Who Says Drag Can't Be Fine Art?

From Marcel Duchamp to today's hot young drag performers out of Brooklyn, drag and fine art have a long, twisted history.

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Oct 14 2016, 4:00am

A performance by Hystée Lauder. Still from a video by Cameron Cole, courtesy of Chris Bogia

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Are drag performers fine artists?

A case could certainly be made. The elaborate, handmade dresses of Bob the Drag Queen could give couture designers a run for their money. The intricate makeup of a queen like Kim Chi verges into high art.

The distinction between the two worlds is blurry. And as drag's popularity increases, spurred on by the success ofRuPaul's Drag Race and pop-culture crossovers, a pair of gallery openings are exploring the ways in which it's only becoming blurrier.

Tomorrow, drag legend Tabboo!—otherwise known as Stephen Tashjian—opens a new exhibition of his tender paintings of friends and contemporaries at New York's Howl! Happening Gallery. At first glance, his portraits of avant-garde stalwarts appear to have little in common with his outrageous and outspoken drag persona, which has graced the stage of both the renowned Pyramid Club and notorious drag festival Wigstock. But Tabboo! renders portraits of several figures who have performed drag, such as Flloyd and Agosto Machado. You'll even find a restrained portrait of himself without makeup on display, a bold move for any queen.

The opening is preceded by a group show, which opened October 1 at New York's Bureau of General Services–Queer Division, a queer bookstore located in the city's LGBT Community Center. The show examines the wide range of art, fashion, and performance emerging from Brooklyn, a hotbed of American drag today. Curated by Chris Bogia, director of the Fire Island Artist's Residency program, and visual artist and drag performer Montgomery Perry Smith, Coney Island Babies: Visual Artists from the Brooklyn Drag Scene introduces a new generation of queens with artistic practices to a wider audience. In many ways, they're Tabboo!'s drag children.

These aren't the only recent shows that brought drag into an art setting. From Howl! Happening's May exhibition When Jackie Met Ethyl, which looked at the theatrical careers and artistic influence of queens Jackie Curtis and Ethyl Eichelberger, to Jürgen Klauke's drag-influenced photography from the 1970s in his show Transformer at New York's Koenig & Clinton, which opened in January, it seems like the intersection of drag and fine art is a clear one.

And considering the artistic prowess needed in drag, maybe this isn't such a surprise. "Drag is such a visual art form that it's natural. It would be against expectations if a person with that talent wouldn't also go in another direction," says theater historian, drag expert, and Drag Show Video Verite director Joe E. Jeffreys.

"If a drag performer is a person with too much fashion sense for one gender," continues Jeffreys, building on an oft-repeated quote from the 1995 drag classic To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar, "then these people have too much talent for one medium. They need to express it in painting, drawing, graphic design, fashion, and music."

If the staggering number of artistic disciplines on display at Coney Island Babies is any indication, he's right. From a giant structural lobster claw used in performances by queen Hystee Lauder to Fred Attenborough's Polaroids of Brooklyn's drag scene to intricate drawings by Matthew de Leon, the creative prowess of drag performers is wide and varied.

A polaroid portrait of Colin Self by Fred Attenborough. Photo courtesy of Chris Bogia

It should be said that, for some of the artists, the line between their studio practice and drag career is more defined. One of the show's co-curators is Montgomery Perry Smith, who is both an artist and participant in Brooklyn's drag scene as Patti Spliff (yes, she performs drag send-ups of Patti Smith songs). Smith started his drag career while attending art school in Chicago and continued doing drag after moving to New York to pursue his art career. While Smith talks about his art and drag as two separate endeavors ("I focused on drag more for a while but still had my art"), his fellow co-curator Chris Bogia sees aesthetic similarities between Patti Spliff onstage and his opulent sculptures. "I feel like half the time you're channeling Patti," says Bogia. "There are formal comparisons that can be drawn."

'Room,' a work by Sasha Velour. Photo courtesy Chris Bogia

The variety of practices seen today is a near-direct descendant of the much-romanticized East Village art and performance scene in the 1980s and 90s, during which art and drag seemed to fit together seamlessly. It was a period that saw drag queen Linda Simpson capture her experiences in the Downtown nightlife scene through photography, artist Hunter Reynolds perform in both galleries and nightclubs as queen Patina Du Prey, and Chris Tanner maintain a drag career alongside his bright, glitter-filled paintings.

And, of course, there's Tabboo!, who got their start in 1982, producing the swirling graphic design that became both their trademark and defined the era's aesthetic through their iconic Pyramid Club flyers, backdrop design for Wigstock, and the typeface for album covers such as Deee-Lite's World Clique.

Of course, the lines between drag queen and fine artist had been tested well before the East Village scene. All the way back in the 1920s, Dada master Marcel Duchamp put aside the urinal for false eyelashes when he created his female alter ego Rrose Sélavy. While most recognized in a series of Man Ray photographs as Sélavy, Duchamp also attributed several of his artworks to the alter ego, signing the pieces in her name.

"Everyone can make art, but not everyone is an artist," said Bogia. "I think in the drag world, it's probably pretty similar."

While drag queens have always refused to be boxed in by any one definition of their work, what's clear is a strong tradition of crossover exists between the two seemingly distinct worlds.

Jeffreys said he understands drag as art without question, calling it "body art." "That's what they're doing," he asserted. "They're taking their bodies and transforming them—much in the way other body artists would with piercings, suspensions, tattooing, or corseting. They're using their bodies as a medium."

He emphasizes that even the terminology of drag borrows from artistic methods. "The word 'painting' is very prevalent today" within the drag community, he said. "'Oh, I'm going to go paint my face,' or 'Oh, you should see how she was painted.'"

"And really, the style of drag today is all about contouring," he concluded. "To me, it's very much like Old Master renaissance paintings."

Follow Emily Colucci on Twitter.

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