“I yearned for a bad influence and boy, was Tennessee one in the best sense of the word: joyous, alarming, sexually confusing and dangerously funny.”–John Waters
As all of you faithful, filthy readers know, we, here at Filthy Dreams, have always agreed with John Waters’ view on Tennessee Williams. He was the filth elder we always dreamed of too and we’ve devoted our trashy lives to living in his image: guzzling mixed drinks, laughing at our own twisted sense of humor and trying to balance being both joyous and alarming.
Well, at ClampArt’s current exhibition of artist Mark Morrisroe’s work Hello From Bertha, we discovered we are certainly not the only ones who treat our beloved TW as a role model. Named after Williams’ one-act play, Hello From Bertha presents a wide range of Morrisroe’s varied work from his intimate black and white photographs of friends and lovers to his seminal chromogenic print “negative sandwiches” to his punk-inspired Xeroxes of Tina Turner.
A fellow avid fanatic of Tennessee Williams, Morrisroe’s exhibition also features his drag film version of “Hello From Bertha,” which details the last days of a dying prostitute, Bertha. Starring Morrisroe himself as Bertha, Steven Tashjian, otherwise known as the drag queen Tabboo!, as Goldie and artist Jack Pierson as Lena, Morrisroe’s “Hello From Bertha” is an unsettling, campy masterpiece, recalling Jack Smith’s films and Williams’ own theatrical hysterics.
By using his own friends in the film, who reappear again and again in his photographs, as well as his TW influence, Morrisroe’s “Hello From Bertha” mirrors many of the same essential themes in Morrisroe’s photographic work from his employment of his own biography and friends to his queer world-making. But more on that later…
Had Williams met Morrisroe, which actually could have happened since their lives overlapped a bit in the 1970s and 1980s, he would have unquestionably adored him, particularly considering Williams’ love of doomed hustlers.
Morrisroe’s aesthetically romantic photographs of his friends, lovers and surroundings have been largely understood in the context of his own biography, some of which Morrisroe may have completely fabricated. But hey, as we always say, why let the truth stand in the way of a good story?
Since his biography is (for better or for worse) invariably entangled with the understanding of his art, it seems necessary to recount some of the details here for the Morrisroe uninitiated:
Born in Boston, Morrisroe’s mother was a drug addict, who also had the distinct pleasure to be a tenant of the Boston Strangler, Albert DeSalvo. Morrisroe often claimed that he was the illegitimate son of DeSalvo.
Leaving home at 15, Morrisroe began to work as a hustler under the thoroughly punk pseudonym Mark Dirt, which, to me, sounds like a missed opportunity for a perfect name for a John Waters character. But moving on… When he was 17, Morrisroe was shot by a disgruntled john, which left him both with a bullet near his spine and a limp for the rest of his life.
Moving from the streets to art education, Morrisroe attended School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston where he met a group of artists who would grow to be very important in the Downtown New York scene such as photographer Nan Goldin, Tabboo! and Jack Pierson.
Morrisroe sadly died from complications from AIDS in 1989 at 30 years old. Documenting his entire, unfortunately short life through the highly aestheticized lens of his camera, Morrisroe also unwaveringly and fearlessly captured his experiences with HIV/AIDS.
With this staggering back-story, Morrisroe’s photographs are almost impossible to understand independent from his biography. Like David Wojnarowicz, whose stunning face appears in one of Morrisroe’s Xeroxes in Hello From Bertha, Morrisroe’s life can often overpower other analysis of his work. While I don’t believe, like some critics, in separating biography completely from the consideration of an artist’s work, I do think Morrisroe’s art certainly presents more significant meanings than merely a who’s who of his life and sexual history.
Looking at Morrisroe’s work filling the walls of ClampArt, his photographs undoubtedly do seem to faithfully document his life from a naked Polaroid of Pat Hearn, who was his New York gallerist, to his friend Tabboo! and former lover Jack Pierson. While Morrisroe’s photographs feature his friends and lovers, he, unlike the more gritty realist style of Nan Goldin, does not present a warts-and-all vision of queer artistic life. Instead, Morrisroe, using his unique photographic techniques, creates a more fantastical, romantic vision of a queer world, recalling old Hollywood glamour and early photography.
