Art / Fashion

To Be Gorgeous: A Conversation on Thierry Mugler and Jimmy DeSana at the Brooklyn Museum

Installation view, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime. Brooklyn Museum, November 18, 2022–May 7, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez, Brooklyn Museum)

“To be Gorgeous, strictly speaking, is something in itself. To be Gorgeous therefore is admirable, to be Absolutely Gorgeous most desired.” So begins an essay in one of the many zines in the Brooklyn Museum’s Jimmy DeSana: Submission exhibition, which is joined by the museum’s concurrent Thierry Mugler: Couturissime show in advocating for skin-deep/skin-tight beauty. Because we too desire to be Absolutely Gorgeous, Emily Colucci and Jessica Caroline had a chat about both exhibitions after several trips to the Brooklyn Museum:

Emily Colucci: I am not fashionable by any stretch of the imagination. I pretty much wear the same thing every day: T-shirts, hoodies, woefully millennial skinny jeans that I refuse to give up. This is all a warning to say I am not the person to judge what is good or bad in high-end fashion. I am no André Leon Talley! (I bring his name up because I recently scrolled through and coveted his estate sale on Christie’s. The Warhols! The gold brocade caftans! The capes!). Talley’s delightfully catty voice is desperately missed in today’s fashion world, which seems like a dreadful bore. Case in point: the Schiaparelli Spring 2023 Couture show at Paris Fashion Week, which everyone on social media seemed to be talking about, at least for a day. This viral spree was mostly due to Doja Cat’s devilish red Swarovski crystal-flecked body, looking like a public warning about measles! The show itself featured models draped with the artificial heads of apex predators like lions and snow leopards apparently in reference to Dante’s Inferno. While the craftwork on the heads was pretty stunning, the entire show just seemed like a desperate headline-seeking stunt, further proven by the fact that Kylie Jenner was sitting in the front row wearing the same beheaded Aslan from the runway! Spoiler! 

All of which made me reflect on just how inventive, glamorous, and above all, FUN Thierry Mugler’s designs were as seen in Thierry Mugler: Couturissime. It’s not as if Mugler avoided sartorial stunts, even animal-related ones like my favorite collection, Les Insectes. But, he always managed to find elegance even in extremity. Hell, somehow a small cap with antennae and exaggerated bug sunglasses seem aspirational! From the glamazon jackets to his play with fetish gear materials to those dramatic wide-brimmed hats, Couturissime made me appreciate Mugler’s immediately recognizable vision even more than I did before. Unsurprisingly, the part of Couturissime that I found the most inspiring was how Mugler was unafraid to bring low-class trash into couture: motorcycle handlebar bustiers, holsters for Budweiser cans, cowboy hats, Cadillac Eldorado fins, showgirl costumes. Mugler could reference high art like Metropolis, while also designing outfits that look like they should be worn by a hooker in 1980s Times Square like the gold metal “Dollars” onesie consisting of coins emblazoned with dollar signs.

Installation view, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime. Brooklyn Museum, November 18, 2022–May 7, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez, Brooklyn Museum)

JC: I’m also relatively out of touch on the fashion front. Doja Cat seemed to be dissing Kylie Jenner on the carpet, though her expression through all those red crystals was hard to decipher. Maybe she was just in a bad mood cos she seemed uncomfortable and freshly roasted. Did Doja inadvertently swallow a crystal or two as the evening wore on? Did Kylie have to explain the lion head was fake taxidermy all night long? I’m more curious about how much André Leon Talley’s Norma Kamali Brick Red Sleeping Bag Coat went down for (the starting bid of USD 500 – USD 800 seems woefully low, no? I’m an idiot when it comes to estate auctions but maybe secondary market luxury items go cheaper these days to offset how much eggs cost…). 

