I recently put a large group show together called Saturnalia, art about the pagan celebration that precedes Christmas. I dove into the opportunity to return to the work of Barbara Degenevieve. Saturnalia is a theme made for her presence. Permissive, steeped in history, focused on ecstatic attachment to the sublime. It feels so good to have her work contextualized not as a memorial, but in the present tense. It is satisfying to access a work that will likely be new even to those deeply familiar with her body of work. It is a joyful photograph that is simple and transgressive all in one move.
When I speak of Barbara’s art I have to speak about her person, about what she has done outside of galleries. Always the instructor. Always offering insight. Always teasing out the thoughtful grammar available in an image.
Barbara’s legacy will always be associated with sex and the power dynamics that go with that. Matter of fact. Even though it was often owned self-consciously as a kind of performance, her delivery was free of affect. Talk about sex that was an impossible combination--neither clinical, mired in theoretical removes, nor so theatrical that it falls into camp. Sexy AND respectable. Formidable? Except that word conjures conflict. Barbara goes about the business of doing, making, and talking. She's always doing things and talking about things we agree that she's never supposed to do, but there isn't much visible as conflict inside all the things she's fighting for. She talks about sex and radical positioning as if they are things we do. We go to dinner, we enjoy it, and we seek out the better places. Respectability doesn't dampen excitement, the spice, or the exotic freaky deaky. No shame. Sex, no matter how far left of center, is just a thing we do. Sex is not reduced to a set of issues. A side effect of her cosmology is that well-turned and simple holds its own.
History will likely disappear my relationship to her as one of the hundreds that worked with her as graduate students, one of many who found her guidance relevant and moving. It is the truth, but it is only a part of the truth. One hidden thing is me getting to know her at a sequence of parties. Barbara didn't pontificate about horizontal power structures so much as she instigated them. She never felt like the authority even when she was very much in charge. Even when she opened up her loft apartment as the dance floor. Barbara was invited to nearly every gathering when almost no other faculty were. She invited us into her home, and we all gleefully attended. Even faculty half her age were suspect and separated. But she danced with us. Flirted. Her favorite was the drunken end. Boundaries fallen to the ground along with a few key pieces of clothing. That time when the dance floor gets sparse and the desperate and lonely pair off. Dares start paying off because silly (silly people, silly moves) left with all those damned clothes. Barbara’s real favorite was recognizing the one who learned their new superpower. Barbara loved observing that time when someone holding back just doesn't anymore. Barbara learned how to hold on to someone’s moment of all-in and pull it out laterwhen it was time to use it in art. Barbara was best at honing in on that simple key that all artists need to figure out. What sort of artist is worth the trouble demanded in order to become? Scores of us are grateful because that was the thing she gave: the right, the urgency, for us to stop trying to be good, and just develop that thing each of us so clearly holds dear. That thing is a different thing for each of us. She never needed for us to become a tribe.
So many transformative moments happened outside of classrooms and rules, and that made the progress for keeps. When new exploration helps connect an artist to an infrastructure, connects them to new hot people to encounter, and garners praise for each well-turned score, is it any wonder the success rates are so high? In case that seems a little paradoxical, let me spell it out in a different way. We trusted Barbara and her congregation enough that it allowed us to connect with people we were never supposed to connect to.
I remember when my dear friend Rachel was hanging out with Johnny Sanchez. Johnny was a drag queen. He convinced Rachel to play his game; set her up with a giant curly wig and some very red lipstick. She became a cartoon of femme with some of her more masculine undertones still shining through. It suited her and allowed her to toy with a more forward persona. We all ended up at Barbara's loft at a dance party. Barbara was electrified by Rachel. Spent the rest of the evening in a rhythmic grind. Not because Rachel was young, her type, or an appropriate partner choice, but simply because Rachel was ON. That evening changed Rachel. Made her more assertive. Gave her permission to divest herself of a butch/femme binary for good. Made her art more explicit and more nuanced in its indication of desire. The most important outcome of that night is that Rachel's art became inseparable from what was already important to her.
Barbara was known for her powerhouse views on feminism, sex, and power; but she didn't pander to anyone simply because it seemed we were all on the same side. She called out cliches, recommended essays for folks who needed some academic heft to bolster thinking. She shared movies, novels, and party invites for those who were all thought and no presence. At the end of the day it was art and not a collection of ideas readied for presentation.
Her footprint as an advisor and teacher feels the same as her art because they were all of a kind. Her art is matter of fact. Champions sex, kink, power, and stepping over lines. Barbara’s art is, none of it, political in the way we think of politics. She simply presents a distinct view. Her art opens pathways that unknow more than instruct.
Perhaps the first work that got me was Barbara and Steve. Steve is a dude with a bit of a bear affect (meaning you can hear the gay in his voice). Bolsters the story he's reciting. We can imagine him on his knees with a studded jockstrap and led on leash as readily as we can picture him with jeans puddled at his ankles, touching himself to a twelve year old girl playing soccer with his daughter. We're set up to enjoy a moment of righteous indignation, to hate him in the name of that barely adolescent girl. We buy all of it because society has primed us. Barbara keeps us moving further than an unseen wanker in the bushes. Contact. Lift off. Ejaculation. With her. His afterglow apparent. Her entire adulthood has implicitly passed us by in the moment Barbara comes into motion. Steve, now silent and still. We're lulled for a bit; she'll clean up the mess he's told. Barbara does one better, and his mess becomes a flood. She is precocious. She dares. She jumps in and tries, though she scarcely knows anything about what she's trying. The thing she gets more than anything is that there is power up for grabs and her little-girl-self is as likely as he to reach the finish first. Grab she does, and emerges the victor. She remains unapologetic and jubilant for her winning. A coy smile and a sharp flick of the tongue totally destroyed any possibility that she was a hapless victim.
