The Teachings of Vaginal Davis

Various Hags, 2012
64 paintings on cardboard, matchboxes, letterheads, envelopes; including makeup, glycerin, tempera, watercolor pencil, food coloring, mascara, nail polish.


Since the early 1980s, the genre- and gender-bending Vaginal Davis has been a queer performance artist, activist, front woman for art punk band The Afro Sisters, muse to Bruce LaBruce, writer for LA Weekly and Artforum, and lecturer at institutions like Princeton and Vassar. Earlier this month Davis opened “HAG—small, contemporary, haggard,” her first show of purely visual art at Participant Inc. in New York.

In the middle of the empty gallery, Davis constructed a chamber with a distorted perspectival system (called an Ames room). The illusion seems like a metaphor for Davis’s mutable personality, which can be overstated or demure, and her fixed stature—6’6″, without heels.

Two of the interior walls are covered by Lesbiana Domesticity Wallpaper (all works 2012)—hand silkscreened wallpapers featuring a single brunette woman’s head repeated like a Jacqueline Onassis in Andy Warhol’s silkscreens, but lo-fi and anonymous. Another wall is covered by Various Hags (2012). The piece is made up of dozens more small-scale paintings of women’s faces, painted on matchbooks, cardboard, envelopes and letterhead, with handwritten phrases such as “Corporations are not very attractive as people,” and “I am a woman trapped in the body of a woman inside a binder.” A fourth wall is occupied by life-size sculptures, Dirty Mariah and Timberlake—lumpy human figures made of baked bread with an archival coating of Paverpol.

A DIY ethic has been at the core of Davis’s work since she began making her famous ‘zines Fertile La Toyah Jackson, Shrimp and Yes, Ms. Davis, in the early 1980s. In fact, the show’s title references Hag Gallery, the space Davis hosted in her apartment in L.A. from 1982-89, and where she showed the work of people who did not consider themselves artists, or had not had traditional artistic training. With her simple but iconic images and crude materials, this show revisits the idea of the “self-taught” artist.

RYANN DONNELLY How long have you been working on this show?

VAGINAL DAVIS I’ve been working on this show for about two years. “HAG—small, contemporary, haggard” is based on the gallery I had in the 1980s in my apartment when I lived in Los Angeles. I had a rock ‘n’ roll apartment on the Sunset Strip-this place called La Villa Rosa. At the time I thought it was so unusual that I never had boyfriends or anything, and I thought, “I know! I’ll use my apartment as a gallery and have shows every six weeks! And at the openings I’ll meet a cute, gorgeous boy, and he’ll be my boyfriend.”

DONNELLY Did you meet someone?

DAVIS My plans always backfire. I didn’t get a boyfriend from having a gallery. Everybody else that came to the openings met their significant other—their boyfriend, their girlfriend, their husband, their wife, their gay lover, their lesbian lover—everyone hooked up except me. But that’s how it always happens with me. I’m the Dolly Levi!

DONNELLY Are you still working on performance or is this show a break from that world?

DAVIS Susanne Sachsse and I just did a piece called Communist Bigamist that we’ve been touring, that I think is going to show next year at The Kitchen in New York.

It’s based on Ruth Fischer, who was the head of the German Communist party in the 1920s. Susanne plays Ruth Fischer, and I play Angela Davis, my idol. It’s kind of an imagination of these two powerful women coming together. Its loosely based on this 1953 Hollywood film, The Bigamist, directed by Ida Lupino, who’s one of the few Golden Era female Hollywood directors.

DONNELLY When did you start painting?

DAVIS I’ve always been painting. Now that I’m getting older, I’m trying to segue away from performing. That’s why I’m so excited about having my first strictly visual art show. When I first started painting I used my mother’s Fashion Fair cosmetics, a cheap drugstore makeup line for black women. With my own work, if you just mix anything with glycerin, you get all sorts of color and texture. My paintings are kind of a feminine totem style. It’s all about female imagery, and female worship. And, it’s the first time I’ve done sculptures. They’re life-size and made out of bread.

DONNELLY I was going to ask you how it felt to be working outside of the ephemeral realm of performance art. It seems your objects might be just as ephemeral.

DAVIS Well, I’ve been painting and making art objects for a long time. In performance art, our art objects have to be sturdy. There were a lot of things I was re-using from the late 1970s up until I moved to Berlin in 2006. I got rid of a lot of things because I had to travel light. I had some early Afro Sisters costumes that Rick Owens designed. When he was doing pattern making for Michèle Lamy, he was also making costumes for me. This blazer I’m wearing is Rick Owens. It’s from one of his first collections that I modeled for back in 1993.

It’s so amazing to know someone before they’re known, and to see them get so successful. Its nice to have friends in high places, because I’m never gonna get into a high place!

DONNELLY I think you’re in a high place!

DAVIS I grew up so poor that it wasn’t until I went to college that I was introduced to the immaculate children of wealth. I used to be so jealous of people from that world. Why couldn’t I have tennis lessons and piano lessons and violin lessons, and learn how to swim? Then, I met the children of the upper echelons, and they became the people I was going to school with, or the people I met in the punk scene. A lot of them were the daughters and sons of movie stars, and they felt so alienated from their parents. I realized it’s not all it’s cracked up to be, coming from wealth and privilege.

But no one expects anything from me, because I come from nothing. So, anything I do is always like a surprise. So in a way, its much better coming from what I come from than being someone from privilege.

DONNELLY In an interview you gave Interview, you were asked what the best piece of advice you had ever received was, and you said “Know where your light is.” Do you have any advice for emerging performance artists?

DAVIS Don’t get into performance art. That is the best advice I could give them, because you’re not going to make any money, you’re going to be hungry, and why dare call yourself an artist when you’re really just going to be suffering all the time? Performance is getting a lot of attention from the museum world and the mainstream art world because it’s the last thing that hasn’t been co-opted. Not everyone is meant to be an artist, so I tell people to really think it through. You’re really heading down a slippery slope-a salacious, slippery slope of just torture, and abandonment, and frustration, and loneliness and hunger.

I get invited to colleges, and universities, and art schools to teach, and do little block seminars, and I adore my students, and I’m very giving to my students, because I’m never gonna have children of my own—not in this womb! So my students become my surrogate children. And you know, my breasts can feed dying nations—chocolate milk from my very tiny, but pert “breastages.” But, since I’m never gonna have children I think I get those motherly instincts out through teaching. And, I really have to stress to them that you have to really, really think about it, because you’re really putting yourself in harm’s way.