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PR blurbs can make a book sound horridly stilted -- in this case even
provincial, in a with-it New York kind of way. Phrases like "contextualizes
Kelly and his work, illuminating the artist's processes while simultaneously
sketching a portrait of the rich and varied social terrain from which Kelly
hails" divert attention from what was a fascinating time: the 1980s New York
experimental-theater community, much of which was performed in East Village
clubs, the gay and drag world during the early days when AIDS was being
realized for the horror it became. And more: these as a microcosm of life on
the outer boundaries of art and self-identity as defined by the mainstream,
yet the most interesting lives of all as defined by the history of art.
How better to see it than through the eyes and voice of someone who
epitomized the effrontery and fear in a time -- the Reagan years -- when self
expression, especially by gays, was viewed by the well-washed masses as
little short of treason. In our hindsight over that era today, the mainstream
was greasy fast food compared with the feasts of soul served up by people
like John Kelly. Quintessential tightwire walker over an abyss of slop, his
story is told so well in this book that it is foppery to try to write a
review when he does so much better with the acts and words of his life. So
let's turn the idea of a book review upside down, shake out its pockets, and
see the life the man as it actually was.
P. 34: "In the early 1970s, while a sophomore in high school, my best friend
Billy Jarecki and I went with a patchouli- soaked older friend on the PATH
train [from Jersey City] to Manhattan, to the Anderson Theater on East 4th
Street, in what seemed then the very dark East Village. We were going to a
performance of the Cockettes, a theater troupe from San Francisco. On this
night, in a huge theater less than a quarter full of glam rock and drag
devotees, a man sauntered downstage wearing a long, blue silk thirties
sheath, obviously deprived of undergarments, and sang "Shanghai Lil" while
standing perfectly still in a pin spot. Whammy. In the second act, a large
man danced "The Dying Swan" beautifully in a white tutu and point shoes. A
second whammy. Live irreverent art. Now Jersey became the abstraction
P. 37: "As my lens and appetite expanded, I traveled from the uptown ballet
academies to the modern dance lofts downtown.... Somewhere in there I quit
art school. A shy kind of fellow, I realized that I had 'presence.'
Mysteriously, I hit my stride in the strange void in front of a room full of
P. 41: "I really didn't know opera at all at that point, but this voice, this
singing, this sound, was altogether something else-it touched me deep inside,
got my spirit to soar, and I had no idea why. The music was 'The Art of Maria
Callas', a stereo recording made late in her career. This LP introduced me to
the music, language and emotion of opera-the sound conjuring feelings of time
and place, both lost and uncharted, vast and yet familiar, like some kind of
spirit guide, as if all my past lives were suddenly converging and clamoring
for my attention. I fell in love with opera. I painted and drew to Callas,
her voice filling the room like an inevitable force of human nature. I was
learning about art from an artist who was utterly committed and essential, as
P. 45: "One night, tripping alone in my apartment, I sat on the floor in
front of a mirror and watched myself lip-synching to Callas singing an aria
from 'Orphee et Eurydice'. I completely mesmerized myself In that moment, I
saw that I could achieve this incredible visual illusion. It felt like I was
breathing in the soul of another. It was performance, it was playing a role.
Color the self. Define who you can be. Paint became makeup and found its way
onto my skin. On went green fingernail polish, an homage to Sally Bowles. The
color of strange, of sinister, the painted nails, normally the parameters of
woman. Eyes -- the black sockets of chronic fatigue, of silent screen beauty, of
aggressive menace, a look to be registered from a distance; remnants still
visible the day after, stains on the pillow. Hair-lightened or darkened, the
look of the aftermath of an opened safety pin stuck into a wall outlet. And
amazing how color to the lips became the real gender-leap -- the 'O' of orifice,
the stain of ripe fruit."
Same page: "Painting this new canvas, my skin. Small hits of Black Beauties
by day and nocturnal acid romps, oblivious to any peril to this passion. I
was a conjurer, a magician, a siren. This creature stepped out of the canvas
and onto the street. Dagmar, the love child of Maria Callas and Aristotle
Onassis. Dagmar, angry and defiant, stale vestiges of polish and kohl left on
during the daylight hours, working on hidden statements in my studio,
venturing out again at night, pallet restored, smeared deliberately. Black
eyes, teased out red hair, torn stockings and dangerous footwear, an
embroidered Vietnam bomber jacket. An incendiary creature-raw and punk,
socially annoying, balanced on the fence, vacillating between the gender
divide, deliberately provoking response, observing reactions.
