Evo načina da ti okoliš bude odjeća: ne radi se o tome da se oblačiš tako da se uklopiš u okoliš, nego da naglasiš da uvijek već jesi u njemu, da si ponekad hipijevski predivan šaren cvijet, ponekad melodramatično smeće, ali uvijek neraskidiv od svih tih divnih i trulih boja. Ali boje su nasilne, i ti sam si nasilan. Nema u svemu tome nekog sklada. Čovjek kao ekološka pojava je čista histerija. Ekologija je oponašanje života. Ekologija je melodrama.
Mortal Makeup: Images from Mrs. Vera’s Daybook by Michael Johnstone
From a distance, the startling colors in Michael Johnstone’s Mrs. Vera’s Daybook are every bit as alluring as the garden in Wonka’s factory—brimming over with too-delectable-to-be-good-for-you goodies. Still, you can’t help but approach. And once lured in—just as you suspected—you find yourself dropped into a thick chocolatey mire, sucked up into Wonka’s glass tube for inspection, as sure as a post-punk Augustus Gloop. For like Wonka, Johnstone has a lesson to serve up with his confections, which are as much about the spectators who come to drool over their appetizing colors as they are about their subject, the luscious Mrs. Vera herself in all her über-chromatic glory.
“Mrs. Vera is the personification of many years and memories,” says Johnstone of the lead character in his series. “Her loud colors and theatrical appearance revisit so many of the eccentric, uproarious elements of gay culture that were lost to AIDS. ”
If you were to view only one image of Mrs. Vera, in fact, you might mistake her for a drag queen caught by a candid photographer getting ready for a big show. But then she doesn’t really look like a woman, and she’s not really camp. Her colors are too primary, her costumes too sculptured, her appearances too staged. And her context is always unsettling.
In one scene from the Daybook, you catch her in a private Bath—forced into the role of voyeur—but then you see that her face is blue and the suds are as neatly arranged as her expression. She knows she is being watched, so she’s playing you. But for what? There she is sniffing flowers, but then they turn out to be Plastic Flowers, and anyway, she’s not really sniffing them, and her eyes are on you, not the flowers—her eyebrows arched with authority. “I know what you’re thinking,” she seems to say, daring you to judge her—to call her the freak she ’s proud to be.
We can’t really say that Mrs. Vera is “dressed up,” and she certainly isn’t casual enough to be accused of “dressing down.” She’s not trashy enough to be tragic and not glamorous enough to be adored. In most photos she’s hardly human. In Titantic, she falls on a steep staircase where she is a frozen palette of pastels and primaries—a staged accident always ready to happen just as the shutter opens, like Angie Dickinson getting slashed by DePalma’s camera in her (oops) white raincoat. Then suddenly, Mrs. Vera appears again in Dahlia Gardens, pausing among the flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, reflective and composed. That’s when you notice that there’s something wrong with even the natural flowers in Johnstone’s work: they are too violently, menacingly red to be real. Only they are very, very real—like every detail in the artist’s un-retouched work.
“While I prefer the images to be left to the viewer’s own interpretation,” says Johnstone, “the pictures definitely contain layered contents and contexts. The obvious manic slapstick humor is part of what I use to bring the viewer into that midway of persistent memory—a litter of lost nuance with a constant sense of discomfort, ‘dis-ease,’ and remoteness. Some of the images poke fun at all those glossy magazine pictures of healthy HIV+ people climbing mountains. She often misses her footing, falls downstairs, or trips on something, but she rebounds with gleeful amazement, though she knows it can happen again without any notice to put her down for the count. ”
Though the images first inspire a bit of uncomfortable laughter followed by an unsettling irresolution, it is ultimately Johnstone’s careful composition that invites us to linger over them. Form comes first in his work, which puts the artist in the strange post-modern role of further marginalizing his already lost Mrs. Vera in a harshly indifferent world. Who is Mrs. Vera and who will help her out of the rubbish bin and back on her feet? He has no answers. And, anyway, it doesn’t matter because we’re too interested in the position of her fall along with the colors she has sent cascading in the process. Along with the artists, we are guilty voyeurs who watch Mrs. Vera’s photographic execution over and over again, helpless yet mesmerized.
The Daybook series began in the early 1990’s when Johnstone introduced his partner David Faulk to the vibrant San Francisco drag culture that many of his friends—most of them already deceased—had been part of in the pre-HIV gay culture. The couple’s early collaborations were pure fun—dressing up at street fairs and shooting commemorate snapshots of the party they created with their Waters-esque antics.
“It was shortly after I contracted bilateral cytomegalovirus that I began to see a change in the work,” says Johnstone. “That was around the time of Mrs. Vera’s Nap, where you see her in the dumpster. The photos began taking on a more serious subtext at that time. Luckily, I sustained only minor loss of sight from the CMV, though there are noticeably large ‘floaters’ in my left eye—a constant reminder of the battles still going on in my system.”