Honestly, I had forgotten that Mugler even died, the information was somehow buried among all the other high-profile partings (dear Brooklyn Museum, if you care to read up to this point, I’m hankering for a Vivienne Westwood retrospective!). I do remember Virgil Abloh passing away as he was alarmingly young and I had recently done some research on Off-White where I had watched his lectures on design. He was back on my mind when Kanye/Ye shared his texts about being jealous of Abloh with Supreme’s Tremaine Emory: “I felt betrayed by and lied to by Virgil. I felt he gave Drake the green diamond watch just to fuck with me.” Boo-hoo Ye! I caught the last week of Abloh’s Brooklyn Museum exhibit Figures of Speech and the installation adhered to more of an open-plan commercial workspace. This gave it a behind-the-scenes production line feel, which is true to Abloh’s meta “3% approach.” Mugler’s lavish displays, of course, disguise any garish element of “labor” – it all appears outlandishly fantastical. Couturissime is wilfully decadent and I suppose if this comes to represent the peak of civilization as well as the peak of fashion, then so be it…

EC: I’ll admit I shirked my critical duties and bypassed Abloh’s show both times I visited the Brooklyn Museum. I’m still salty about the inclusion of Off-White’s “Little Black Dress” with that line emblazoned down the side in the Met’s 2019 Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibition. Unfairly, probably since it’s not as if Abloh did the curating. But it’s not camp!!! If anything, it’s kind of 90s-style irony. Regardless, I have been thinking of Abloh quite a bit because of Ye’s Instagram flurry just before he went full Naz-Ye. 

Speaking of, Couturissime, like many big blockbuster fashion shows, places a lot of emphasis on celebrity. Labels contain references to notable people who wore these gowns like Cardi B or the aforementioned Kylie Jenner. Walls are plastered with photographs of divas like my favorite terror Faye Dunaway, Lady Gaga, Madonna, and Cher. While I do love a good Herb Ritts photograph of Cher, I don’t particularly give a shit about celebrities. The one exception, though, is David Bowie whose wet-look gown from “Boys Keep Swinging” is on view with a hem that’s begging to be kissed, along with a snatched wig grasped in the mannequin’s hand. “Boys Keep Swinging” has always been one of my top Bowie videos, particularly how Bowie, the pinnacle of androgyny, makes a completely wretched-looking woman!

Beyond Bowie, I was more excited to see some lesser-known, New York folks get their nod too, which paired quite nicely with the subterranean subculture celebrated by Jimmy DeSana in his exhibition downstairs at the museum. Joey Arias makes a few appearances, his face preserved in a startlingly realistic mask (almost like a death mask) from a production of Zumanity. Joey also features, pale-faced and harried, in George Michael’s video “Too Funky,” which is given an entire dedicated corner. I’m excited to see George Michael getting more credit in museums! He’s also included in The Horror Show! at London’s Somerset House. In my mind, other than venturing out to Brooklyn to see this show, a quick watch of “Too Funky” on YouTube is probably the best way to experience Mugler’s over-the-top playful genius. Just pure joy!

Installation view, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime. Brooklyn Museum, November 18, 2022–May 7, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez, Brooklyn Museum)

JC: Loved that “Too Funky” room! I had to resist the urge to ask them to turn the music up. So joyful. I embrace the celebrity aspects, though it made me realize how stiff and vacuous someone like Kylie Jenner is as a muse when you compare her to the high-level charisma of Grace Jones, Cher, Naomi Campbell, Tyra Banks, Jerry Hall, Eva Herzigová, Kristen McMenamy, some model who goes by Nadja whose last name I probably can’t pronounce correctly, and, of course, Bowie alongside his beautiful collaborator-wife, Iman. They all seemed so animated and chameleon-like in Mugler’s garments. That said, Kim Kardashian seemed dazzling in Mugler’s ode to Wonder Woman in a golden breastplate gown and corset dress. There are a lot of similar armory corsets on display, often with erect nipple detail, which I appreciate.

EC: Plus, it looked as if Kylie Jenner stretched out the bust of the asymmetrical organza dress from Mugler’s Les Méduse collection, which she wore at the CFDA Fashion Awards! Those Kardashian/Jenners just destroy fashion with their exaggerated bodies, don’t they? To give Kim some credit, though, I did love the wet-looking beaded latex gown Mugler came out of retirement and designed specifically for her that she wore to the 2019 Camp Met Gala. In fact, I believe I argued she was one of the only people there who understood the meaning of camp! But part of my adoration for Kim’s gown is simply because of Bowie’s wet-look dress, which I want to swipe for myself and practice his aggressive sneering runway walk in my bathroom mirror. I don’t know about you but my sticky fingers were tingling throughout this exhibition. So many fantastic—and expensive—items to steal! There’s no way to walk through that show without ruminating about how to case the joint! 

