When I Wake Up In My Make-Up

"...it's too early for that dress!"

Just kidding, it's right on time for that dress!

The Revolution will not be Televised. It will be on your face.
We seem to be living in a moment which is a lot about make-up.
I spot a trend.

THE MAKE-UP: In Mass Mind (Such a good fucking record)

The thought first came to me by comparing Cindy Sherman's MoMA retrospective to Marina Abramovic's. Someone at a party last weekend had something to the effect of "Oh, it's so nice to see a woman artist get a retrospective at MoMA!" and I reminded them that the Abramovic retrospectacle had just happened. And so I was thinking about a lot of the conversations that show brought up, the tangential things in our culture which the show seemed to be about: public space, celebrity, fashion.

Cindy Sherman's retrospective, for me, points to a wider cultural theme as well. A nascent obsession with make-up as a practice and make-up as a place. Whereas the Abramovic show would encourage viewers to attain transcendence alternately through mortification of the flesh (cutting, public nudity) it also implied by Marina's example, that you could attain another kind of transcendence by wearing Givenchy by Riccardo Tisci, a kind of performance which involved putting animals on your head.

Cindy Sherman's practice, on the other hand, seems to be much more about getting the snake onto your FACE. Looking through the snake's eyes, in a way. I think it's also sort of a balm to the postmodern anxiety which Abramovic's work gives me. The sphilkes from lying naked on a museum floor. This isn't news. That's why Marina paid (barely) college kids to do it.

Cindy Sherman's work, though, seems to be somehow more modern. The approach is that you work alone, in your studio, with a mirror and you smoke your intergalactic space weed and you put on lots and lots and lots of makeup. You use your face. You take the idea, or the art you want to make, the vision you want to manifest, and you manifest it on your face.

As Penny Arcade says: "I take it on, take it on, take it on myself."

I think the Cindy Sherman retrospectacle points to a trend here. Make-up, specifically clown make-up, is kind of becoming a thing. Maybe it's not new-- I can't claim to be new. Probably, if I'm finding out about something, it's already "out there". But it seems like right this second, that make-up is working it's way through our culture, and the Sherman show seems to connect a bunch of different uses of make-up.

Make-up is becoming something of a competitive sport. Think about Face-Off the new SyFy reality TV show which is a competition between makeup artists.

Granted: I don't watch this show, really. But I think we can all get the gist of the show. The make-up job is more important than the actual use of the make-up. The model is just a prop, like an oven in a cooking show. You watch it and you want to be the winner, the make-up artist, not the model. It's totally a skill, but it's a skill apart from, you know, a reason to develop or use the skill. It's like me saying that I can frame pictures (which I can), it's kind of totally irrelevant. But it's really hard, despite the clever marketing by SyFy, to divorce make-up from it's historical context.

Make-up is a tool for self-expression. Even if you get help putting it on, even if you do it to someone else, it's about expressing something. This something includes, now, ambition, skill, proficiency. Winningness.

Cindy Sherman's MoMA show also makes me thing of the original heroes of make-up: drag queens. You what other show is totally huge right now (which I also don't watch but do know the gist of) is RuPaul's Drag Race.

The rad thing about this show, as I understand it, is that it's sort of subversive in a (I'm guessing) unintended way. Look: straight people love drag queens more than gay people do. I didn't come up with that sentiment, but I am happy to echo it. It's a fact. Straight people love drag queens. Gay people like drag queens okay, but we specifically tend to like FISHY QUEENS. Which is to say, funky, imperfect, deliberately homemade, etc. The rad thing about Drag Race (again, from my very limited understanding) is that it ever-so-infinitesimally widens the door of what popular culture conceives of as "drag". There are fleeting glances of punk queens, fishy queens, "alternative" queens, "freaky" queens on the show. So it's nice that mainstream America is getting to see that. And the battles for self-representation among both the more campy stylized "traditional" queens on the show, as well as the freakier "fishy" queens, this fight is being fought on their faces, with make-up.

And it's also nice for the queer subculture to see something sort of like us on TV. Even if only for a second. Of course anything on TV which seems actually cool is probably ripped off from a real, actually really cool, sub cultural thing that happens in real life, you know? In the case of Drag Race I'm thinking specifically about drag performers and artists I know who work in something of a fishy drag milieu in NYC and elsewhere. People like the brilliant Colin Self, and her homegirl Alexis Penney. They've both organized near-legendary drag performance party nights in Brooklyn (Colin Self's CLUMP) and San Francisco (Alexis Penney's HIGH FANTASY), almost inventing the discourse for this type of performance. Populating an audience. It's really amazing and I am deeply excited about it and them.

These are drag parties but they don't just showcase examples of pristine flawless passing. The make-up here is a form of battle. Battle against history, against passivity, against boredom. Battle to win newness. There's a definite punk energy. There's something bubbling up in the queer ("punk") subculture.

It might not even call itself punk. I might be projecting. Wishful thinking. Regardless, something is happening. I'm just trying to find useful examples of what it is, or might be, or could become. It's not about whether or not I like it, or whether or not it speaks to me. It's not about the me, me. I'm just saying.

