Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble
September 29, 2018–January 27, 2019
September 29, 2018–January 27, 2019
It is thrilling to encounter the work of an artist whose 1970s practice presciently aligns with contemporary issues and aesthetics while speaking to the gaps within the dominant art discourses of its era. Even more enticing is when this body of work is given its fair share; the space, time, and resources necessary to truly comprehend the full extent of its reach. Such is the excitement generated by Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, an exhibition curated by David J. Getsy at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art. Best known for his legendary “gutter art,” in which he performed mockeries of gender and class norms by adorning himself in costumes made of street trash, food waste, and other re-appropriated objects, Varble’s oeuvre is a critical reminder of the importance of returning to and highlighting the careers of artists who go unrecognized by major art canons. In this first survey of his work, the young performance artist whose career was cut short by AIDS-related complications in the mid-1980s outshines many of his more revered contemporaries as the true “belle of the ball.”
Starting with his Fluxus collaborations, the exhibition sheds light on the evolution of Varble’s career as it related to both the local New York art scene and broader U.S. socio-political issues. In Blind Walk (1972), the artist dressed in white and carried a blank board while moving blindfolded through the city’s streets. Accompanied by the sound of Stevie Wonder playing on a cassette tape, this early work foregrounds the potential for costume to destabilize the order of public space. In this section of the exhibition, “Early Influences and Collaborations (1971–1973),” Varble’s relationship with the late Fluxus artist Geoffrey Hendricks is especially relevant. Alongside the works of Alison Knowles, George Maciunas, Dick Higgins, and other prominent Fluxus figures, Varble’s own poignant contributions to avant-garde festivals and happenings are celebrated. Works like Wooden Dress (1972) and Slide Dress (1973) playfully mashed art, “real life,” and the long-established queer aesthetics of Varble’s native Kentucky. Inhabiting the divide between Warhol’s Factory, Jack Smith’s loft, and La MaMa’s stage the young artist pushed the boundaries of performance.
Throughout his career Varble’s queering of the street, gallery, stage, and film set provide insight into the potency of performance as a means of disrupting institutional hierarchies. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the second section of the exhibition, “Gutter Art: Varble in Public (1975–1976),” where gutter art is embodied into the persona Marie Debris. Creating beautifully detailed and crafted costumes from pipe cleaners, milk cartons, egg crates, chicken bones, etc., Varble recodifies gender identity while mocking wealth and class pretentions. He accomplishes this by giving impromptu performances at the Easter parade, showing up uninvited at exhibition openings, movie premiers, and poetry readings, and ultimately formalizing these events in his Costume Tours of New York (1975). The photographs documenting these interventions are surreal, testaments to the transgressive nature of Marie Debris’ presence and his (and/or her) ability to shift public life. In an action captured by Jimmy De Sana in 1975, Varble can be seen behind the open trunk of his car, washing ink-covered utensils in the gutter facing the Ann Taylor boutique on Fifth Avenue. A crowd of onlookers carrying shopping bags, including a woman in a fur coat seemingly interacting with him, are clearly captivated by his disquieting appearance and gestures. Here, the exhibition does well to contextualize Varble’s work within a broader history of gender-bending, queer, street performances in New York during the 1970s, including works by Richard Gallo, Adrian Piper, Scott Burton, Betsy Damon, and William Pope.L.
In “Franklin Street Exhibition and its Gala Ending Performance (1976),” the penultimate section of the exhibition, Varble’s movement towards the creation of a more total artwork is made visible. Converting his loft into an immersive and colourful environment to display costumes, props, and photographs of his street actions, the construction of a space for impromptu performances and a “Gala Ending” party are striking. Crafting a mythology and world of his own by manipulating and displaying his archive, the events surrounding the Franklin Street Exhibition share the conceptual rigour of previous works while introducing new levels of orgiastic spontaneity and sensory splendor. From 1977 onwards, Varble’s relationship with Daniel Cahill, life partner and collaborator for the remainder of his life, create an influential shift in his work. With a turn towards a new-found spiritual practice of Subud, and a conscious move away from performance art due to its commodification, Varble embraced drawing. Moving these markings off the page and onto the wall of his apartment, the artist combined writing and fantastic imagery. While none of the large wall drawings are said to have survived, many smaller paper examples are shown in the exhibition.
One of the final exhibited works, Journey to the Sun (1978–1983), is an epic, operatic video Varble worked on during the final years of his life. Conceiving a fantastic visual and auditory world in which everyday objects, popular imagery, and rubbish are transformed, the video’s loosely scripted and often improvised narrative brings to mind elements from Varble’s past sculptures and performances. Although the video remains unfinished, it is intriguing to see the inner workings of Varble’s process. Rubbish and Dreams invites its audience into a stirring universe, a testament to the ingenuity and brilliance of a young performer.