Thierry Mugler, Sac à main cercueil (photo by Jessica Caroline)

Other than Bowie’s dress, the object of my affection that I keep returning to fantasize about is relatively small and therefore, perfectly snatchable: the casket purse with the royal purple lining! Delightfully macabre! Though I am attached to my fairly new hot-pink The B-52’s Rock Lobster tote (which recently inspired a Guggenheim security guard to sing “Love Shack” at me and give me a fist bump), this would be perfect for when I only need to carry small items. I’d also like to palm the centipede brooch that was creepy-crawling over one of Mugler’s perfume bottles (a part of the exhibition I was less enthralled by). Icky! What would you steal? 

JC: Stunted as my sense of smell is from inhaling too much NYC air, the fragrances approximated similar scents, anything with bergamot and mandarin pleases me. The bottles and brooches were delightful and the Womanity perfume prototypes had the added benefit of creepiness with those protruding femme faces. Instead of department store-style fragrance sampling, they chose those scented humidifiers, so there was no rubbing of wrists. 

Out of the 96-page itemized list, I too was enamored with the “sac à main de cercueil” coffin clutch and would maybe fight you to the death on that one, though the torpedo-shaped clutch comes in at a close second, as do the ruby-embroidered pumps (hello Dorothy of Oz!) and matching long gloves. There was also a sequined hamburger–a blink-and-you-miss-it detail in the midst of all the other sparkly things. I would love a pair of his over-the-knee sock boots (paging anyone–my birthday is coming up next month!). I also sent pictures of the demure front and back of the “derrière décolleté” satin ensemble with pearl detail worn by model Violetta Sanchez to a friend as wedding dress inspiration–what an impression she could make going down the aisle on her in-laws! I would nick it for her if she would be so bold. The pink rubber wig once worn by Diana Ross would make Halloween dress-ups simple – go every year as a strawberry-flavored ice cream cone!

Thierry Mugler, Anniversaire des 20 ans collection Prêt-à-porter fall/winter 1995–1996; Crepe long sheath, velvet sleeve-gloves Satin skirt with “derrière décolleté,” 1995-1996 (photo by Emily Colucci)

EC: That assless dress! I think we’d be remiss if we didn’t at least mention both spotting an assless leotard worn by dancer Michael Clark a decade earlier than Mugler’s “derrière décolleté” in Charles Atlas’s current show at Luhring Augustine! Bum watch aside, I couldn’t smell shit from those perfume humidifiers, which, at first, I mistook for space heaters. I didn’t really know anything about his forays into scents and likewise, though I expected the exhibition to be about Mugler the designer, I was surprised by how prominent photography was in the show. While it’s always a treat to revel in Helmut Newton’s sensual imagery, I was particularly taken with Mugler’s own death-defying photographs with models laying on the very edge of the Chrysler Building as if dramatically contemplating suicide or, if I want to be cheerier, like beautiful gargoyles. But really, they remind me of shots taken pre-splatter like the “before” to Warhol’s Death and Disaster series “after”! Though the New York-based images tickle my ghoulish impulses, the photos I like better are even possibly more unpopular and “problematic” in today’s climate: the extremely Soviet ones, including photographs of models hanging out at the Monument to the Conquerors of Space. Don’t tell Zelenskyy! There’s something unsettling about Mugler’s photography—the models dwarfed by these intimidating and oppressive man-made landscapes.

JC: The Soviet stuff was fun–there’s an unrelenting sense of hyperbole and grandiosity in that room, and I like the way there’s a clear throughline being drawn between branding and propaganda. Nowadays stunts on skyscrapers like that would be CGI–props to the brave models willing to do such risky stunts! I was amused by David LaChapelle’s take on Damien Hirst’s shark in formaldehyde, with Christina Kruse in a glass-panel display case. His Faye Dunaway: Day of the Locust was also kinda dazzling. What woman doesn’t dream about dramatically reclining on the precipice of the Chrysler, or being trapped in a tank like Daryl Hannah from Splash, or languishing across a car while swarmed by a police squad and paparazzi? I also got a kick out of Jean-Paul Goude’s portrait of Mugler as an obscenely buff centaur with a horse trainer inconspicuously dressed in a black hoodie standing off to the side with a subtly benevolent expression. The painted photograph by Pierre et Gilles of porn star Jeff Stryker in golden tights and devil horns, surrounded by toy bunnies was also fun…

