharf. I know of Ewalt, who continues to work in nightclubs, as the DJ for Scharf’s day-glo Cosmic Cavern a Go-Go parties in East Williamsburg.
For me, the memories of the height of the Times Square decadence remains tirelessly hilarious, inspirational, and subversive. I enjoy art exhibitions in the hallowed halls of museums and blue-chip galleries, but I also adore the current burlesque scene, with performers such as Go-Go Harder, and watch the music videos of John Sex, the Downtown hairsprayed icon whom Ewalt considered a mentor in the New York scene. Sex, along with many performers of the late ’70s and early ’80s, clearly influenced Back in the Night.
Like Samuel R. Delaney’s Times Square Red, Times Square Blue and Bruce Benderson’s Toward the New Degeneracy, two publications that memorialize the sordid days of Times Square as meeting grounds for various classes, ethnicities, races, genders, and sexualities, Ewalt’s exhibition undeniably plays on New Yorkers’ nostalgia for the rough old days as Times Square becomes increasingly Disney-fied. However, Ewalt manages to transcend this by allowing visitors to have a fun and filthy hands-on experience in the present rather than leave feeling as if they had missed the height of New York City.
Wandering through Particpant Inc to the sounds of Screamin’ Jay Hawkins howling “I Put A Spell On You” — just one song on the 42-hour playlist Ewalt created for the exhibition — I immediately noticed the word “Satana” spelled in the enormous, glowing letters of a marquee sign. Referring to Tura Satana, the voluptuous and iconic erotic actress best known for her role in Russ Meyer’s classic film Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill!, the sign glows red and tints the entire gallery, ensuring that Satana’s name, as well as her trashy spirit, loom large throughout the exhibition.
In the front of the gallery space, Ewalt has placed numerous digital paintings of devils on pulp magazines. The series is titled Psychotronic Objects, and below each painting a trunk decoupaged with cigarette packets sits mysteriously, hinting at the bustling and transitory nature of Times Square. I was amused by the cigarette-covered trunks as they were, but Ewalt, who was at the gallery, instructed me to open one because, he said, “the art’s inside.”
Gingerly opening the heavy lid, I found the inside of the trunk completely covered with hysterical advertisements and pulp-fiction-novel covers with names like The Flesh Peddlers and The Good Little Bad Girl. Along with the decoupaged sleaze, Ewalt placed in each case a little plastic devil and a coin from an old Times Square peep show. Playing with the notions of hidden and forbidden sexuality, Ewalt’s Psychotronic Objects mirror the naughtiness of entering the peep shows.
Lining the walls past the Peepland keyhole are 13 digital paintings of various devils’ meandering around the neon hell of ’70s Times Square. Using his friends as models, including the unmistakable Kembra Pfahler, Ewalt has created wonderfully nightmarish trips down memory lane. In “Gaiety Male Burlesk” (1994), viewers can almost smell the poppers as devils romp in front of the fluorescent Howard Johnson’s.
Even though Ewalt does display real artifacts, his entire portrayal of the golden age of Times Square sleaze lies somewhere between fact and fiction, a state that most likely reflects the memories of former Times Square frequenters. This tension between fictional narrative and factual history is perhaps best illustrated by the back room at Participant Inc, which is filled with fake ephemera.
Lit by “The Big Red Cock” (1998), the infamous sign for the East Village’s The Cock that Ewalt designed and can still be seen shining on Second Avenue, the room features fictional souvenirs such as small, resin-filled half spheres containing peep show and burlesque currency. Ewalt also created lighters with the devil images from his Psychotropic Objects and various T-shirts such as “Back in the Night” and “Boylesque.” These souvenirs are not authentic, but Ewalt leaves viewers with the possibility of finding some real ones with his “Times Square Vice Map” (2012), which lists former as well as current trash sights for the curious and adventurous.
Although Ewalt’s exhibition is a celebratory look at Times Square as the playground of porn and pleasure, it’s difficult to take it all in without thinking about the AIDS crisis, which claimed the life of many who frequented these same bars, theaters, and street corners including stars like John Sex. The problem with outright nostalgia for the freewheeling sexuality of the 1970s is what came afterwards; thankfully, Ewalt seems to acknowledge this in the exhibition. Overrun as it is with devils, there’s certainly a sense of inevitable, impending destruction.
Back in the Night stands as an example of the enduring power of sleaze as art and the lowbrow as subversion. Somehow, even though most of the cultural references are already four decades old, the shocking and revolutionary nature of rampant sexuality remains fresh. As boylesque dancer Tigger growls in his act as the down-and-out Times Square hooker, “We were cheap so you could be, too.”
Scott Ewalt’s Back in the Night: Psychotronic Landscapes, Objects & Souvenirs continues at Participant Inc (253 East Houston Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) until April 14.