Many other critics and art historians have commented on the importance of performativity and self-creation in Morrisroe’s photographs, frequently connected to Morrisroe’s own biographical mythology and his manipulation of photographic negatives. As art historian David Joselit writes, “The theoretical significance of Morrisroe’s efforts to ‘write a new life’ lies in his recognition that the compulsive and repeated effort to invent and re-invent oneself is fundamentally a form of ‘lying’ – or fictionalization – and that ‘truth’ is made up of a succession of lies. As an artist, Morrisroe located this performance of self at the heart of the photographic process. His complex manipulations of the photo negative – a preoccupation which persisted and developed throughout his career – allowed him a means of transposing truth into lies, and lies into truth, or, of ‘writing a new photograph.”
Although I do agree with Joselit’s observations and think his insights are important to understanding Morrisroe’s work, I think his critique could be extended to seeing Morrisroe’s art as performing not only an individual identity but constructing an entire queer world.
First defined by queer theorists Lauren Berlant and Michael Warner, queer world-making has certainly been heavily discussed in the realm of queer theory, particularly by Jose Estaban Munoz in both his books Disidentifications and Cruising Utopia. While I don’t want to analyze Morrisroe’s work in terms of Munoz’s definition of queer utopia, one that is “not yet here,” I do feel that turning toward Berlant and Warner’s idea of queer world-making illuminates the power and importance of Morrisroe’s photography.
In their 1993 essay “Sex In Public,” Berlant and Warner discuss queer world-making as a defining of a world separate from heteronormativity. According to Berlant and Warner, a queer world is “not just a safe zone for queer sex but the changed possibilities of identity, intelligibility, publics, culture and sex that appear when the heterosexual couple is no longer the referent or the privileged example of sexual culture” (355).
For Berlant and Warner, a queer world can develop through many different venues. As they reveal, “Every cultural form, be it a novel or an after-hours club or an academic lecture, indexes a virtual social world, in ways that range from a repertoire of styles and speech genres to referential meta-culture” (362).
Like Berlant and Warner’s suggestion of mediums from a novel to a club to a lecture, photography, particularly Morrisroe’s version of photography, maps a similar virtual social world, one which is filled with queer subjects participating in the construction of this ideal world.
In Morrisroe’s photographs, heteronormative society is nowhere to be found. Focusing on photographs such as “I Dream of Jeanne (Steven Tashjian’s Head),” Morrisroe’s wistful photograph of a sleeping Tabboo! (which is also interestingly similar to David Wojnarowicz’s portraits of a sleeping Peter Hujar), along with his scrawled titles and margin writings, depict a type of intimate queer family portrait, building a sense of kinship beyond the boundaries of heteronormative society or structures. Like memories from a self-created queer world, Morrisroe’s photographs throughout Hello From Bertha map out the participants and the relationships in this queer community.
Further defining a queer world, Berlant and Warner observe, “The queer world is a space of entrances, exits, unsystemized lines of acquaintance, projected horizons, typifying examples, alternate routes, blockages, incommensurate geographies” (362).
Similarly, Morrisroe’s photos cannot be strictly defined or even understood, merging fantasy and reality into slightly surreal, Man Ray-esque dream-like visions. For example, taking Morrisroe’s now iconic chromogenic print “negative sandwiches” such as “Double Male Nude In The Grass (Negative),” Morrisroe’s unique technique reflects a similar “unsystemized lines of acquaintance,” by mixing and overlapping bodies. Blurring the boundaries between self and the other, reality and fiction, Morrisroe’s photographs explode strictly structured binaries, existing as a record of a queer world.
In “Sex In Public,” Berlant and Warner continue, “Queer and other insurgents have long striven, often dangerously or scandalously, to cultivate what good folks used to call criminal intimacies. We have developed relations and narratives that are only recognized as intimate in queer culture: girlfriends, gal pals, fuck buddies, tricks. Queer culture has learned not only how to sexualize these and other relations, but also to use them as a context for witnessing intense and personal affect while elaborating a public world of belonging and transformation. Making a queer world has required the development of kinds of intimacy that bear no necessary relation to domestic space, to kinship, to the couple form, to property, or to the nation” (362).
A mix of sexualities, genders, bodies and relationships, Morrisroe’s photographs in Hello From Bertha document a queer world beyond the heteronormative structures of the domestic, the couple or even, the nation. Presenting queer intimacy and kinship created amongst a group of friends, former lovers and artists, Morrisroe, rather than solely documenting the ability to perform identities, captures the construction of a queer world through photography and yes, even film with his “Hello From Bertha.”
As his friend and photographer Nan Goldin asserts, “Mark was an outlaw on every front–sexually, socially and artistically.” And he was certainly that, constructing his very own alarming and joyous queer world.
Boy, wouldn’t Tennessee have been proud!