“Blessed be the Goddess that I was not born a man.” So proclaimeth Vaginal Davis, the iconic gender-queer artist known as the founding mistress of terrorist drag. She of bands like Black Fag and the Afro Sisters; she the writer and publisher of the radical zines Shrimp (“the magazine for licking and sucking bigger and better feet”) and Fertile La Toyah Jackson, which offered readers scandal, gossip, and makeup tips; she who self-describes as a “societal threat,” and once told an audience, “In the words of my immortal mother: ‘I’d rather suck the three horns and hooves of the Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan than deal with a well-meaning white liberal’ ”: She has twenty new paintings on view at the Lower East Side’s Invisible-Exports, alongside a single sculpture by the grande dame of modernist sculpture, Louise Nevelson. If some think these women make an odd couple, this small, smart show proves that in many ways, they’re the perfect imperfect match.
Both Davis and Nevelson are forces of nature, albeit descended from different heavens. Davis was born intersex sometime circa the 1960s (like any good lady, she keeps her age a secret) and raised as a woman in a matriarchal South Central Los Angeles household. She got her start performing as part of the city’s punk scene, and later created a stable of radical drag personae — characters that included a black revolutionary and a white supremacist — through whom she transmitted ferocious and complex interrogations of racism and sexism. (She named herself after the great American revolutionary Angela Davis). Nevelson was born in Russia in 1899 and studied art in her adopted hometown of New York City. She was a larger-than-life figure, as well known for her striking style and figure as she was for the wood assemblages that eventually made her an art star when she was in her forties. The hilarious promotional image for the show — titled “Chimera” — collages a photograph of Nevelson wearing her signature mink eyelashes and a scarf tied tightly around her head next to Davis dressed in a matching outfit she describes as “Louise do-rag drag.” The message is clear: These women will perform as themselves, and as a mirror for each other.
Davis’s paintings (all 2017) are handheld in scale, many smaller than a postcard. Each is titled for a female film or television actress, most of them women of color: Pearl Bailey, Diahann Carroll, Della Reece, Kitten Natividad, Susan Kohner — Imitation of Life. (The gallery provides a cheat sheet with brief bios, for those visitors unfamiliar with these icons). These are portraits of a kind, though Davis isn’t trafficking in likeness; she’s dealing in aura, form, hand. She summons her figures like a witch might, bringing them forth not in oils or watercolors, but in other paints and potions that summon, and signify, the feminine: nail polish, mascara, Jean Nate perfume, eyebrow pencils. Davis’s figures are luminous apparitions, their outlines loose and curvy, their palettes soft and pleasing. Brenda Sykes (named for the actress and former wife of Gil Scott-Heron) is rendered in lavender, half there against a silvery-gray, scribbly background; Linda Christian (who was the first Bond girl), in thick licks of white warmed by peach-pink tones beneath.
At the center of the gallery is Nevelson’s Colonne II, a tall, totemic sculpture from 1959 built of two stacked triangular-shaped pieces of lumber adorned with scraps of wood and odd ends of molding, all coated top to bottom in matte black paint — one of her signature gestures. In 1976, Nevelson explained why she used this technique over and over again in her sculptures: “[Black] wasn’t a negation of color. It was an acceptance. Because black encompasses all colors. Black is the most aristocratic color of all.” She felt black ennobled her materials, and here in the gallery — its floor painted the same flat black, and its walls, a dullish brown — there is something cosmic about the work’s presence. Lit from above by a square neon fixture, Nevelson’s sculpture sucks in the light, tears into the space, interrupting — commanding — the room around it. The exhibition’s installation is theatrical enough, charged enough, to allow narratives to take shape, if you want them to. Davis’s mystical women may seem to order themselves around Nevelson’s sculpture, almost as acolytes. Or they may look as though they’ve got the giant thing completely surrounded, like Lilliputians seizing Gulliver.
Another narrative takes shape too: of Davis and Nevelson in a dialogue across space and time on blackness — as a color of both skin and paint, as well as metaphor, as presence, as absence. Nevelson saw black as a color full of possibility, and used it to transform her sculptures into portals, escape hatches out of the present reality. Blackness isn’t containable in the same way for Davis. Her women have been reduced, abstracted by her hand, yes, but as well by the dominant white culture in which they role-played, not simply as actresses (in character), but as women of color. For example: Louise Beavers may be best known for playing Delilah, the maid whose light-skinned daughter refuses to acknowledge her, in the 1934 film Imitation of Life. Her performance was considered a breakthrough at the time, deserving of an Oscar, but she went unrecognized by the academy because she was black.
The show makes no overarching, didactic point about art, artists, and race; that wouldn’t suit the insurgent spirits of either artist anyhow. In her keynote speech at the 2016 Creative Time Summit, Davis took the stage holding a red telephone receiver, its cord hanging loose, while the audience listened to a recording of her talking to Communism. “Over the years I’ve unfortunately grown accustomed to a much more subtle racism among the left,” she explained. “Racism is a much more clandestine, much more hidden kind of phenomenon, but at the same time perhaps far more terrible than it’s ever been.” How to bring the hidden aspects of racism to light; how to illuminate the disparities even of language, of image, of representation? Perhaps seen here, Davis and Nevelson, performing as a chimera — as the distinct if equally muscular parts of a mythical creature — can together articulate a certain disaster among us, and excavate deeper tectonic tremors and shifts that might otherwise go unseen or undetected.