Still the same page: "I wasn't really your typical transvestite. It was
theater. I was exploring my female side, yeah. I was saying fuck you to parts
of my upbringing, abandoning the code of what it is to be an American male,
inventing my own version. But it was also a way for me to sneak back on
stage-because it wasn't me on stage, it was a character. I embraced Dagmar as
I swallowed her whole, this being of the night, this living sculpture, a
response to my hero ... this alter ego, this liberation and guise, wailed and
roamed the empty halls, smoky bars and crowded streets of Alphabet City with
so much more to say."
P. 49: "Rent remained a constant problem, rolling around as dreaded, making
for some pretty hairy scrambles. Luxury items like health insurance and
dental care were neglected altogether. Cheap Polish food went down my throat.
Ideas may have been simmering for months or even years, but active work on my
five- to ten-minute performances often began just a few days before.
Discarded treasures found in the trash often inspired the next show."
P. 50: "Club performance should be in the curriculum of schools that teach
performance art. It should be a required course in acting academies. There is
nothing like performing for a crowd at two in the morning, a crowd that is
more there to dance and drink than to watch a performance, let alone a
performance by a banshee who is not doing what drag queens usually do, who is
using opera and collaged classical music-what is this now.? A skinny dude in
a weird costume or nearly naked except for a pound of makeup, contorting his
body in front of painted seamless paper backdrops, spewing stage blood,
igniting flash paper."
Same page: "This was no sanctified tower of high art. It was in your face. To
come up with the goods for such a crowd, you have to grab them by the throats
and take them on an unanticipated journey. Focus on your destination -- what are
you trying to say, what are you trying to say, you better get to the point
pretty quickly or they will ... talk. The worst. To have a room full of
people talk while you are spilling out your ideas and your guts. But then to
see those rows of faces, absolutely rapt with attention, the contagion of
their regard permeating the room and transforming the experience. Silence. A
shift in the night by way of this shared encounter, this common and perfect m
oment, on and at this stage, in this frontier, all of us, performer and
spectator together fostering and witnessing a new and different equation, a
communal roar, here on Avenue A, behind these walls of oh-so-lucky and
P. 55: "Drag has never been about confusion, gender or otherwise.... It has
always functioned as a sublimely specific vehicle for expression, a beautiful
surprise, a red scarf waved in the face of a bullish society unwilling to
witness the values between the black and the white."
P. 59: "Perhaps I am both an exhibitionist and a chameleon. Or perhaps just
an introspective man fond of exploring himself in an external manner. I don't
understand this impulse, but I trust it."
P. 97: "Barcelona, Spain 8/9/89 From this worn-out and lovelorn place,
this august Spanish town where I have had perhaps my final innocent ardency,
I will soon leave, get on a crowded plane to journey back to New York. I will
make an appointment to have a needle shoved in my vein to retrieve some
blood -- my pick of the hat, my scrawl on a sweepstakes form, my time for this
lottery. I will then sit in the office of medicine and open my ears as they
tell me of my fate, my future, that thing that I have been avoiding for so
long, that source of terror and complaint, curiosity and dread. My H.I.V.
status. Tell me, tell me tell me now which camp I am in which brick do I
hurl it doesn't matter I have no sins to confess from these blocks I've
been around. No guilt No glee But this, tell me, I want to know. I'm
P. 131: From his 1995 performance piece "Constant Stranger":
SWAN BOY: Just tell me one thing. Is there a Hell?
THE VOICE: There is no Hell... Let me rephrase that... I would say that you
are in hell right now. Just look at your bedsheets. (The boy looks at his
sheets, which are painted with random tally marks, four vertical lines with
the fifth line slashed through.) And I would say that the life of a
choreographer/performer, in the not-for-profit world, in the United States,
IS hell. It's all in the title: NOT FOR PROFIT. MUCH pain, little gain."
Forget what anyone says about this book. It stands by itself and must be
experienced only on its own terms. There is a touching foreword by 2wiceArts
Foundation director Patsy Tarr, and a splendid introduction by Philip
Yamawine which fills in the few blanks Mr. Kelly leaves. The Aperture
Foundation has done its usual no-holds-barred job with design and photo
production. But these, good as they are, are just the house lights before the
curtain goes up and the music starts to play.
So skip the reviews. Buy a ticket to this performance in the form of a visit
to the bookstore or one of the online usuals. It is the richest performance
about performance you will probably find all this year.
© 2002 by Dana De Zoysa for Curled Up With a Good Book