Vaginal Davis steps into the mainstream spotlight | Art Review | Chicago Reader

Vaginal Davis steps into the mainstream spotlight 

Nearly five decades after her career began, the pioneer performance artist, musician, and activist is now a permanent fixture at the Art Institute.

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Vaginal Davis, The White to Be Angry, 1999.

Vaginal Davis, The White to Be Angry, 1999.

The Art Institute of Chicago © Vaginal Davis

The goddess of queer punk Vaginal Davis burst onto the Los Angeles performance scene in the late 1970s as the front woman for the art-punk band Afro Sisters, then became an integral influence in drag performance and a matriarch for performance artists. Born intersex during a time when doctors performed medical interventions in order to assign gender, Davis's mother refused. While her birth certificate stated male, her family used she/her pronouns. Honing in on her German, Jewish, Mexican, and French-creole heritage, she would go on to create fictional characters that were "multiracial and maxi-gendered."

Davis has played a pivotal role in critiquing politics, white supremacy, identity, and sexuality. In her 1999 video piece, The White to be Angry, Davis is particularly focused on these themes. The 19-minute capsule of found footage, 90s commercials, and montages of televangelist Robert Tilton is on view in the modern wing of the Art Institute of Chicago. The video is set to a soundtrack by Davis's band Pedro, Muriel & Esther (PME), which recorded their first full-length album, also titled The White to be Angry, in the mid-90s in Chicago. While in PME, Davis performed as Clarence, a white supremacist from Idaho. She even wore a ZZ Top beard.

Davis's first solo exhibition didn't happen until 2012 and commercial gallery representation didn't open up for the artist until 2013. The Art Institute of Chicago is the first museum to collect Davis's video work in a permanent collection. Davis told Dazed in a recent interview, "For someone who's sort of an outsider artist . . . well, it's a big deal for somebody like me. A funky, funky person like me!"

Davis was a member of the subculture group Homocore, which hosted a queer punk night in the mid-90s that influenced the Riot Grrrl movement and featured bands including Sleater-Kinney, Los Crudos, Tribe 8, Bikini Kill, the Butchies, and more. The decade-long monthly queer night expanded to cities like Detriot, Minneapolis, and New York, and finally ended with Le Tigre's Chicago debut in 2000. Davis was closely tied to the Queercore zine movement, where she published Fertile La Toyah Jackson from 1982 to 1991, which she turned into a video performance project. At Homocore events, Davis would share zines, present lo-fi films, and perform poetry.

The White to be Angry, shot on a Hi8 camcorder with virtually no budget, acts as a visual album for PME, following songs that reference directors (Woody Allen, Bruce LaBruce, and Clive Barker). Each segment includes an original song and footage that centers around a skinhead grappling with his sexuality, resulting in violent hate crimes. The lo-fi video piece feels especially current. We are experiencing a flare under the current cheese-puff administration similar to the queer punk revolution that sparked fire during the Reagan era. Featuring scenes of BDSM, violence, blow jobs, religion, and white supremacy, Davis incorporates dark humor to explicate complex themes still relevant to history and society. The film focuses on the othering of people and how society ruminates on that hatred until it explodes with dangerous and destructive violence.

Davis has always fit in-between the punk and the drag scenes. "Gay drag queens hated me," she famously told José Esteban Muñoz in the book The Feminism and Visual Culture Reader. "They didn't understand it. I wasn't really trying to alter myself to look like a real woman. I didn't wear false eyelashes or fake breasts. It wasn't about the realness of traditional drag—the perfect flawless makeup. I just put on a little lipstick, a little eyeshadow and a wig and went there." Muñoz, a queer writer and critic, was the first to coin the term "terrorist drag," which was used to describe Davis's work in particular. Davis focuses on the repulsive, the undesirable, the revolting reality of society and mirrors that in her performances as well.

Viewers of The White to be Angry are meant to feel discomfort, either from their own prejudices or the abhorrent honesty portrayed in the scenes. Images with Confederate flags, discussions using intolerant racist language, and crimes against the LGBTQ community are thrust onto the viewer. A young mother sitting next to me in the gallery softly left the space with her stroller midway through the video. A man giving a blow job flashed across the screen as she rounded the corner towards the exit. The couple to my left shifted uncomfortably in their seats. The roughness in the film is contextual but also applies to scenes cut from cable television coupled with the editing style that give this piece a "home project" feel that celebrates the weird, perverse, DIY, and outsider aesthetics. Davis's voice, presence, and art have the unwavering power of remaining relevant for nearly five decades. Being born in the underground clubs of LA and traversing esteemed museums across the globe, Davis has proven that being your bona fide self is still the most punk rock thing you can do.   v

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