The Panhandler Project began as a challenge to her very own assumptions about what can and should be done. She spoke numerous times warning students against making a homeless body a spectacle. Her observations were peppered with traditional institutional wisdom that revolved around objectification and exploitation. She dove headlong into the center of that exploitative exchange: money for body. She approached panhandlers in her path. Many of these men were already familiar strangers, faces she recognized by walking here or there. Barbara paid a hundred dollars for a nude modeling session. A nice hotel room, a shower, lights, and cameras. The model could stay the night after. As with most of Barbara's work, the interesting parts were not exactly where they were expected. The photos are exactly what you imagine. Nude men who are open and demonstrative to different degrees. A succession of photos reveals development familiar and expected. The sex part of nudity gets more explicit as each shoot progresses. Several models went far enough to spread legs and confront the camera, grasping at the now erect penis in that ubiquitous aggression of porn masculinity. The video contrasts the photos and is peppered with unexpected revelations. One of her models pulls a knife, holds it to her neck. He just had to see what would happen. It is often the case that there is a need to seek the limit when a boundary has been crossed, and Barbara crossed so many. Nevermind any thoughts of exploitation, we're so far past that it feels patronizing to look back and ask that question. Her magic bullet is nothing. She has compelling conversation on camera because she treats her models as they are, as humans complete with the awkwardness that comes with shared nudity and the sexual power in sharing and showing. The knife emphatically directs us to her vulnerability, but it is there in the breezy chat already. Her models are not reduced to sad stories. They are complicated beings with choices, strengths and vulnerabilities. They become people we want to be around, to be with, to be.
When I put a show together with her at Slow, we returned to this panhandler project. We translated her photos to a simple collection of nudie cards. The idea was to return the images to the models so they could distribute them as a way to earn money. Barbara was totally on board until we got the proofs back from the printing service. The prints were far too dark and there was a disappointing color shift as well. The development of that project really drives home to me that Barbara was more the artist than provocateur.
Barbara taught a class affectionately known as the porn production class. Vanalynne Greene taught versions before her, but the SAIC community attach that history mostly to Barbara’s legacy. Students make art with their bodies and about bodies. Even when the resultant images are demure, there is a constant comparison to pornography. Questions of decency remain ubiquitous. The School, despite its vanguard position that epitomizes progressive, is still wildly, if inexplicably, jittery about the sex bits. All of the women who taught this course approached it with a degree of pragmatism. If students consistently head down these paths, compare their work to pornography, believe that explicit images are inherently risky, attention must be paid, acknowledgment and support should be given. The class was a part of that support intended to generate a safer environment for production, came with critical discussion and appropriate distribution. (Haha, I just said appropriate porn!)
Barbara obliterated lines including the line between classroom discussion and the subjects of her practice. Barbara was a beloved professor because she was never teaching some party line. She talked to us, all of us, about her interests, about her point of view. She expected us to approach her with reciprocation. She was always aware that students with less experience may still come equipped with a compelling point of view. She was interested in us, in who we were, and what we were willing to fight for. She changed with us because her listening was received and then synthesized into her being. Again, she was like us. She even used the classroom as a forum for developing new work. In her class “Performing the Problematic”, co-taught with Sheelah Murthy, the school and general public was invited to the final which combined critique with the presentation of projects developed as part of the class. Barbara's participation was a performance wherein she invited her students to make out with her and slap her in the face. They, Barbara and every student, were acting out in defiance of boundaries. Slapping was a built in institutional punishment and a doubling down on transgression. People argued about that performance for weeks. I remember a student complaining to me about whether it was ok; she felt obligated to give Barbara what she wanted, but was deeply troubled by making out with her professor. I replied of course it wasn’t ok, and that was the point. That was a tipping point between classroom exercise and art. Barbara didn’t discuss an imposed boundary; she acted to obliterate it.
Barbara followed every idea to its potential conclusion, or at least stretched and exhausted possibility until she was as close as she could muster. Her entire oeuvre can be characterized as fearless. She was the powerhouse mentor to so many of us precisely because she was so very adept at fostering the fearlessness in us too. Courage and integrity are admired and lauded, but we are eager to stop our responses there. Praise for virtues is scant infrastructure when it comes down to building the new and better thing. Risk is risk, and part of her legacy is the manifold indicators that her brilliance often realized the downside of that equation. Her work is easily characterized as non-commercial simply because the waft of discomfort runs through the river of her output. Always seemed as though she earned better exhibition venues than she was awarded. Same for her stature as an educator. The institutions that lay claim to her legacy were the same institutions that worked tirelessly to tone down her visibility, and temper the heat of her artful confrontations. The schools and grant providers want the feathers in the proverbial cap that names radical openness. They shy away from allowing that radical vision to establish roots, to thrive as the new and vibrant reality. Barbara never allowed the murky support or disavowals to determine the direction of her work. She simply kept working. Many of the people who worked tirelessly to keep her inside the lines now praise that work. But it cost her. It also gave her the life she had, and inside that is the the real power. Of course there is resistance when we act to move the boundaries or change the rules. Of course we sometimes get the downside of risk, it is a part of playing those odds. The takeaway with Barbara is not her set of issues. Power can only come from building the thing. Despite opposition or mess. Follow the point of view. Move the line instead of toeing. Press the institution to become a part of your good work despite resistance. Make a life you wish to live with, and help people come along for the journey. Remain sensitive to the nuances and take pleasure in them.These are the real points to glean from her work. Take pleasure where it is found, and take good care.