Punk Porn Muse

Model-artist Barbara Ann Crumm bares body, soul in exhibit

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA—Barbara Ann Crumm signs her e-mails with the tagline "muse professionnelle." (That's French for "professional muse.") "I do consider myself a muse," she says. "I think I bring out ideas in people. I think that's my talent. When I work with a photographer, we pop out ideas from one another. The work between photographer and model is fascinating to me, it's blending each other's artistic sensibilities together to create the photo." For emphasis, levity, or both, she adds matter-of-factly, "My birth date in Roman mythology falls on the day of the nine Muses, so if you want to get mythological about it, I am a muse."

Sporting freshly dyed hot-pink hair, a retro-inspired leopard print dress, and gold metallic pumps ("You can't go wrong with shoes from Frederick's of Hollywood"), Barbara Ann may bear little resemblance to the nine Muses in Greco-Roman mythology. The original Muses, often depicted dancing or singing with flowers in their hair, were romantic and by many accounts, virginal. They were said to have entertained and inspired the gods, especially in music, poetry, the arts, and science. But they are also credited with the invention of letters and language, a pretty hefty contribution to art that is not always emphasized as much as their ability to arouse creativity. Romanticism lingers in the archetype of the muse today, who is thought of as a person who inspires an artist's work. Inspirational but far from innocent, Barbara Ann is a brainy muse with balls who has spent nearly a decade stepping in front of the camera with and without her clothes on.

She pondered her provocative role on the eve of the opening reception of a new exhibit she co-curated called "Barbara Ann Crumm: Model. Muse. Artist. Identity?" The show, which runs through August 30 at the Silver Lake "Sometimes Madness Is Wisdom" gallery, features photographs of Barbara Ann by her and 13 different artists, including Richard Kern, Steve Diet Goedde, Gary and Pierre Silva, Dave Naz, Cynthia Patterson, and Carlos Batts. Although artists often exhibit self-portraits, I've never heard of a show built around a model, with images of a single person seen through many different lenses. Even more significant is that she's not a famous, high-profile supermodel, but a short, curvy girl with a space between her teeth who says she's best known for giving the camera "the death stare." A girl who has appeared in the pages of Barely Legal, Leg Show, and Taboo ("It was a goal of mine to be in those magazines, and I'm glad I was"). A girl who's done her fair share of what she calls "twat shots," the pics of spread pussies porn mags are famous for.

With no twat shots in sight (and only one glimpse of her cunt), the show is a collection of about two dozen photographs that document someone who can be cute, tough, mean, seductive, mad, sexy, and sad— sometimes all at once. She began modeling at 19, when she contacted Richard Kern and asked him if he'd shoot her. Now 27, she says, "To see myself throughout the years on the wall, it's like it's a healing experience. I was unraveling parts of my inhibition." Today, she concentrates more on her own photography and art, which includes some self-portraiture, but has been "re-inspired" to model some more "before [her] tits sag."

The participation of the model in the creation of an image does not often take center stage as it does in this show, the brainchild of co-curator and gallery owner Dominique Griffin. That this model sometimes strips naked and does so quite consciously feels even more significant at a moment in our history when anti-porn feminists stage an aggressive comeback and conservatives continue to hammer away at adult content. One of the tried-and-true arguments against porn doesn't make room for Barbara Ann or those like her, since, according to anti-porn feminists, when a model takes her clothes off, her agency evaporates, and she can only be objectified and exploited. Barbara Ann doesn't see it that way: "Being in front of their cameras made me feel stronger. It didn't make me feel any less human, it made me feel more human, more empowered. I was discovering parts of myself because you are vulnerable in front of the camera yet you can create your own force field, and a different persona in front of the camera. You don't have to let go of your true self. You can grow from it and say 'fuck you' back to the camera."

image
Crumm at work
(photo: Colten Tognazzini)
The exhibit says "fuck you" to anti-porn crusaders as it also takes on mainstream beauty ideals. Suicide Girls may get all the credit for making punk girls sexy, but the popular site is part of a larger movement in erotic art to represent and celebrate bodies and aesthetics beyond the blonde and big-boobed. Barbara may have ample cleavage, and may have been blonde (and flaming red and burnt orange and lots of other colors), but she probably wouldn't make Tyra Banks's first cut on America's Next Top Model. Nor does she typify the punk-rock aesthetic of body ink, piercings, and attitude. "Even the alterna-people get elitist at some point," she says. "I was a Suicide Girl reject. I think it was because I didn't have enough tattoos or maybe the photo set I sent wasn't rock 'n' roll enough." She sits somewhere between mainstream and alternative, sort of like the riot grrrl next door (incidentally, this riot grrrl's mother flew in from Virginia to be at the reception).
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