Thinking also in the radical queer artist community, of performers like Jordan Fox and Glenn Marla, for whom a certain kind of deliberately ornate make-up job relocates the face as both a battlefield (where identity is hard-fought and won) as well as a temple (a sacred place, safe space, keeper of the flame, etc).

Glenn has a really brilliant performance piece where he talks about doing his make-up, beating his face, as a kind of masturbation. This is interesting and, as far as I'm concerned, painfully before its time. The onanism of make-up hasn't been sufficiently plumbed and Glenn might be the one to do it. He might have already done it. This could be a moot point, I guess.

This also makes me think of  a cute image that Cubistliterature's Craig made, as an homage to Ms. Cindy Sherman's clown portraits now on view at MoMA.

It accompany's Craig's pithy and charming review of the MoMA show on XO Jane.

But queers are good at beating our faces, what's new. Of course we are desperate to show our colors and forge identities, using our faces as a kind of personal empiricism.

What it interesting is how it seems to be coming up into the wider culture. It seems to be coming from a lot of different places. For example, I would never have known, had not my uber-cool room mate Ptrck told me about them a few years ago, the JUGGALO thing. Do you guys know about them? To put it very very briefly, they're Insane Clown posse fans who hang out together with scary clown make-up on. It's totally a thing, and I would never have heard of it on my own.

Meanwhile, Ptrck is doing his own Revolutionary Costume for the Face, as documented by Vice Style:

Out of all the examples in this post, I guess this makes Ptrck the most of an heir to Cindy Sherman, huh? I think of how her Untitled Film Stills are about harnessing the power of generic imagery, the collective unconscious. And of course also, the digital make-up technique; some of the strongest images in the MoMA show are ones which she shot without any make-up, using Photoshop (as Ptrck does) to sub in for actual physical make-up. Double-mediation. Performing for the camera. Make-up for the camera. Pretty fucking rad, huh.

But the Juggalo thing, right? The totally rad queer genius NYC Performance Artist Neal Medlyn made a recent performance at the Kitchen based on Juggalo culture, and Kathleen Hanna did the set design. I am totally lame and I didn't get my act together to actually see the show.

I'm woefully under-familiar with all of Medlyn's work, but from what I have seen and know about him, he's fucking awesome. I really like how he deals with culture and the scale of culture. His work is a lot about mass culture and popular culture, but about having a totally personal and earnest engagement with it. It's kind of a balm for this aesthetics of irony age we're coming out of.

Speaking about the Juggalos show, Hanna said: "I find it interesting that Neal, who is from a small town Texas, is presenting the art of ICP in a totally non-ironic way for a NYC art audience. I think it is an aggressive move that will bring up a lot of questions, mainly about who can afford to buy sophistication." (italics mine, natch).

So, Hanna's totally right, again: one of the great things about presenting the art of this culture at the Kitchen is switching the context. This kind of radical make-up might be a kind of folk art, in a way. Right? It's something you can do at home. The technology is accessible. And it's unsophisticated.

Except, I would argue that the folk-art, fishy drag, punk stoner at home on her expensive camera practice is actually converging with a mass cultural interest in radical make-up. Let's talk about the Oscars this year, okay? Who was nominated for Best Actress? I referred to the nominees as being nominated for the BAD DRAG category:

Okay granted, the make-up is hardly as radical. But the sentiment is the same. These women are CARRYING their respective pictures on the strength of their facial drag. The subtle Hollywood make-up is, yes, in a sense, the picture of sophistication. At the same time, it is undeniably Bad Drag. These women are FISHY. Meryl one because her Bad Drag was better than Glenn's Bad Drag.

You know how I know that this trend is over? Not secret? Blown-up? Because Marc Jacobs is going to launch a make-up line.

“Anything to me that is part of the joy, the ritual, of getting dressed — things that women enjoy like bags, shoes, fragrance, clothes, makeup — that’s what fashion’s about for me. I love the opportunity, wherever there is one, to adorn, to decorate, to scent, to dress. That’s what fashion’s all about. It’s not necessary, it’s something you want — it’s a fancy and a whim."

FANCY AND A WHIM. That would be a good name for a book, Marc.

I'm just trying to piece this all together and notice it all. I don't have a big answer. I just want to point it out. I'm, personally, really bad at applying make-up. Maybe I should practice. Who wants to teach me? Again, this shouldn't be about me. Not the real me.

All these examples make me think, duh, like the logical conclusion, the godmother of this whole trend, the person who should be getting the most credit ever, is the insanely underrated and brilliant American artist Kembra Pfahler:

I think of Pfahler's primary metier as, I should think, the Make-Up Job. The LQQK. Yes, it's rock and roll. Yes, she's a real Art artist now. But it's all about the look. I don't mean to be simplistic here: Kembra Pfahler has, since the 1980s, been using radical make-up to create and inhabit an entirely new visual language. To create a new vocabulary for performance. And it's still new. And I still like her a lot.


Display Name said...

i think you've misunderstood 'fishy' when it's used to refer to drag; fishy (t)here means "convincingly/passing-ly female-looking" and by proxy "conforming to normative beauty standards"

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