Interview: John Kelly: On portraiture & "drag"
by Claire Ruud
Next weekend, artist John Kelly will perform Paved Paradise Redux, a widely acclaimed piece in which he inhabits the persona of Joni Mitchell in concert, as part of Fusebox 2010. Over the course of his career, Kelly has performed everywhere from La MaMa to the Whitney and explored such characters as Egon Schiele and Jean Cocteau. In anticipation of his Austin appearances, …might be good caught up with him by email to ask about portraiture, drag, Joni Mitchell and his current and future projects.
...might be good [mbg]: Last year in your solo show at Alexander Gray Associates, you filled the gallery floor to ceiling with self portraits—often portraits of yourself as another person—from the past three decades. The show gave the impression that self portraiture has been a staple of your practice as an artist. Can you tell me a little bit about how self portraits fit into your larger practice, both practically and conceptually?
John Kelly [JK]: My work has generally stemmed from observations of myself as myself, or consideration of some character, whether real or imagined. I think this initially occurred as I realized I had the ability to alter how I looked, both from augmentation—makeup, costume—but also from the inside—shifting my DNA, in a way, through intention. A projection of the self into another self; what actors do all the time, and what I have done intuitively.
So, conceptually, I free myself up by shape shifting and record the process. Practically, I then take this possibility to the next place: how would I—or a particular "character"—move, sound and register through dance, song and some combination of dramatic spectacle.
mbg: How do you understand the relationship between self portraiture and your performances, many of which rely on inhabiting the persona—in some sense, creating a portrait—of someone else?
JK: In a self portrait I have generally recorded my image as I have observed it in a mirror or interpreted it by studying a photographic reproduction. But I have also at times merged these two notions by thrusting my mirror-recorded image into interpretations of photographic reproductions of other "realities"—self portraits as Dürer, as La Gioconda, as Bellini’s Portrait of a Man; the goal is the image of my body in their garb assuming their pose in that particular setting. The self co-exists with the idea—or reality—of another.
In performance, I can function as myself, i.e., John Kelly steps in front of an audience and does something. But as I have generally preferred to flourish within role-playing, I wind up co-existing with the idea—or reality—of some other "self" in the form of a "character." The idea provides the shape, but remains an inert idea, like a photograph. My persona and an idea can exist separately, but when they join, something happens. My energy breathes life into an idea.
mbg: You told The New Yorker that when you started doing drag in the 80s, “it was the most fucked up thing you could think of,” and it was, in part, a way to express rage. Between now and then, the place of drag has shifted in the mass media. I’m thinking of To Wong Foo and Priscilla, Queen of the Desert in the 90s and “RuPaul’s Drag Race” on TV today. In your view, how have the meanings of drag changed since you started doing it?
JK: It’s not so much that the meanings have changed; it’s just that the possibilities that have always been there, usually "underground" or "outsider," have been marketed to, noticed and embraced by a broader public on its very predictable (and in my mind limited) terms. I was hopeful that "Drag" could now be acknowledged as meaning many things, but I’m not so sure it can. The problem is that most people, when faced with a gender leap, whatever its quality, pedigree or uniqueness, tend to relegate it to "impersonation," "drag performer," "transvestite." Though these may in fact be accurate monikers on some basic level, they can corrupt the capacity to accept art. All manifestations of "drag" are lumped together and then loaded with assumptions, phobias, condescension, fears and prejudices. These reactions say more about the viewer than the performer. However, the curiosity, wonder, glee and celebration of the genre can also occur. Gender blurring can still function as a potentially useful and powerful tool. But it also remains a slightly suspect endeavor, and the artist who messes with people’s rigid gender assumptions risks shallow and dismissive branding.
When Drag came out of the closet, it also got watered down for menace-free mass public consumption. Either heterosexual men compelled to use drag as a tool to get closer to an amorous crush or his kids (Tootsie, Mrs. Doubtfire), or sensational clown drag (the films you mentioned), which is more about the artifice and not particularly sensual, where the idea is layered on to the point that the person underneath, the potential source of humanity, nuance and poetry—recedes. Generally, the man portrays the powerful woman; the vulnerability of a man is not meant to penetrate the veneer of the woman. For me, vulnerability is a crucial component of a complete, fleshed-out and interesting character.
Menace and unpredictable human possibility, even if coupled with glamour, is more interesting to me than makeup worked up into some deafening din. "Beauty" can be surface and safe; it can also be deep and poetic.
mbg: You’ve been doing Paved Paradise Redux, the performance you’re bringing to Fusebox, since 2007. I’ve seen you say that it’s your “Bolero”—a popular piece that has enabled you to pay your bills. Are there other reasons you want to keep performing this piece?
