John Kelly
John Kelly
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Buy *John Kelly* online

John Kelly

John Kelly
152 pages
November 2001
rated 5 of 5 possible stars
Costume rentals in Sioux Falls, SD - drag, theater production and more, plus dinner mystery skits. Masque & Mystery Co. in Sioux Falls, SD.

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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.

Curled Up With a Good BookHow 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 warranting retirement."
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 onlookers."
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 in essence."
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 soon-to-be-torn-down sorcery."
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 ready."
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

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