Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose, Kim Jones, Johanna Went

Western Project

Tucker Neel

Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose, Cage, 1992; steel, padlocks, baby quilt, cut crystal baby bottle, teddy bear, booklet; 39 ¼ x 50 x 26 ¼ inches; courtesy the artists and Western Project, Los Angeles

Small vitrine: various items from Bob Flanagan and Sheree Rose; courtesy the artists and Western Project, Los Angeles

Western Project’s group exhibition of work by Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose, Kim Jones and Johanna Went provides an excellent opportunity to reflect on the enduring practices of four of the most groundbreaking, controversial and influential performance artists of the last half-century. This exhibition presents new and older work that fearlessly plumbs the extremities of human existence, imploring viewers to consider their own frailties, inadequacies, fears and fates. It’s not an easy show to experience, but an important one nonetheless.

Whereas some artists make work that documents their lives, Bob Flanagan & Sheree Rose’s artwork literally kept Bob alive. Flanagan was afflicted with cystic fibrosis, an extremely painful and incurable genetic disease that causes thick mucus buildup in the lungs, usually claiming the lives of its victims by their mid twenties. Passing away in 1996, Flanagan was able to live until age forty-four, largely because he was able to embrace the tremendous pain of his disorder by engaging in heavy S&M play with Rose. The artwork they created together explores questions of pleasure and pain, life and death, as well as gender roles and the emancipatory possibilities of dominance and submission. Most of their work here documents this relationship. Implements of Love (1981/2011), for example, consists of a series of black-and-white photographs of Flanagan’s face as he holds up various objects that Rose used to routinely spank him: a whip, a fist, a pronged wooden pasta spoon, etc.

Two vitrines containing dozens of artifacts from the artists’ life together present perhaps the most fascinating displays in the exhibition. On view are Flanagan’s journals detailing accounts of his pain, sexual activities and psychological states, alongside other, more banal objects like a leather fountain pen, a gold rose pin and Porky Pig figurines. The vitrines also house butt plugs, whips and piercing jewelry, as well as photographs of performances with Bob always as the primary photographed subject and Sheree the photographer. These vitrines testify to how deeply intertwined art and life were for the two artists. While Rose is still alive, still making work, the absence of Flanagan becomes a ghost that haunts the rest of the show.

The sadomasochism of Flanagan & Rose’s work is echoed in Kim Jones’ five frenetic drawings of human caricatures engaged in all manner of libidinal acts of copulation, penetration and bondage. Jones rose to critical acclaim in the late 1970s by publicly performing as Mudman, an alter ego slathered in grime who lugged architectural masses of sticks and wire on his back. Jones’ entire body of work, which includes performances of immolating live rats, addresses the artist’s traumatic experiences in Vietnam and related issues of the violence of war and the inhumanity we carry with us on a daily basis.

Johanna Went, Grey-ish Gardens, 2011; mixed media installation; dimensions variable; courtesy the artist and Western Project, Los Angeles

Kim Jones, Untitled, 2008; acrylic and ink on museum board; 20 x 30 inches; courtesy the artist and Pierogi, Brooklyn

In his recent drawings he continues this investigation. For one such untitled work from 2009, Jones rendered a mass of decaying figures in black line against a gray ground to picture an orgy of flesh. It reminds one of the brutal, sometimes comic narratives in the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. The drawing is characteristic of Jones’ unmistakable draftsmanship—his repetitious depictions of wires and sticks; wrinkled, exposed and eviscerated bodies; and drippy phallic forms. It’s a creepy image that seems to comment on the violations against bodies and minds that those in positions of power employ to ensure order and progress.

Johanna Went is also no stranger to controversy and censorship, having drawn the ire of conservative culture-war congressmen in the early ’90s. Went’s work typically involves displaying the body as confrontational element, sometimes covered in blood and other effluvia. Grey-ish Gardens (2011), Went’s contribution to the exhibition, includes two side-by-side monitors playing documentation of Last Spring at Grey Gardens, a two-day performance she produced with the artist Lily Greenfield-Sanders in 2001.

The videos, one from each day of the performance, prove hard to watch due to discordant audio tracks that compete for the viewer’s attention. The artists play Big Edie Beale and Little Edie Beale, the eccentric mother and daughter from the famous 1975 documentary Grey Gardens. Caked in makeup, Went’s and Sanders’ Edies chatter as they meander amongst a sumptuously decorated set packed with overstuffed furniture, psychedelic fabrics and a maze of knickknacks. Their unique New England accents make it unmistakably clear that the two artists are playing the Beale duo. However, more than a one-dimensional parody, the performances resonate as a symbolic meditation on the very nature of performance, exploring who one actually is, who one “plays” in public for others, and the porous, sometimes nonexistent line that demarcates the two.

Presented atop a sprawling pagan altar, Went’s videos risk being upstaged by their surroundings. The artist covered the pedestal in an accumulation of strange artifacts: potted succulents, bones, candles, a collection of old dentures, framed photos of the performers in costume, rocks, moss and, the show stopper, a taxidermy housecat seated in a red velvet-lined glass case. The installation extends the very essence of the Beales into the physical world, conjuring a space where every inch of one’s surroundings, every second of life, is an opportunity for play, improvisation and embellishment. Considering that Big Edie passed away in 1977, followed by Little Edie in 2002, Went’s work can be taken as a sort of memorial to the Beales as real-life performance artists, women with whom Went desires to align her own seasoned practice.

It’s worth thinking back to the culture wars of twenty years ago, which were fueled by ignorant people who, afraid of uncontrolled and desiring bodies, wanted to eradicate that which they refused to understand. In light of the recent censorship at the Smithsonian Institution, Western Project’s show registers as both timely and inspirational. By presenting work that still manages to viscerally connect with viewers despite censorship, disease, aging and death, this exhibition stands as a true inspiration to all artists who strive to create work that pushes boundaries, confronting viewers with the hard-to-handle physical and psychological realities of our time.

Tucker Neel is a Los Angeles-based artist, writer and curator.

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