JK: Well, it’s been a mixed bag for me. It’s an insane technical tour-de-force, sixteen songs sung in three vocal registers, conversational speeches, complicated guitar tunings and fingerings and a dulcimer (that Joni gave me). I love diving into its challenge, and I am very proud of it, and see it as a major accomplishment.
But it often gets stuck in the "drag" discussion. I cannot tell you the number of articles or reviews that have included the phrases "not a drag," or "phony Joni." These are not necessarily negatives, but they do relegate the work into the "doing drag," "doing Joni" or "who else do you do," box. There is too much focus on the wig, the dress. For me it’s acting, singing, role-playing and conjuring. When Cate Blanchett played Bob Dylan in Todd Haynes film I’m Not There, it wasn’t called "drag," it was considered acting. I also think the notion of portraying Joni Mitchell, singing her songs while playing her legendary guitar tunings, is in itself incredibly audacious and conceptually quite Dada-esque. The fact that I performed for her—and made her cry—blows me away and remains a highlight of my life.
mbg: As I understand it, you became friends with Joni Mitchell through Paved Paradise Redux. How has your relationship with her changed the performance?
JK: It definitely has. It has made me feel more responsible, as Joni is not an abstraction—she is a friend who I care about deeply. I also admire her work, and like any great work, it can be revisited and experienced—by both performer and audience—as new, always hearing something different, or noticing something as if for the first time.
mbg: Right now, you’re working on a performance entitled The Escape Artist inspired by Caravaggio’s life, but if I have it right, you won’t actually be performing as Caravaggio. How did this performance evolve?
JK: In the past I have made works that trace the life of an artist like Egon Schiele, whose life read like an unimaginable screenplay, and I also looked a bit like him. I was moved to travel through his experience both as a man (by choreographing his carbon footprint), and as an artist (by concocting various ways of replicating the process of painting and drawing live onstage).
I had considered portraying Caravaggio, but I decided that I probably look nothing like him—he was short and dark, I am tall and Anglo-Saxon—though I could pull it off. But the other concern I had is that there is so little known about his personal life aside from the court transcripts, the scandal and the myth. The most we can know about him is through his paintings, and what better source? So I decided to bring to life the figures that populate his paintings.
While I was a Fellow at the American Academy in Rome three years ago, I embarked on a different visual art practice, attempting to reconcile ephemeral performance and a tangible practice. I set up a video camera in my studio and improvised video vignettes in which I played with figures from Caravaggio’s paintings. Initially, I did this in order to get photographic images, but realized I was developing a separate body of video work on its own. Since then, I have been writing songs and pairing them with the video. But I was searching for a dramatic context with which to include these video/song pairings. I decided to use my experience of a broken neck from a trapeze accident (in 2002) as the bedrock for these flights of imagination, art history and out of body travel. So my inhabitations of Caravaggio’s characters—Bacchus, Matthew, John the Baptist, Magdalene—will be experienced by a man in a neck brace on a gurney in a hospital emergency room at 3 a.m. on a Friday night.
mbg: What else are you working on right now?
JK: I am currently an Armory Artist in Residence at the Park Avenue Armory in New York. I have a beautiful room called Company K, which is also called the "millionaires room" because it was home to a company of rich soldiers and is lined with 120-year-old wooden lockers inscribed with their names and rank. As this is still a functioning regiment—they just returned from a tour of duty in Iraq—and as I am an artist working out of this reality, I decided to create something site specific. So I plan to make a series of fifty black and white, ink on panel portraits of soldiers that have been discharged as a result of the "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell" policy. On each of the portraits I will include both their enlistment and discharge dates. Funny, with this policy it’s not a dishonorable discharge unless you dispute it. But it is an enforced discharge. The irony is that part of the military "code of honor" is to tell the truth.
I am also planning a revival of my Egon Schiele work Pass The Blutwurst, Bitte at La MaMa this December. It is the piece that put me on the cultural radar screen in the late 1980s, and Ellen Stewart talked me into reviving it. It freaks me out a bit, as Schiele died when he was 28, and I am now 50. But I think I can pull it off—it’s a dance theatre work for five performers, with a lot of movement and only one song. Sarah Bernhardt played Joan of Arc when she was 54. Oh yeah—she also "did drag"—Hamlet and Pierrot.
Claire Ruud is Associate Director of Fluent~Collaborative.