A walk on the wild side

By GREG COOK  |  February 16, 2010

Over the past decade, Boston photographer Henry Horenstein has delved into the world of burlesque and drag performers in Boston, New York, LA, and New Orleans. At first, he would shoot during performances, but then, frustrated by poor lighting and bad angles, he switched to studio shots, which give the images a clean, controlled look like that of fashion photos.

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FISHNETS, NEW YORK BURLESQUE FESTIVAL, SOUTHPAW, BROOKLYN, NY (2005) These days, Henry Horenstein prefers the controlled environment of his studio to live stage and street scenes.
In "Show," at Walker Contemporary, hands crack whips, a pair of sequined heels decorated with fur stand empty on some floor, peacock pasties decorate a lady's tah-tahs. Horenstein moves in close for a shot of a burlesque performer biting her glittery lips. He frames a woman's behind clothed only in a garter belt and fishnet stockings. A drag queen's great frizzy wig and perfect theatrical make-up contrast with his/her chubby chest. The shots are all large, pretty, glittery, sexy dreams. These aren't about digging behind the scenes. These are photos of the fantasy.

Fantasy is also the subject of "Virtuoso Illusion: Cross-Dressing and the New Media Avant-Garde," at MIT's List Visual Arts Center. "What is emerging among today's artists is cross-dressing as part of a larger experiment in language and perception" to create "a perceptual jolt to traditional ways of viewing," writes curator Michael Rush, director of Brandeis's Rose Art Museum until last June.

The 17-artist show offers photos of men and women posing as the opposite sex and four and a half hours of videos. Much of it is the usual guys dressed up as gals, from Andy Warhol in lipstick and wig in 1981 to Kalup Linzy's over-the-top 2005 soap opera to John Kelly's deliciously loopy 1993 film "Vander Clyde Becomes Barbette," in which a guy answers an ad to fill an open spot in a nightclub act. But it's a sister act. "Would you be willing to wear a wig?" the ladies ask.

Rush's thesis begins with a 1925 optical-illusion film attributed to Marcel Duchamp's alter ego, Rrose Sélavy. The idea is that taking on this new character provided one more way for Duchamp — and his descendants — to open a trapdoor under what had seemed the sure footing of what art and artists are and what it all means.

This work coincides with a growth of theatricality in art since at least the '70s, from Cindy Sherman to Gregory Crewdson. Rush highlights the gender-bending end of the trend, such as Matthew Barney's epic filmic ode to testicles, The Cremaster Cycle — represented here by a single photo of Barney as a natty satyr drenched in Vaseline. But it all may reflect a general Hollywoodization of art and a return to narrative, with ever bigger budgets and special effects.

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