Jean-Paul Goude (born France). Thierry Mugler, Vogue Paris,1998. Courtesy and ©Jean-Paul Goude

EC: Those pink bunnies in that Pierre et Gilles photo were adorable! I want one! While I salivated over pink rabbits, clothes, and photos, Couturissime isn’t without its faults. There were some curious curatorial decisions like the looming male Zumanity bodysuit with an erection lurking in a corner behind all these fantastical bug ladies. If you see something, say something!

The biggest problem I had was immediate: the first room of the exhibition, which focuses on Mugler’s designs for the Comédie-Française’s 1985 production of The Tragedy of Macbeth. This room is dominated by a central 3-D installation of Lady Macbeth unraveling, created by artist Michel Lemieux for 4D. Now, I adore Lady Macbeth and her post-homicide guilt-driven dissolution into blood-drenched insanity, but this just seemed completely masturbatory. A 3-D installation for 3-D installation’s sake. Sure, the vast burning golden-caged costume out of which Lady M topples in her pajamas is a captivating sight, but it’s all flash, no substance. Really, it reminded me of the defunct technology wowing Midwestern audiences at Disney World’s The Haunted Mansion! I much preferred squinting in the dark at Mugler’s own sketches for the Macbeth costumes, especially his broad Tom of Finland men, an exaggerated body type he would later emulate with his own.  

A much better introduction would have been the multi-screen projections that conclude the exhibition, which are shoved off into a corner at the exit. So much so that they feel like an afterthought and not even worth watching. His runway shows were performances in and of themselves—not the kind of stomping, electronica-scored bores of most runway shows. I recently watched the Les Insectes collection show, which is on YouTube, and was thrilled by the highly choreographed, high camp of it all. Though this might be a more conventional curatorial decision, the show would have been better for it.

Installation view, Thierry Mugler: Couturissime. Brooklyn Museum, November 18, 2022–May 7, 2023. (Photo: Danny Perez, Brooklyn Museum)

JC: Agreed about the strange hologram Lady Macbeth presentation. That vibe was kind of off. It made you feel like you’re on the threshold of a spooky amusement park ride. The costume sketches were intricate if you could withstand the dimmer lighting. I found myself down a YouTube hole also, first watching the Thierry Mugler Haute Couture Fall/Winter 1995 show, which debuted several iconic frocks including the Venus dress recently worn by Cardi B. It was an eclectic extravaganza of Marilyn types and Park Avenue psychos and cigar-smoking air hostesses and Ibiza nightclub fanfare. Jerry Hall was a knockout in the chunkiest fur cloak I’ve ever seen–all those poor minks–or whatever creatures they were that had to die for that! The “save the children” YouTube ads that came on intermittently kind of broke the festive mood. Then James Brown comes on stage toward the end, badly syncing “Sex Machine.” Sigh–the 90s! And Mugler himself comes out in a Wings of Steel Miami T-shirt, looking incredibly buff and handsome (pre-facial reconstructions). 

I don’t think this exhibition was overkill, though it could have been nice to have a few more iconic gowns on view, such as the one Demi Moore wore in Indecent Proposal. To get real nitpicky about it, the wall labels could have gone without certain quotations, such as the Oprah quote situated beside a LaChapelle photograph: “You have to find what sparks a light in you so that you in your own way can illuminate the world.” There must have been some connection for it to be there but cynical me doesn’t buy the language of empowerment and Mugler’s own insistence about making people “look stronger than they really are.” To me, it’s about tour de force creativity, unattainable desire, and impossibly dazzling fantasies (and heights) far beyond our reach! 

