Scenes from the ontological theater of the street
by Guy Trebay
Some people have obsessions. Others have preoccupations. Mine is a journalistic version of casting the I Ching. Randomness is a good teacher, as John Cage, having learned it from the Chinese, then instructed virtually every important artist of his generation. It's a useful wisdom, if you can manage to hold it in mind.
A friend calls to share a quote from Patrick Chamoiseau's new novel: ''Eyes explore little by little, the way grasshoppers eat--eating only where they land.'' Eyes eat, ears devour, nose...well, let's leave nose out of this one. New York is a city of locusts, eating hungrily and never satisfied at any one table. The meal is too rich, in the first place--''sixteen varieties of social circumstance in a day,'' as Renata Adler once remarked. ''Everyone has the power to call your whole life into question here. Too many people have access to your state of mind.''
A fragment of conversation is overheard at the gym. The place is called Crunch Fitness, which could easily be read as a subliminal command: Crunch Fitness, Crunch Aptness, Crunch Realness....Two men are standing in puddled water as they change for the street. One is an artist famous for using semen and urine in his work. The other wears just a T-shirt and is impressively naked below the waist. ''I was using bodily fluids as, like, color fields,'' the artist is saying. ''I was buying blood by the gallon from the butcher at the time.''
''Couldn't you have used red pigment?'' his friend asks equably.
''Someone else probably could have. I couldn't,'' says the artist. ''You know, people are always asking, 'Why did you start using piss?' I mean, it was simple. If I'd just used blood and milk, I'd have been making red and white pictures forever.'' Slipping on a pair of baggy boxer shorts, he adds, ''I had to vary my palette.'' Don't we all.
Another friend, V., who collects Evergreen paperbacks, male nudie-art pictures, tribal jewelry, cartes de visites, and especially old fashion magazines--whose obsessions I wrote about in The New York Times--sends a clipping from the February 1952 issue of Vogue. It's a page of fashion advice written by the Russian designer Valentina, wife of Greta Garbo's well-publicized secret lover. ''Black coat--easy, not try to be chic,'' writes Valentina, employing the loony Maria Ouspenskaya diction that was itself a symbol of overworked emigre chic for a time. ''Always a scarf, angel, a little touch color.'' When wearing an evening gown, advised Valentina,''this is with the dance. It has to be absolutely turning.''
As it happens, this is the very advice proffered by Voodoo Williams, ''do*na of dance,'' one of many characters invented by the drag queen Vaginal Davis. And what strikes me as wonderful about this coincidence is the seamless way identity has been transmogrified across generation and gender--1930s White Russian designer to 1990s African American drag artiste. ''With the dance,'' Davis/Williams expounds, in a brilliant videotape parodying the many divas (Pearl Primus/Katharine Dunham/Carmen DeLavalade) who preached ghetto redemption through art. ''And always with the turning, darling, the turning. And devotion. You must devote yourself with purpisity to the dance!''
Such a word, purpisity! A queer neologism enmeshed in a fine fabric of camp. But no longer a thing of the ghetto. Something we can all understand. The ghettos, anyway, are changing. The battlements are permeable. Moldered reputations are being hauled up from the oubliette. There's a museum retrospective for mad queen Jack Smith, a museum retrospective for art sissy Andy Warhol, a museum retrospective for Robert Rauschenberg, garage-band faggot genius of the American high cultural scene. What's next? An NYU seminar on ''The Phenomenology of Purpisity,'' moderated by Andrew Ross?
''Sometimes, when a person thinks he is doing one thing he doesn't quite realize that he is doing something else,'' the artist David Hockney once said of Warhol, who had painted a portrait of their mutual friend, the curator Henry Geldzahler.
''You left something out,'' Geldzahler grumped when Warhol showed him the picture.
''You left the art out.''
''Oh, I knew I forgot something,'' Warhol replied.
It happens. But, of course, you can always put it back in. I learned this definitively from an encounter with a local woman officially known as an outsider artist--outside of what, I'm not quite sure. The woman's name is Monique Fagan Smith and she was born, as she explains it, in St. Andrews Parish, Jamaica, West Indies, on an estate named for Sir Winston Churchill, and later educated as a registered nurse at Mt. Sinai's Klingenstein Medical Center, and currently spends a great deal of her time ''handling real estate investments'' in Westchester and Palm Beach. Her mansion on North Palm Way has 23 bedrooms.
In reality--whatever that may mean--Fagan Smith is homeless and mainly lives in Central Park. Mental illness causes her delusions. Her sense of her art derives from something else. Is it madness? Or a sense that, whatever your form of expression, it will be absorbed here and often even welcomed and valorized. People tend to look out for Fagan Smith. They give her housing. They provide her with food. More important, they accommodate her narrative, with all its embellishments and baroque genealogical digressions. And, as a rule, they don't condescend.
''I was writing nonstop for a time,'' Fagan Smith says one afternoon, as she and an interlocutor sit on a bench opposite the many-bedroomed mansion where Doris Duke was kept imprisoned as a young child. ''Then, in 1995, I went to 674 Columbus Avenue, to the community center called The Club. They put paint and paper in front of me and expected me to paint, and now I have a studio beside the Metropolitan Museum, where I paint in acrylics, oils, and also leaves sometimes for a certain shade of smeared green. I like the bright industrial aluminum paint they paint streets with, too. My title is Star Artist, which is how the West Side Beat once referred to me. My shows are so showy, you know. I can do a dozen paintings, without exagerration, in a day.''
Fagan Smith says she never feels her work is complete until she has painted on both sides of a canvas--pictures of angels, mainly, long-haired women with mouths scribbled in as big, questioning Os. Her heros are Marc Chagal, Vincent Van Gogh, Claude Monet, the Impressionists. ''Michelangelo is so like a god I don't think one can compete.'' Fagan Smith plans to retire, she explains, near Blenheim Palace to learn more about her heritage and to enjoy the country air. But that is a long way off, she says.
''Ask my age and I will tell you freely,'' says Fagan Smith, who could be 50 or 60 or even older. ''I stay very young living in New York City. It's a gift the city gives you, to keep you supple. I, myself, am always going to be 25.''
|This document last modified Tuesday, December 30, 1997, 1:02 PM EST.|