Worshipping at the Feet of Greer Lankton’s Sacred Stilettos, “JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS”

Greer Lankton, JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS, 1986, Acrylic paint, paper mache, metal and wood (photo by moi)

I fell into Greer Lankton’s exhibition DOLL PARTY at Company—or more precisely, I stumbled. I don’t mean I stumbled upon the show at random. I actually caught myself before I went tumbling off the bottom step of the steep staircase that led to the dim black-walled gallery space, stabilizing my unsteady legs before my joints buckled entirely. At the time, I considered myself lucky, but my body was trying to tell me something beyond that I should have heeded the sign above the staircase, reading, “Watch your step.”

I should have permitted myself to fall to my knees. All the better to genuflect towards the sacred object I discovered in this silent, reverent basement: Lankton’s holy heels, entitled JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS. These stigmata stilettos were such a vision from heaven, a rapturous message from paradise on high, that they made me want to speak in tongues, just like John Waters at Pasolini’s murder site.

Before I delve into my devoted fixation with these venerated pumps, I should note these cha-cha heels were not the primary focus of DOLL PARTY. The exhibition mostly consists of Lankton’s photographic practice. An off-shoot of her exquisitely constructed and delightfully uncanny sculptural dolls, Lankton captured dollhouse tableaus of her tributes to role models, contemporaries, and distorted, funhouse mirror reflections of herself. In one photograph, Lankton’s Candy Darling sits in an opulent living room, surrounded by images of her own Hollywood filth elders such as Judy Garland and Marilyn Monroe. In another, fashion maven Diana Vreeland elegantly smokes a cigarette, her head turned at an angle. And in yet another, Ethyl Eichelberger faces us head-on in close-up, looking as if the Bride of Frankenstein just staggered out of Pyramid, a brilliant creation.

Greer Lankton, CANDY DARLING at home, 1987, Digital C-print (photo by me)

Each of Lankton’s photographs is a world unto itself, often containing an acrobatic delicacy and awkward grace. This is not to say all are so glamorous, horrific violence exists in Lankton’s doll world too, as seen in a collection of photographs relegated to one corner of the gallery that alarmingly shatters the fantasy of the aforementioned photographs. Here, images like BURNT BETTY and RED WOMB portray bodies, flayed and charred, like gruesome crime scene photographs.

Yet, these photographs all paled in comparison to the consecrated sculpture, JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS. Featuring a similar twisted handmade quality to Lankton’s dolls, these strappy heels are made with paper mache and rammed straight through their silver soles with a pair of nails so enormous Jesus may want to consider a tetanus shot. Splattered with blood-red paint around the nail, the shoes are also affixed with two golden crosses on the heel. Only the best for the King of Kings! And thank God. Let’s face it, Jesus does need some better footwear. Those brown sandals? So boring! So utilitarian! So tragic! Not at all appropriate for those ornate gilded early Christian paintings!

Greer Lankton, JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS, 1986, Acrylic paint, paper mache, metal and wood (photo by moi)

When briefly glancing at the installation photographs on the gallery’s website, I didn’t catch the shoes’ morbid punchline—the nails. Still, they reminded me of Genesis Breyer P-Orridge’s series of “shoe horns,” which were displayed en masse in the back gallery of Marlborough in 2019. Then, I was transfixed by the towering heels anointed with strange alchemical amalgamations, including more, uh, organic materials like a dead fruit bat. Looking at the Lankton install shots, I wasn’t aware of how apt this immediate association was. Though Breyer P-Orridge’s shoe horns are more shamanistic than Christian relics, they are both, on some level, ritualistic devotional objects.

Viewing Lankton’s JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS in person sparked yet another reflection on one of my favorite spiritually demented movies, 2019’s Saint Maud. In Rose Glass’s debut film, the reserved Maud (played remarkably empathetically by Morfydd Clark) is a home nurse that spirals into religious fervor, sparked by painfully palpable isolation. Diving deeper and deeper into unhinged religiosity, Maud, in one memorable scene, places a small bed of nails into her worn Converse sneakers and proceeds to wander around in public, like one of the more deranged saints such as Christina the Astonishing who would fling herself into furnaces and frozen rivers. Though I certainly don’t think this was Saint Maud’s intent, to me at least, this scene was high Catholic camp at its finest. Similarly, Lankton’s JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS are the campiest footwear I’ve seen since Lil Nas X’s Satan shoes.