Created by David Faulk, Michael’s partner in both art and life for more than ten years, the Mrs. Vera character is more than vaguely reminiscent of the Leigh Bowery. However, unlike the late Australian performance artist whose personae began on stages in the clubs of London and New York, Mrs. Vera has never done a show. “People always ask me why Mrs. Vera doesn’t perform,” says Faulk, “and I tell them that if she’s gone this long without performing, then maybe that’s how it should be.” An accomplished artist in his own right, Faulk holds a BFA from Syracuse and has exhibited his paintings at numerous galleries around the country.
But though his artist’s sensibility clearly informs his intricate application of makeup and accessories, Faulk insists he’s never conscious of making a statement through costuming or posturing. “But then once the work comes back,” he adds, “we’re always struck by what we find in it. Most recently, I’ve experienced facial wasting as a side effect of HIV cocktail meds. As this physical transformation becomes more apparent in Mrs. Vera, she grows more and more pensive.” In the most recent work, more than ever before, Mrs. Vera stands out as a freak in a world of “normal,” “beautiful” people where she is often completely ignored, as in Zebra Crossing: Soho, London where she slinks away almost reluctantly from two indifferent pedestrians.
“Sometimes I feel like David is doing all the work,” says Johnstone. “I never tell him what to wear as long as he doesn’t use the same thing twice. And other than that, Mrs. Vera is all him.” But what makes the character so vital is Johnstone’s unflinching visual instinct that frames her so confidently. It’s his silent support from behind the camera that allows Faulk’s personae to blossom as a force that is at once hopelessly vulnerable and undeniably urgent. We may not know her, but we know that she is to be reckoned with.
Like Faulk, Johnstone has a history with the visual arts that long pre-dates HIV. Born in Scotland, he lived most of his young adult life in Kansas where his family immigrated during his early youth. In 1979, he moved to San Francisco where he has been an active artist ever since, working not only on photography but painting, multi-media performance, costume design, puppetry, and web design. He has also served as curator on a number of shows and even edited his own ‘zine, Rant and Rave.
With such a diverse artistic background, it would be easy to imagine that much of the color and texture in Johnstone’s work occurs during post-production, whether through digital manipulation or application of other media. “Whether shot in 35 millimeter or digitally, I keep my images as close to organic as possible,” says Johnstone. “I use only available light with no gels or filters. People always ask me what I do to get the colors. Sometimes they don’t believe these photos are simply recording the colors David creates with his makeup.”
Particularly striking in this respect is the recent Prometheus, taken at Joshua Tree, California in 2003. Here, the use of a common flash elevates Mrs. Vera to an almost ethereal level, with her subtly blended rainbow of skin-tones standing out spectrally against the darkening sky. Faulk says the makeup was inspired by the stretch-fabric rainbow shirt he is wearing in the photo, a garment acquired from one of the countless thrift-shops the duo has pillaged in their years of making art together. But where does the costume end and the makeup begin? How much is headdress and how much is the natural beauty of Joshua Tree? And what is the stuff on the tree stump? A sacrificial victim? No, upon closer inspection, it seems to be a bit of wood, possibly severed from its roots by lightning or other violent natural elements. How much of this arrangement has been posed for the lens? The line between fiction and reality in Johnstone’s work is increasingly blurry as his series matures, bringing a sense of deep sorrow that goes far beyond the nostalgia of the earliest images.
In Johnstone’s most recent work, we find an artist confronting not only his own mortality, but the mortality of his collaborator, friend, and lover. Will Mrs. Vera disappear entirely into one of her new Monochromes? Of course she will. And the recognition of this sobering fact makes us face our own mortality, whether we wear it on our faces as Mrs. Vera does or deep inside us where none “beautiful” people can see. - Don Bapst
Seeing Mrs. Vera: The Collaborative Work of Michael Johnstone and David Faulk
To see, according to The American Heritage Dictionary's 1980 edition, is to perceive, to apprehend, to visualize, to comprehend, to imagine, to take note of, to consider, to investigate, or to understand the true character or nature of something… It might be said that these are the earliest goals of the history of art. In the collaborative project “Mrs. Vera,” however, Michael Johnstone and David Faulk problematize these definitions for the viewer. The act of seeing or viewing is somehow dislocated and decentered. When the old relationship of the viewer and the viewed is questioned, the photographs become somehow poignant and sinister at the same time, humorous and tragic, or knowable and unknowable. The narrative that seems to be laid out becomes entirely a projection of the viewer, but one filled with uncertainty.
Why do these images disturb yet fascinate? Why do they provoke a narrative, yet deconstruct that very narrative at the same time? This essay will briefly discuss the work of San Francisco-based artists Michael Johnstone and David Faulk to try to answer these questions.
