Michelle Handelman, The Struggle, from Hustlers & Empires (still). Courtesy signs and symbols, New York.
New Yorksigns and symbols
April 18 – May 26, 2019
Michelle Handelman’s body of work Hustlers and Empires, of which a new installment currently appears at Signs & Symbols Gallery in the Lower East Side, is a symbolically-layered, operatic examination of “the hustler.” Here the label encompasses those who transgress society’s norms as a way to survive, and those who must survive in spite of their transgressions, including the sex worker, the pimp, the drug dealer, the addict, the queer outsider. The newest film, LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL, focuses on a character who is in fact a “layering of persons,” portrayed by the queer feminist artist/activist Viva Ruiz, whose performance is partly autobiographical and partly inspired by the libertine 20th-century novelist Marguerite Duras. The film is carefully constructed in a universally familiar visual language of glamour, with sets that imitate the fashion runway, the music video, and the late-night talk show. These deconstructed sets include conspicuously fake lights and cameras, winking at the “production” of glamour while portraying Ruiz’s character like a celebrity. She dances and mugs for the camera; she passes out drunk. But she’s not a celebrity, she’s a hustler: her life is defined at intersections of empowerment and precarity—limited options meet freedom from society’s norms, sexual violence meets desire.
Installation view: Michelle Handelman:LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL, signs and symbols, New York, 2019. Courtesy signs and symbols, New York.
Handelman’s project, originally commissioned by SFMoMA as a 70-minute, multi-channel film and installation, exists within a lineage of artworks that explore glamour as a subversive and protective tool endemic to queer aesthetics. Seminal in more ways than one was Jean Genet’s first novel, Our Lady of the Flowers, written in 1942 while Genet was imprisoned for petty theft, vagrancy, and “lewd acts.” With only his imagination to sustain him, Genet dreamt up flagrantly homoerotic stories of hustlers, criminals, and drag queens of Paris. He described them with all the poetry and divine grace of the gods and goddesses of Mount Olympus, using glamour as a protective, magical gesture against a world that brutalizes the dispossessed and the queer. His heavy, rose-scented prose cloaked the morbid stench of disease, addiction, and murder that trailed his characters, as well as the bleak reality of his own imprisonment. In his later book, The Thief’s Journal, Genet wrote: “Limited by the world, which I oppose, jagged by it, I shall be all the more handsome and sparkling as the angles which wound me and give me shape are more acute and the jagging more cruel.”
Two decades later Warhol’s portraits of drag queens elevated their glamour to the level of royalty like Grace Kelly and Caroline of Monaco. Warhol’s conceptual provocation was to question accepted notions of glamour by expanding them to include gay men, and this was later elaborated upon by the artist collective General Idea, formed in 1969 by AA Bronson, Felix Partz, and Jorge Zontal. In multimedia projects like the fictitious beauty contest The 1971 Miss General Idea Pageant and the satirical File Magazine, General Idea pioneered camp as an artistic strategy. Throughout the 1970s, as mass media culture came into bloom, they performed notions of glamour and celebrity in order to examine their power, and to investigate the role that media played in creating them. Echoing the literary achievement of Jean Genet, General Idea equated glamor with myth-making.
Today the concept of glamour is pervasively influenced, whether consciously or not, by queer and drag culture. From the cartoonish Kardashians to the popularity of RuPaul’s Drag Race (not to mention white girls whining “Yasss, queen” over brunch), the popularization of aesthetics and tropes largely sparked by the 1990 documentary Paris Is Burning has reached its commodification-point. And while Drag Race serves up unimpeachably groundbreaking, satirical television, it also elevates an ultra high-budget, dry-cleaned version of drag culture that effortlessly holds mainstream appeal. It is therefore extremely prescient for Michelle Handelman’s films to re-foreground class barriers and outsider status in the aesthetics of queer culture. Even Warhol once described his drag queen subjects as “outsiders with bad teeth and body odor,” but that was precisely why he found them glamourous. In LOVER HATER CUNTY INTELLECTUAL, Ruiz’s character encapsulates how the authenticity of the hustler is tied to class and freedom: “There’s a difference between a hustler and a thief. A hustler doesn’t have a choice. You are pushing to survive, maintain. If you choose to hustle people and you don’t have to, then you’re a thief.” In one of the most memorable lines of Hustlers & Empires (delivered exquisitely by performance artist John Kelly) glamour itself is framed as a survival tactic: “Instead of dying I will perform for you. In this way I preserve intact my critique of your hypocritical way of life which has been my only joy in this world.”
Like General Idea, Handelman aims for both intellectual and theatrical impact, and a full elaboration of her project’s many-layered storytelling would constitute a much longer text. The video on view at signs and symbols admittedly feels like a fragment or redux of the spectacular Hustlers & Empires more than an expansion upon it, but Handelman is on to something productive in her elaboration on the film’s individual characters. The blending of real-life figures (here, Ruiz with Duras) offers something between an archetype and an individual—more specifically, a “lover-hater-cunty-intellectual,” a sexually-empowered, iconoclastic femme with an axe to grind. She is a model of power and glamour that is general enough to allow for the viewer’s identification. Instead of validating queer or feminist experience through the amplified difference of identity politics, Handelman begins to draw a pantheon of transgressive personas, inscribing a greater mythos that confounds society’s norms.