EC: I agree with you, the exhibition wasn’t overkill and certainly, Mugler provides more than a few excuses to go overboard curatorially. Now…downstairs is a different story with Jimmy DeSana: Submission, a show that I had to see twice because all I could do the first time was seethe with loathing about one major curatorial decision: the display of his black-and-white Submission series from 1977-1978, a photographic series that defies description to some extent. Think men in gimp masks crouched in toilets, dogs growling and baring their teeth near semi-erect penises, eggs in buttholes, enemas, mummification, all happening in fairly mundane interior environments. One of my favorite tidbits about the Submission series is William S. Burroughs’s description of the work as very Catholic. Indeed.

What was more punishing, however, was curator Drew Sawyer and the Brooklyn Museum’s bright—literally—idea to showcase the series in a room flooded with blinding, searing, piercing red light. This was not a soft red, but a red that caused actual physical pain! I could barely stand to be in the room long enough to look at the work! Upon second viewing, I did locate the wall label, which I could barely compute in the red light, that explained the intent behind this installation: the first showing of this series was in an exhibition, File 13, curated by Sur Rodney (Sur) who intended the light to recall “a safelight in a darkroom.” Apparently, this installation was an “homage to Sur’s groundbreaking work as a curator and arts worker.”

Installation view of Jimmy DeSana: Submission, Brooklyn Museum, 2022-3 (Photo: Danny Perez)

I have a few questions: Was Sur’s lighting THIS fucking overwhelming? And at what point do you have to consider the work itself? And the viewer? On some level, I do admire the misanthropy in inflicting this on the museum-going public, along with the green tinge the rest of the show had after stepping into this room. But, this was too much even for me, who has made some sadistic curatorial choices myself. Not many people know about DeSana’s work or have seen the Submission series together as this is his first museum retrospective. I can imagine a curator thinking this was a bold decision—a cutting-edge and challenging way to showcase the work. Really it does the opposite. It puts up a wall of ocular pain between the viewer and the work. In fact, it made me wonder if they were too worried about viewers’ reactions to having to face those photos bare!

JC: The Sur homage red could have been toned down a notch so it wasn’t as severe. Like you, I went twice also and both times walked out of the room seeing a strange greenish haze. That said, I was somewhat tickled by the “hello porno room” vibes. The lighting had a kind of equalizing effect between the hardcore stuff—the oversized strap-on dick doubling w/ real dick pics—and the tamer images in the sequence, such as the figure in a gimp mask with ankles and wrists tied to a balcony railing overlooking a river and the refrigerator with a woman folding herself inside. The nearby Dungeon series DeSana made in collaboration with artist-dominatrix-writer-muse Terence Sellers repeats similar themes of submissives concealed in gimp masks assuming compromised positions. One picture tries a bit harder to be whimsically “arty” by having a submissive crawling along the shore of a beach. There’s a video excerpt of Sylvère Lotringer interviewing Sellers about being a “healthy little pervert.” They cover a lot in just 14 minutes, and I love that she’s wearing a wide-brimmed hat and eating a cookie while answering his probing questions about perversion and neurosis. She responds to him matter-of-factly about how sadomasochism is a manifestation of religious and mystical longing, and why it’s more difficult to be submissive than to be sadistic. I’m curious as to what she and DeSana had a falling out over. In any case, our discomfort is fairly minor to the discomforts and pleasures of the subjects within Mistress Angel Stern’s dungeon…  

Jimmy DeSana (American, 1949–1990). Untitled, from the series The Dungeon, 1978. Gelatin silver print, 6 1/2 × 9 5/8 in. (16.5 × 24.4 cm). Courtesy of the Jimmy DeSana Trust and P·P·O·W Gallery, New York. © Estate of Jimmy DeSana. (Photo: Allen Phillips)

EC: Or the discomfort of having to curate a Jimmy DeSana exhibition! I really do want to cut Sawyer some slack because I understand it’s not easy to curate a Jimmy DeSana show (or juggle the numerous voices and conflicting pressures that come from dealing with that Downtown NYC scene), particularly for a wider public since most of his photography looks as if it was taken by a more balanced Jeffrey Dahmer! We’re not exactly talking about a people-pleasing exhibition here with some of his most famous works being of autoerotic asphyxiation, stilettos stuffed into pantyhose, and people with their heads shoved into toilets. Really, it’s impressive that this show was able to exist at all.  

