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THE GUTTER ART OF STEPHEN VARBLE: QUEER PERFORMANCE IN THE 1970S

 Stephen Varble in the Demonstration Costume Chemical Bank Protest, March 1976. 

Photographs By Greg Day

March 1, 2019 – May 17, 2019

 

Evocative, Elegant and Edgy, Greg Day’s photographs of guerilla performance artist Steven Varble, transports viewers back to the sizzling, streets of Manhattan in the 1970s. Masterfully curated for the One Archives by David J. Getsy, and supported by the City of West Hollywood, the exhibition has an amazing array of Day’s photographic portraits. A most phenomenal video, replete with a phantasmagorical soundtrack, shows Varble deep in character as a perverted Greta Garbo, as a demented wood nymph, or assuming a host of other bizarre and sometimes impishly splenetic personalities.


In costumes made from trash, food waste, and stolen objects, Stephen Varble (1946–1984) took to the streets of 1970s New York City to perform his “Gutter Art.” With disruption as his aim, he led uninvited fancy dress tours through the galleries of SoHo, occupied Fifth Avenue gutters, and burst into banks and boutiques in his gender-confounding ensembles. Varble made the recombination of signs for his sexuality a central theme in his increasingly outrageous outfits and performances.  He enacted his dual sexuality as an open question in both his life and his work, sometimes identifying as a female persona, Marie Debris, and sometimes playing up his appearance as a gay man. Only later would the term “genderqueer” emerge to describe the kind of self-made, non-binary libidinous identity options that Varble adopted throughout his life and in his disruptions of the 1970’s art world.

At the pinnacle moment of the artist’s public performances, the photographer Greg Day (b. 1944) captured the inventiveness and energy of his splendiferously costumed confrontations. Trained as an artist and anthropologist and with a keen eye for documenting ephemeral culture as it flourished, Day took hundreds of photographs of Varble’s trash couture, and Varble’s appearance events in 1975 and 1976. This exhibition brings together a selection of Day’s photographs of the artist’s performances and also includes Day’s photographs of Varble’s friends and collaborators such as Peter Hujar, Jimmy DeSana, Shibata Atsuko, Agosto Machado, and Warhol stars Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, and Mario Montez.

 

Stephen Varble at the 12th Annual Avant-Garde Festival, 1975

Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor, October 1975

Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale, October 1975

 

Varble sought to make a place for himself outside of art’s institutions and mainstream cultures all the while critiquing them both. Day’s images are both about a synergistic artistic friendship and about the queer networks and communities that made such an anti-institutional practice imaginable. Together, Varble and Day worked to preserve the radical potential of Gutter Art for the future.

The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble builds upon the 2018 retrospective exhibition of Varble’s work at the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, New York, titled Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, as featured in the New York Times on January 11, 2019.  The One Gallery exhibition with Day’s photographs of Varble explores the ways in which Varble’s disruptive performance art has lived on primarily through Day’s shots.  These portraits distill Varble’s inventive costumes, transformed trash, and public confrontations. The Critical Eye has seen both the New York and West Hollywood exhibitions. Both companion shows are branded by potent curation and by Day and Varble’s extreme creativity.

David J. Getsy’s curation is wildly incisive and revelatory. He will conduct a lecture about the exhibition on Saturday, April 13th, from 2-3: 30 pm in the West Hollywood Library. Photographer Greg Day will conduct tours of the exhibition every Sunday in April from 12-2pm in The One Gallery at 626 N. Robertson Boulevard in West Hollywood. The gallery is open Tuesday through Sunday. This is one of the best shows produced by the One Archives and all involved should be saluted.

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Phil Tarley is a fellow of the American Film Institute and a member of the Photographic Arts Council. Tarley writes about contemporary art and pop culture and curates photography for the AC Gallery, in Los Angeles. His book, Going Down on Cuba: Notes from an Underground Traveler, is slated for publication by Fabrik Press in 2018.

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