- Discovering Stephen Varble
Upon entering RUBBISH AND DREAMS: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varbleat the Leslie-Lohman Museum of LGBTQ+ art and history, patrons walk through a bubblegum-pink fabric canopy entitled "Homage to Stephen Varble's Enormous Pink Satin Skirt" by Diego Montoya. Like Alice following the white rabbit, we enter unknowingly into a (gender)queer Wonderland of sorts. Just inside the gallery is a silky pink mannequin sporting an orange life vest and a skirt of large costume pearls, punctuated by enlarged pearly genital fabrications. A metal cheese grater is perched atop the mannequin's head as an ornate hairpiece, while more plastic pearls cascade down and curl around her would-be ears like tendrils of hair in glamorous absurdity. Later we discover that the original life vest (this display is a re-creation) was stolen from the Staten Island Ferry.
The introductory statement by curator David Getsy (School of the Art Institute of Chicago) orients viewers to Varble's performance of "gender as an open question in both his life and his work"; his evolution from Fluxus co-conspirator to outrageous art-world provocateur to reclusive spiritualist and filmmaker; and his drag persona Marie Debris. 1Young queer performance historians of the late twentieth century must necessarily become accustomed to receiving belated introductions to would-have-been elders who lost their lives to AIDS. In this sense, it is unsurprising that, for many, Rubbish and Dreamswas their first encounter with Varble's work. Despite a recent resurgence of interest in the early AIDS crisis years, detailed historiographic accounts of the artistic proliferation from this period have been decidedly lacking. This period includes such queer luminaries as Reza Abdoh, whose work received a retrospective exhibition at MoMA in 2018; John Bernd, whose choreographic oeuvre became the raw material for a Bessie Award-winning [End Page 17]new work by Miguel Gutierrez and Ishmael Houston-Jones as part of the Danspace Platform 2016: Lost and Found; and Ethyl Eichelberger, whose work was included in the 2015 Visual AIDS exhibit Party Out Of Bounds: Nightlife As Activism Since 1980at La Mama Galleria. The exhibition of these artists' works is a powerful way to fill the historic void left by AIDS and introduce young artists and scholars to their creative legacies. As Rubbish and Dreamsdemonstrates, Stephen Varble is another important name to add to this list.
A line drawing of a naked male body with hoop earrings and a small crown inside a larger line drawing of a chiseled face with curvaceous lips adorns the wall beside the curator's statement. A vertical acrostic poem extends from the smaller figure's bicep: "GOWNS MEAN NOTHING TO A LONELY GUY." The curlicue adorning the final letter "Y," however earnest the intention behind this poem—which seemed to imply Varble's own disavowal of and simultaneous secret wish for "real" gowns—the accessorized "y" belies a deeper truth: adornment matters, frivolity matters, and queer aesthetics matter. The vertical words align horizontally twice, making "SNNT" and "OOA." What seem to be nonsense words at first become apparent as textual representations of the coos and grunts that Varble was accustomed to include in his otherwise silent street performances.
A series of images of Varble in various costumes are projected on the wall adjacent to the large line drawing. Taken by photographer Greg Day in 1975, these images capture Varble's luscious movements and feminine embodiments while he vamps for the camera. Each costume enables his Marie Debris persona to take on a unique character: hippie innocence in a typewriter ribbon dress and flower crown; haughty, yet delicate reserve in a regal egg carton and tulle gown; the seduction of a femme fatale armored by a sleek dress of V05 cigarette boxes; the bacchanalian abandon with which she tore apart an outfit of green cardboard strips in a luscious purple wig and sensible pumps. The costumes and Varble's hyperbolic gender performativity are captivating, and...