Maud makes her bed of nails in Saint Maud (2019)

With JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS, Lankton turns Jesus into a drag queen. Quite literally. Near the pedestal displaying JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS hangs a small wire sculpture of DRAG QUEEN JESUS who is mostly nude, with exception of thigh-high stockings, shoulder-length gloves, and strikingly similar red pumps. Jesus is “all dressed up and ready to fall in love,” as Eartha Kitt purrs in her collaboration with Bronski Beat, “Cha Cha Heels.” Kitt’s “Cha Cha Heels” was originally supposed to be gutturally growled by Divine, whose festive Christmas meltdown as Dawn Davenport in John Waters’s Female Trouble popularized aggressive holiday demands for “cha-cha heels.” And because a Polaroid of Lankton’s Divine doll (one of a few) sits within the DOLL PARTY exhibition, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume Lankton’s “cha-cha heels” title was chosen in reference to this scene.

But, that’s not the only iconic gay culture symbolism contained within these shoes. With their red color, JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS are also reminiscent of Dorothy Gale’s ruby red slippers in The Wizard of Oz (as is an untitled William Eggleston photograph currently on view in The Outlands at David Zwirner that I’m also obsessed with, portraying a woman’s leg in a red kitten heel stepping from a station wagon onto a farm. Has Dorothy come home?). Perhaps Lankton is framing Jesus as the original Dorothy. Wasn’t his ascent into the Kingdom of Heaven similar to Dorothy’s emergence into Technicolor Oz?

Greer Lankton, DRAG QUEEN JESUS, 1983, Acrylic paint, canvas, wire and mohair (photo by moi)

JESUS’S CHA-CHA HEELS do more than “queer” Christ, which isn’t all that big of a leap considering he’s represented as quite femme in early Christian paintings, or drum up this flurry of camp associations alone. They allow me to consider Lankton’s work in a different light: a religious one. It’s not as if it’s not there. Lankton’s father was a Presbyterian minister (in fact, the church’s health insurance itself paid for Greer’s gender affirmation surgery). Beyond her personal life, her magnum opus, the installation It’s All About ME, not you at Pittsburgh’s Mattress Factory, includes a shrine of prayer cards, crucifixes, rosaries, and images of the Virgin Mary and Christ. This Christian iconography is placed alongside other prayerful alters to Greer’s role models like Candy Darling and Patti Smith, all equal forms of idol worship.

And this is refreshing. Due to our culture’s current monomaniacal gender fixation, there can be a drive to read Lankton’s output exclusively through that lens. I’m certainly guilty of it. Even Company’s press release begins with a quote from Lankton specifically referencing her gender affirmation surgery (“I got my sex change 16 years ago at 21 years old…”). Is this really the first thing viewers need to know for context about Greer’s artwork? I’m certainly aware Lankton’s physicality was integral to her art—not only her gender, but her struggles with an eating disorder and drug addiction, but placing that quote at the forefront of viewers’ minds just seems to participate in the ongoing obsession and fetishization of trans bodies and, in particular, surgeries.

Greer Lankton, JESUS/MARY, 1989, Polaroid (Courtesy of the Greer Lankton Archives Museum (G.L.A.M.) and Company Gallery, NY)

Considering the religious element in Lankton’s work doesn’t supplant the importance of gender. Nor should it. Instead, I find it deepens the analysis beyond superficial identity politics clickbait (i.e. “This Trans Artist…”). Take, for instance, the series of photographs JESUS/MARY, which depicts Lankton’s bust of a heavily made-up androgynous figure in a crown of thorns. At once both Jesus and Mary—and with a wink and a nod to the historically gay use of “Mary,” Mary, this bust, as well as the photographs, are tributes to the act of self-creation, which is related to here as a holy act. To crib a line from everyone’s favorite 2022 film Andrew Dominik’s Blonde, it’s as if JESUS/MARY gave birth to his/herself.

Much like Greer herself, in a way.

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