A minor scare cut short the final freak-jazz performance Friday night at Brooklyn’s Jack the Pelican Presents gallery—someone fell and potentially needed medical attention—and the U-Haul was parked outside, ready to accept the equipment, costumes, and artwork required for the six-hour debauched celebration of Maximon, the Mayan patron saint of vice. The humid space was thick with smoke and reeked of incense and pot; shrines to “The Saint” were littered with beer cans, cigarette butts, and half-eaten sandwiches; the bottle of indeterminate liquor that had magically remained full all night as it was passed among the revelers was finally close to empty. The show was over. Yet still this tiny, tattooed naïf sat on the filthy floor, her legs folded up beneath her, frying bacon.
Mindlessly, she continued turning slices in the pan, for good measure mixing in one of the dozens of Polaroids stretched out nearby—this one a shot of her taken a few minutes ago—then accidentally dropping the hot, greasy picture onto her thigh. Ignoring the good-natured jeers from her counterparts across the room to turn off the griddle, it wasn’t until David Ford swept through and called out the same request that she sprang into action.
A Kansas City, Missouri, artist well-known for his political public performances, Ford flew 24 members of his entourage to New York last weekend to participate in Maximon, a “public audience” with the aforementioned deity. Also known as Hermano San Simon, the spirit is traditionally maintained throughout the year with offerings of tobacco, liquor, music, flowers, and incense, and is said to serve as a redemptive or protective source for the prostitutes and gang members of Guatemala. (He’s also said to symbolize male sexual power—his darker aspects lead devotees to carefully guard his visage from public view for fear that his sexuality may run rampant. Um, bring it!)
Participants in Friday night’s Williamsburg show—the first here after years of the celebration in KC—were instructed to bring evidence of their vices: These gifts to Maximon supposedly “guaranteed redemption for the artists and musicians of New York.” I brought vodka. Also: receipts from Anthropologie.
“The Mayans had these ‘backward days’ in their calendar,” explains Ford. “Maybe you gambled a little too much throughout the year, maybe you had too much to drink—whatever. Maximon is the guard of those backward days, and offers the opportunity to reflect on and celebrate those faults and attributes in a communal way. It’s not moralistic. . . . It’s just meant to offer a sense of perspective.”
That perspective is a jubilant one. This particular tribe of KC bohemians—whom I know from the time I lived there—thrives on spectacle. Elaborate costumes and street parties are de rigueur in the cultural neighborhood that Ford helped revitalize; their annual Mardi Gras parade typically brings more bacon, lusty self-indulgence, and the police. On Friday night, dancers wore enormous headdresses with tiny outfits, layers of beads jangling as they moved. Bacon Girl stood near one of the altars with a heavy glass bottle of “moonshine”; you were meant to spit a mouthful on the maquette, then take an equal swig for yourself. And among those who traveled for the show, many were members of Snuff Jazz, a free-jazz trio, and Dirty Force Brass Knuckle Street Band and Soul Revue, a very spirited deconstructionist marching band. Shit gets loud.
The idea grew out of Ford’s travels to Central America, where he encountered Maximon for the first time. “I was having a more meaningful relationship with sculpture there than I was in the gallery scene here at the time. I mean, there’s this sculpture, and it has to be watched and kept fed and taken care of at all times. There’s always food and drink and fresh flowers and cigarettes, and the people responsible for it begin to form this elaborate frame of diligence— really difficult diligence. It sounds great to drink and smoke all day, but after a few weeks, you know . . .” He trails off, laughing.
“So I just started thinking about that—not in a religious way, but as an aesthetic,” he continues. “I wanted to do a passion play, a religious re-enactment, because art is my act of faith.”
He received funding in 2001 from the Charlotte Street Foundation, an organization there dedicated to the support of visual arts; since then, “The Saint” has become something of a private tradition in Kansas City. Six years later, Ford was invited to stage Maximon at Jack the Pelican Presents, an attempt to replicate the sense of familiarity that’s become a given in the Midwest. “In KC, there’s such a plethora of space and this super-furtive
underground … we’d have these celebrations in flooded caves and abandoned warehouses, where you’d find out an hour beforehand where to go and then have to be picked up, etc.,” he says. “For this, it had to be repackaged, obviously. But I’m really happy with the result.”
He recalls a moment Friday night when the Saint was “fully activated,” in his words, and he wanted to snap a photo. “But there were about six photographers separating me from the Saint,” he recalls. “Those layers are what I find fascinating—the point at which people realize, or don’t realize, they’re a part of something, especially in such a saturated environment. When you’re working with all five senses, there’s inevitably a residue left, and something becomes very personal even when the presentation is a public, non-personal setting. I really dig that.”