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Curiosity led us early Tuesday evening toward Fred Torres Gallery in Chelsea. Courtney Love, visual artist? That sort of makes sense. Given Love’s unpredictable reputation, we were not expecting to see her at the press preview for her debut art show, “And She’s Not Even Pretty,” let alone have a sit-down conversation with her.
Inside the gallery, we encountered what seems like a show consisting entirely of self-portraits—just about every work has a big-eyed blonde in it—done with colored pencils, watercolors, ink, and pastels on paper. Pain, sex, violence, drugs, and celebrities (including a portrait of Gwyneth Paltrow holding her infant son) feature prominently in the approximately 45 works on display. Handwriting is scrawled on every piece, but it’s often anyone’s guess what exactly Love has written. A few lines we could make out: “It takes sleeping with a snake like you to rip apart my soul”; “Let you bleed all over me.” Ouch.
In the back of the gallery, a lace John Galliano wedding dress (which is the only thing not for sale) hangs on the wall. It’s emblazoned with the words “NOT MY CUNT ON MY DIME MISTER”; Love originally wrote the words in red lipstick, then had them embroidered over with red stitching. A lace veil is in a nearby case with the words “fuck yes” over and over again beside a broken glass slipper, which we later learn was made especially for her by Disney for $5,000. It’s like Cinderella gone sour.
A PR rep informed us that David LaChapelle and Fred Torres encouraged her to show her work and supplied her with materials. The work was all made in the last year. The rep also clued us in about the dress, saying that it was meant for a wedding between Love and Edward Norton.
As soon as Love enters the gallery, the room gets silent, and everyone is still. She walks to the back and the crowd follows. After several minutes of trying to decode another piece, we’re told it’s our turn to speak with Love.
Wearing black pants, a black top with a white Peter Pan collar, reading glasses, and minimal makeup, she looks smaller and more delicate than the larger-than-life persona she’s known for. She looks around for chairs and asks us to sit down, and we begin to discuss this debut show and how it all transpired.
Says Love, “David and Fred just sort of thought it was a good idea and they started telling me to do more and more of it, and they started bringing me paper. My mother used to try to make me do it for a living. And then I had to go to art school to get an allowance.”
And that’s just what Love did during her two-year stint in the early ’80s at the San Francisco Art Institute, where she says she learned “zero.” Doing artwork again, she says, pushed her to come to terms with what was “expected and forced upon” her decades ago.
How does it feel to have her first gallery show?
“It’s not the same as words of music or being on film,” she says. “It’s a different thing because it’s, like, personal—super personal. … As much as a song expresses where your soul’s at in the moment, and where your soul’s at 20 years later when you’re still relating to that song and playing it because it pleases people or whatever, this is about a certain moment in my life that I’m not super formally trained for.”
Though many of the tortured works on display are autobiographical, some of the pieces, she tells us, were inspired by the personal stories and heartbreaks of friends.
“They started to be [portraits], then I would go off. I would go off and do something about somebody else. Like there’s one that is about a friend that I started three weeks ago. And it’s about a guy who lives here and he lives in LA, and he’s horrible to women—everybody knows it, but nobody publishes it.”
Who is he? we ask.
Ignoring our query, she continues, “The point is, this woman, this friend of mine, got victimized by this guy, and I got really angry because no one’s ever dealt with it. And he’s a bad guy. It’s all there. I’m not gonna get into it. I’ve never told anyone what a song’s about, and I’m not gonna start now. But there’s text on [the works] too, so if you really are lost—it’s like looking in my diary.”
One of her favorite pieces in the show, she tells us (though not before being distracted by a ginormous phallic painting on the wall by Cecily Brown and granola bars nearby) is a drawing of a blond woman with bleeding eyes titled “Don’t You Know Who I Am?” It reads, “I’m a celebrity get me out of here.”
“This [artwork] was around the Golden Globes,” she says. “I actually heard someone say that for the first time in my life. ‘But don’t you know who I am?’ I actually heard that come out of someone’s mouth. You know, it’s been attributed to me or my friends, but I’ve never said that. But I actually heard someone say it.”
We ask if her daughter Frances Bean, who is also a visual artist, has seen her artwork. She replies, “I don’t know yet. I haven’t sent it to her. It’s harder in L.A. You know Neil Gaiman? She loves him, and he’s really good to her. He’s really good about getting her to go to college and that kind of stuff. She does artwork that’s amazing. She put it up under a pseudonym—Fiddle Tim. It sold out. It’s sort of like her dad’s stuff. Kind of rocky, but really cool.”
“And She’s Not Even Pretty” runs today through June 15 at Fred Torres Collaborations, 527 West 23rd Street.