The character of Mrs. Vera was first conceived in 1994 when Johnstone took a photograph with a basic flash camera of Faulk in a sort of theatrical drag in front of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco late one evening. The image that came from this encounter is Pensive, in which the viewer finds Mrs. Vera in an indeterminate space, next to a metal wall with a beam of light traveling the surface behind her. She holds an opened umbrella in one hand and seems to tug at her wig with the other. Already the character begins to be identified with a mode of dress somewhere in the 1970s and with the name “Vera.” Faulk describes the moment he decided to call his character Mrs. Vera:
“The spring of 1994, we went to Kansas to visit a friend, and I came across a shirt by the designer 'Vera'; Michael's friend told me a little bit about Vera and how she was looked down on in her day for being...well, he didn't say for being populist, but she signed her stuff. It was considered tacky and over the top. Now everyone signs everything, and it is completely typical.”
The photograph would be the cynosure from which the entire series of Mrs. Vera portraits would evolve. The painted eyebrows would develop into over-the-top theatrical make-up, the wig askew would become the intricately-fashioned head and hair pieces, the mismatched outfit would be the subsequently wild 70sesque creations. But most apparent, is the dislocation of the viewer. In what cultural moment are we to locate the character Mrs. Vera? The critical theorist Ihab Hassan says of postmodernity:
“Postmodernity is part of a culture of unmaking, whose key principles include decreation, disintegration, deconstruction, decenterment, displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, decomposition, de-definition, demystification, detotalization, delegitimation.” (Ihab Hassan quoted in Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations by Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, New York: The Guilford Press, 1991, p. 256).
As much as I dislike the term postmodern, it describes a particular “crisis of modernity” as the cultural critic Hal Foster states in his introduction to The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983) and as Hassan defines for us here. Mrs. Vera defies a cultural moment and at the same time places herself squarely in the late 20th century and early 21st century's angst of certainty. Mrs. Vera plays with the 70s culture of consumerism as well as the crisis in gender rolls. The artists' ask us to ask ourselves “who is Mrs. Vera?” Is she emancipated or confined, liberated or oppressed? Is she a part of culture or an outsider?
In NYC Canal Street Faulk emphasizes the outsider roll with a fabulously bedizened Mrs. Vera in a pink, orange, and white pantsuit and sandals in a desolate part of Manhattan. The sky is industrial gray and the artist painted his face blue as if to emphasize a despondent mood. Mrs. Vera is isolated, alienated, an “other” in a city devoid of charm. The narrative again is disjointed. Where are we? Only the title gives the viewer a compass. But this seems to be no finished street, but a construction site. The viewer asks why is Mrs. Vera posed like a fashion model in this setting? My point is, the photograph begs a narrative, but at the same time, the narrative seems improbable.
In Churchyard: Sydney, Mrs. Vera is in a Cindy Shermanesque pose, the location only hinted at by the steeple. To further the dislocation, the photograph is taken at an angle from below, disorienting the viewer. To heighten the effect, Mrs. Vera's face is painted in heavy theatrical make-up in a grotesque way. Her expression seems confused, pained. Her hair is disheveled. What is the narrative here? Are we to project the conflict of gays and the church? Again, the photograph's power is in the disorientation of the viewer.
Finally, in Soho: London, we find Mrs. Vera in a long blue dress and fantastic wig crossing a street in London with absolutely no acknowledgment from the gentlemen crossing the street behind her. She is the ultimate “other.” The element of humor in this mode of improbability is equally important as Mrs. Vera's otherness. Michael Johnstone relates why he began the project:
“I was critically ill with AIDS in 1996. I had 11 T-cells. I think the project of Mrs. Vera started out because the gay community needed the unlikely. The community was still in mourning. We had so many drag clichés like Rue Paul in the mainstream of gay culture. David and I were against this. We wanted to emphasize the color and effervescence of living.”
Part of Mrs. Vera's origins came from the gay theater people Johnstone knew who had passed away from AIDS. Faulk took the theatricality of groups like the Cockettes, a 70s-based performance group and adapted the looks to suit Mrs. Vera. The nature of theatricality and performance in gender is not new to the history of art. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp had an alter ego “Rrose Selavy,” and Warhol and Mapplethorpe both posed in drag for the camera. Faulk and Johnstone's project is different, however. The unnaturalness of make-up and accessories is played out in a sort of deconstruction of consumerism. The wild headpieces, jewelry, and face paint are deliberately exposed and can be disconcerting for the viewer. The notion of drag is thus deconstructed as well. The artists' work is clearly performance and artifice.
In conclusion, the collaborative project of Mrs. Vera puts us in the realm of the uncertain and the dislocated. Mrs. Vera's Daybook, the on-going series of portraits by Johnstone and Faulk, “questions what distinguishes the mundane from the extraordinary” as Johnstone states. In so doing, Mrs. Vera becomes a site on to which the viewer's experience is projected and then displaced. - Heidi Thimann