Because I was already familiar with DeSana’s work, having written about it for one of the first articles EVER on Filthy Dreams (and one of my favorite titles), Plumbing the Debased Bottom, and interning on the Grey Art Gallery’s Downtown Pix exhibition while in grad school (which featured the Submission series), what I appreciated the most was work that I didn’t know at all. Primarily his early experiments with photography while still in Atlanta and his later series, post-Suburban, both of which I knew nothing about. I’m particularly obsessed with his trio of Untitled photographs shot from outside suburban homes. Though they are, on the surface, fairly conventional photos, there’s something quite ominous here like they’re being sent to you by your stalker! Or something dropped onto Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette’s front porch in Lost Highway! They also remind me of John Baldessari’s 1967 artwork Wrong, which heavily influenced Dennis Cooper as a teen. Speaking of the equally depraved! I was also extremely curious about DeSana’s unpublished Salvation book project, which was stowed away loose-leaf in a vitrine in the final room of the exhibition. This included a beguiling image of two men infinitely rotating around with flowers. I’d love to see the rest of it.

JC: On second viewing, I found myself more amused by the black and white high-contrast portrait he took of his mother wearing a high-neck Victorian blouse looking like a sinister character from a B-movie horror, bathed as she was in lurid shadows. It’s far from flattering, but not many of his portraits are tender–he’s too brash for that. I enjoyed the portraits of Jack Smith with the vase on his head, Kenneth Anger with “LUCIFER” tattooed across his chest, Yoko Ono with a kind of outtake expression with her eyes shut–adorned by her witchy mane of hair, a doe-eyed uncharacteristically shy Kathy Acker, and Stephen Varble doing his “gutter art” – the latter particularly striking given his ability to attract a crowd of semi-entertained onlookers. There was a sassy one of Laurie Simmons (executor of his estate) as well. It’s impossible not to be moved by his self-portraits, including the one after he had his spleen removed. I was drawn to his sense of play–the silver dye bleach prints are chintzy and don’t always work, though one of them that does work graces the cover of Nate Lippens’s My Dead Book. 

Jimmy DeSana (American, 1949–1990). Aluminum Foil #1 (SelfPortrait), 1985. Silver dye bleach print, 13 1/2 × 10 1/2 in. (34.3 × 26.7 cm). Courtesy of the Jimmy DeSana Trust and P·P·O·W Gallery, New York. © Estate of Jimmy DeSana. (Photo: Allen Phillips)

There’s something unrefined about DeSana’s work compared to Mapplethorpe who was more stylistically precise. They must have been aware of each other; their work would feature together in issues of BOMB magazine and such. Of course, back then Mapplethorpe was a lot more famous and upwardly mobile, whereas DeSana seemed more invested in the punk scene. Overall, I appreciate DeSana’s spirit more than his images, many of which strike me as conceptually same-samey. The pictures are cheeky at times though not particularly humorous, so I was as perplexed as you when overhearing someone loudly chuckling at a photograph. To me, there’s too much death-drive going on in the work to laugh. Maybe it’s also because after witnessing Mugler’s flamboyance, finesse, and whimsy, a show like DeSana’s feels like a grim comedown by contrast. I don’t quite know what to make of the “acrobatic” works–contorted nude figures in backbends and pseudo-tantric/yogic poses that sometimes appear as levitation or a magic trick–and then the constant recourse to the stiletto motif–they’re somehow cooler in theory than in practice? The marker cone body as landscape is one of a kind, nobody else thought of that, but beyond this, I feel that had DeSana survived beyond those years of experimentation, he might have been making his best work by now. Of course, that’s total speculation and not entirely fair…

EC: I meant to mention that visitor laughing before, after which we both turned to each other in confusion. She was guffawing at Pink Furniture, which, if I remember correctly, had a blow-up doll hanging in the corner of the room. I do tend to always chuckle at Dog in the Submission series only because it looks like that furious wee puppy is going to bite the shit out of an erection. With his angry little growling face turned towards the camera, it is the perfect shot. Grrr…But I snicker at it more than a full-throated laugh. Full-throated laughing at DeSana feels like you should be put on some sort of watch list. 

