"The world should end and then there should be a disco song," says video artist Charles Atlas, describing his current solo exhibition The Waning of Justice at Chelsea's Luhring Augustine Gallery.
Reflecting his apocalyptic disco dreams, The Waning of Justice–on view until March 14–combines a central video installation with footage of sunsets filmed at the Rauschenberg residency on Captiva Island, Florida with an adjoining video of iconic drag queen Lady Bunny as monumental as her enormous platinum blond wigs. Atlas's second solo exhibition at Luhring Augustine after his minimalistic and numerical The Illusion of Democracy, The Waning of Justice links Atlas's more recent conceptual installations with his longtime interest in over-the-top drag, recalling his collaborations with the late legendary drag performer Leigh Bowery.
In her video portrait Here she is…v1, Lady Bunny rants at length on politics, which will be no surprise to anyone who follows her outspoken blog. Adjusting her campy sparkling sequined dresses and giant fake eyelashes, she discusses topics like war, peace, energy, and gay marriage. Carefully staged as seen by the timer in the center of the gallery, Lady Bunny's pointed political critiques and the sunset videos such as Ethel's Fortune, which layers words such as forest, quinoa, and asshat over the disappearing sun, add a foreboding and ominous atmosphere to the exhibition—an atmosphere Atlas subversively shatters by concluding with a new and hilarious song by Lady Bunny.
Atlas's work has often been associated with the underground; he's collaborated with choreographers Merce Cunningham and Michael Clark and his filthy films include Staten Island Sex Cult. However, this appears to be changing, as The Waning of Justice follows December's nightly projection of You Are My Sister (TURNING) , a video collaboration with Antony Hegarty from Antony and the Johnsons, on billboards in Times Square, as well as a recently published catalogue by Prestel.
I spoke to Atlas at the height of his current career renaissance about his conception of The Waning of Justice, checking Lady Bunny off his bucket list, his interest in drag, and his attitude toward his recent mainstream recognition.
VICE: Much of The Waning of Justice includes videos of sunsets at the Rauschenberg residency on Captiva Island, Florida. How did you approach making these videos?
Charles Atlas: I was at the Rauschenberg residency two years in a row by good luck. The first year I was part of a pilot program and the next year, one of my collaborators was invited and said he wanted me to go with him. I got to go to the exact same house the exact same month of the year. If you know my work, I'm very urban and not at all a nature person. So there I was—that was my view from the house. I just took advantage of the situation. I thought, "Well, I'm not really going to do sunsets but maybe I'll use it as the basis for something or disguise it in some way." The first year I shot it one way and since I had the chance to do it again, I did it slightly different. In 2013, I just did a continuous run from a half-hour before sunset. All together I did 44 sunsets.
Was it very different for you to shoot nature scenes? I usually associate your work with drag queens running around the Meatpacking District.
I never shot a nature scene before. I thought, "This is good" because I like to do something very different and surprising. The numbers pieces were very surprising to people who knew my work. I had this title in mind for a while and as with all my work, it accumulated meaning during the process.
Had you worked with Lady Bunny previously?
I've known her for 25 years. I wanted to work with her for a very long time. In the early days, she was very anti-political and anti-art. For her, the whole thing was about entertainment. I told her she was on my bucket list and I had to do a portrait of her. She was friends with Leigh Bowery so it is also a companion piece to my Leigh Bowery portrait.
The title The Waning of Justice is very evocative. What is the significance of the title?
I think the whole piece has a mood of sadness and it's a little bit apocalyptic. It's the way I've been feeling for many years that things are not going in a good direction. I expected everything to be getting better and it's not. I don't make political pieces but it's the mood. Lady Bunny has also been in this political mode for the last ten years where she's been blogging and has a very cogent point of view.
I follow Lady Bunny's Facebook page so I was aware that she is politically active. Had you always planned on featuring her discussion of politics, as well as a song?
I was doing a portrait of her so I wanted to have all the elements. I even put in some of the rotten jokes. It's really tasteless but I had to put them in. I approached her and said, "I want to do a song. What do you want to do?" She said, "I just wrote this song and I don't know whether the arranger's going to finish it in time." I said, "Let's try." We had another song we also recorded but this is the one I really wanted to do. It's a great song. I think it's one of her best.
We had a bunch of conversations over coffee and I told her what the theme was. We shot on that snow day so it was a short shooting day. We had several more wigs and outfits but we didn't get to shoot them. At the end, she just talked for a half-hour straight.
What interested me about Here she is…v1 is the juxtaposition between the seriousness of her politics and the campiness of her drag.
It's sort of the opposite of the front, which is mediated nature. She is talking about something deadly serious but it's coming from a drag queen with the most artificial look. It wasn't a conceptual piece but intuitively, I knew I wanted to break the mood of the front.
There is some humor in the sunset videos, particularly with some of the word choices in Ethel's Fortune such as "asshat." How did you choose the words?
I couldn't resist "asshat." I spent a lot of time deciding what the words would be. I didn't want them to be too meaningful, but a little referential to things that were on my mind. It's called Ethel's Fortune—Ethel was my mother and "fortune" refers to The Wheel of Fortune. I didn't realize when I was making it but later it became clear that it was about my mother. The moral sense I have is from my mother.
From Leigh Bowery to John Kelly in Son of Samson and Delilah and now Lady Bunny, your work frequently features drag. What interests you about drag?
It's my world. It's not drag specifically that interests me but in the mid 80s when I was going out, that was the most progressive form of entertainment really. I was out four or five nights a week up until more recently than I'd like to admit. I used to go to the Pyramid and that's what was there and interesting. I also worked with Antony, which was different from me—from complete irony to no irony. The no-irony was really a stretch but I pursued it.
Speaking of your collaborations with Antony, your video You Are My Sister (TURNING), which featured portraits of women including The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black's Kembra Pfahler and performance artist Johanna Constantine was projected on Times Square billboards . What was it like to see your work in Times Square?
It was really hard to take in. it was just so unbelievable to have these huge images. I wondered: Does it make any difference? Is it just absorbed? Can anyone tell this is different from the other stuff that's going on up there?
I feel like if you see a giant video of Kembra Pfahler in yellow body paint and her black shock wig, there's no mistaking the video as anything but an intervention.
Yes, I think if you see Kembra or Johanna, you can tell they're not Revlon beauty queens or anything.
Charles Atlas, The Waning of Justice. Installation view © Charles Atlas; Courtesy of the artist and Luhring Augustine, New York.
From Times Square to a Chelsea gallery exhibition to a new catalogue, your work seems to be getting wider recognition even though you've always been associated with the underground. Do you think culture is changing to allow for more subcultural art into the mainstream?
No. The way my career has gone is sort of nice. I've just worked all along. I was lucky that I never had to think about my work getting out. It happened automatically because I worked with Merce Cunningham or it was on television. I never really had to think about it so I never really did. It's nice having recognition toward the end of my career rather than at the beginning and peter out.
I didn't start working with Merce until he was 50. He had received so many bad reviews and was ignored. Even in the beginning, there were no good reviews in New York. So he was beyond it—he didn't read them or if he did, it didn't affect him that much. Once you're at a certain point, you do what you do. As I said to someone, I'm too old to sell out. I just take each project as it comes.
The Waning of Justice will remain on view at Luhring Augustine's Chelsea gallery through this Saturday, March 14. Get over there before you miss it.