“I always was gay. I knew I was gay the moment I saw Elvis Presley, when I was probably around 10 years old. I thought, what the hell is that?”–John Waters
As our filth elder John Waters can attest, Elvis Presley certainly makes an impact with his hip-thrusting, rockabilly, over-sexualized masculinity that can easily be translated into a campy drag king act. Playing with the iconic masculinity of Elvis Presley and combining it with its polar opposite–the idealized femininity of a geisha, artist Andrea Mary Marshall’s new work in Sacred/Iconic, a two-person exhibition at Garis & Hahn, open until October 19, highlights gender as a performance, troubling the binary of masculine/feminine.
Exhibiting with Australian-based artist Lucas Grogan whose beautiful and hilarious embroideries draw on iconic cultural designs and patterns, as well as emboldened self-help personal revelations, Andrea Mary Marshall’s Masculin Feminine contribution to the exhibition creates a fascinating destabilization of gender roles.
Following the logical progression from her last exhibition Gia Condo at Allegra LaViola Gallery where she inhabited the character of Gia Condo, Marshall’s take on the ideal of female and art historical beauty, Da Vinci’s La Gioconda or the Mona Lisa, Marshall’s new work in Sacred and Iconic presents the extremes of masculinity and femininity, as well as their combination, through a wide variety of mediums. Marshall’s works range from photographs of Marshall as a combination of a leather-bound, smoking Elvis with a geisha wig to large, abstract canvases covered in masculine black, feminine lavender and a shock of red lipstick to fans, which she employs as a brush in her two videos in the lower level of Garis & Hahn.
Marshall’s video installation “Untitled (Double Self-Portrait),” surrounded by enormous canvases, which the viewer can see Marshall making in the films, reveals Marshall as Elvis on one wall and the geisha on another. In the first film, Marshall topless with leather pants smokes while she aggressively paints the canvased with a fan, hinting at her femininity. Likewise, the second video features Marshall as the geisha twirling in a feathered skirt, rubbing the fan all over her.
Constructing two separate roles, one hyper-masculine and the other hyper-feminine, Marshall divides these two gender identities to then combine them in her paintings, photographs and fans, revealing the wide spectrum of gender performance. Referring to most of these pieces as “self-portraits,” Marshall liberates gender performance from the strict binary, allowing for play between masculine and feminine.
For example, Marshall’s photograph “Elvis no.3, Self Portrait,” depicts Marshall dressed as Elvis in a Madame Butterfly wig, revealing her breasts and unzipped pants. Legs spread, Marshall’s masculine pose is shockingly disrupted by the appearance of her breasts in a drag king-esque theatrical performance.
Viewing Marshall’s inhabiting of the role of geisha-Elvis (or Elvis-geisha), I can’t help but think of pre-Nemo Jack Halberstam’s important study Female Masculinity. For Halberstam, “Female masculinity is a particularly fruitful site of investigation because it has been vilified by heterosexist and feminist/womanist programs alike; unlike male femininity, which fulfills a kind of ritual function in male homosocial cultures as a pathological sign of misidenficaiton and maladjustment as longing to be and to have a power that is always out of reach” (9).
By combining Elvis and the geisha in her “self-portraits,” Marshall creates a space to perform her own form of female masculinity. Choosing Elvis rather than an every-man allows Marshall to camp, to play and exaggerate a form of 50’s trash rockabilly masculinity that puts her performance closer to the theatricality of drag kings.
In her chapter on drag kings, Halberstam defines, “the drag king performs masculinity (often parodically) and make the exposure of the theatricality of masculinity into the mainstay of her act.” (232).
Looking at Marshall’s performance as Elvis in her video, Marshall smokes, aggressively smears the paint on a large canvas almost like that other extreme of 1950s masculinity, Jackson Pollock, rendering her performance similar to Halberstam’s evocation of drag kings’ theatricality.
For Jack Halberstam, masculinity cannot be performed in the same way as femininity. Opposing drag kings such as the incredible Murray Hill (Showbiz!) to drag queens, Halberstam observes that masculinity is linked to the non-performative and the natural, while femininity evokes the artificial.
As Halberstam notes, “at least one other reason that male impersonation did not achieve any general currency within the lesbian bar culture must also be attributed to mainstream definition of male masculinity as non-performative. Indeed, current representations of masculinity in white men unfailingly depend on a relatively stable notion of the realness and the naturalness of both the male body and its signifying effects” (234).
By performing and exaggerating Elvis’s masculinity, Marshall, similar to drag kings, throws masculinity into question, just as she does with the femininity of the geisha, which being femininity is easier to expose as artificial. Halberstam describes, “For one thing, if masculinity adheres “naturally” and inevitably to men, then masculinity cannot be impersonated. For another, if the nonperforamance is part of what defines white male masculinity, then all performed masculinities stand out as suspect and open to interrogation” (235).
By choosing Elvis, Marshall allows for masculinity to mirror the same artificial camp as femininity. Elvis is already almost an impersonation of himself and his own masculinity (and became increasingly so as he developed into fat Elvis, naturally Filthy Dream’s favorite Elvis period). Even though masculinity is often seen as natural, Elvis’s personae was an undeniably performance.
By defining masculinity and femininity as open to interrogation with her side-by-side performance of Elvis and the geisha, as well as her combination self portraits, Marshall destabilizes both masculinity and femininity, leaving the possibility open to all types of gender performances.
Embodying the complete subversion of gender binaries, Marshall allows for a place for singular individual performances of gender as she reflects a combination of Elvis and a geisha. Confusing gender performances, sexuality and stereotypes, Marshall’s paintings, fans and photographs create a thoroughly gender-troubled (Judith Butler would be proud) self-portrait of Marshall’s own gender performance.
Like Marshall, we could all create our own performative gender self-portraits in a similar fashion. Don’t we all have a little Elvis in us?