I agree with what you’re saying about DeSana’s work being still experimental and somewhat unresolved. A lot of work from that Downtown/East Village scene, though I have a special place in my heart for it in all of its flaws, doesn’t quite translate or age well and so much of that is because many of these artists all died so young. That being said, I like DeSana’s work much more than Mapplethorpe’s. Even Mapplethorpe’s self-portrait with a whip in his ass feels so precisely posed. In contrast, DeSana’s work just looks like it smells like ball sweat and assholes (this is a compliment). At least DeSana’s subcultural society pics of figures like Debbie Harry, The Talking Heads, Laurie Anderson, and William S. Burroughs lighten the mood, as do some of the vitrines of zines that don’t include hanging! 

Jimmy DeSana (American, 1949–1990). William S. Burroughs, 1981. Chromogenic print, 20 × 13 1/2 in. (50.8 × 34.3 cm). Courtesy of the Jimmy DeSana Trust and P·P·O·W Gallery, New York. © Estate of Jimmy DeSana. (Photo: Courtesy of the Jimmy DeSana Trust and P·P·O·W Gallery, New York)

JC: I’m with you on the preferences, DeSana’s work is more visceral, more lo-fi, and more voyeuristic. As for the vitrines near the entrance, I would have liked to be able to flick through those FILE magazine issues and its debauched cousin VILE. From what I could surmise they were full of petty art world gossip and who doesn’t live for that? One layout of the magazine detailed General Idea artist Felix Partz’s complaints about being cut from a Diego Cortez film in which Jimmy DeSana stars. Cortez, Sellers, and Lotringer all passed away fairly recently, so it was nice to see their presences being honored there too. I agree with your assessment in your previous essay and here too, the Burroughs sentiment that the work is inescapably Catholic. Some of the more literal works of sacrilege like Pizza Crust, with a living Madonna in ecstatic union with her plastic doll Jesus, I don’t think were on view, which is fine since my favorite is Eve covered in leaves (covering everything but the private parts) standing precariously in stilettos over a bathtub wearing a collar with a leash attached to a railing. As with Mugler, the soundtrack provided of the Downtown scene could have been louder, though I guess they have to go easy on the guards who have to stand around in that sonic soup all day long. Once I got home I started playing James Chance & The Contortions up a few more decibels. 

EC: Isn’t that always the case with vitrines of archival material? I’m always dying to rummage through and read them–or cook up a project for an excuse to go rifle through them in various archives! One of my favorite pieces in those vitrines was DeSana’s early mail art experiments, including the John Dowd Fanny Club. Who doesn’t want to be a part of a fan club for a nice bum! I was most curious about the mysterious loose-leaf periodical No: Instant Artifact of the New Order by Jim Sclavunos, of storied No Wave bands like Teenage Jesus and the Jerks and 8 Eyed Spy, and more recently, longtime member of Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds (I can always find a way to bring it back to Nick!). The label said it included surgical tubing. What the hell IS that?! 

What is IN here, JIM?! And why does nobody know Jim’s birthday? (photo by Emily Colucci)

I’ll second your point that it was lovely to see figures like Diego Cortez get some space within this show. I did wonder how accessible some of the portraits might be to visitors who have no idea who the hell Kathy Acker is, for example. Sometimes those of us who are particularly obsessed with that era can overlook that there’s going to be a not insignificant amount of people who are going to visit the museum who don’t have a clue who Richard Hell is. Let alone someone like the Mudd Club’s Anya Phillips who I spotted in quite a few of the zines. This is certainly not unique to the Brooklyn Museum, but it’s something I think about a lot with exhibitions of this sort: How to bring people into the fold who aren’t as clued into the Who’s Who of Downtown as we might be.

JC: Ahem, I must admit I didn’t know who Anya Phillips was, though I’d heard of the Mudd Club obviously, and had seen her picture around and thought: Oh she’s hot, who’s that? So it was an education in some ways for me too. I wasn’t born and raised in NYC so can that be my excuse? I concur about the “semi-fictitious” fan clubs and the queer mail art networks. Not that we necessarily need to play hide and seek so much anymore, but why not bring a tried and true tradition back in style?

EC: Actually, artist Aaron Krach sends me mail art every so often, which reminds me I desperately need to respond! 

JC: Ooooh you should. And how does one get on this elite mail list (DM me…).

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