Painted with matte on heirloom French linens embroidered with the initials of husbands and wives, Valentina Vaccarella’s works capture the lives they carved out for themselves over the lives expected of them. The distortions from the artist’s process resemble rips pulled straight from the gossip magazines, a formal echo of their much-documented downfalls in tabloids. Vaccarella’s eye for detail, the steely glam of Madame Claude and the full-body vulnerability of the doomed Deborah Jeane Palfrey make for a series of icons that might be reconsidered yet.
In her exhibition “Bless This Life,” New York based artist Valentina Vaccarella breaks down the tightly knotted relation between politics, marriage and sex in a world ruled by men. Vintage dowry linens are turned into canvases, hold the portraits of notorious madams, celebrating the power of sex workers and their choices.
“Bless This Life,” is on view on view until May 8th at No Gallery, 105 Henry Street, New York
Photos by Paige Silveria
Known for her sexualized sculptures of the female form, the New York-based artist Valentina Vaccarella is exploring new mediums in Bless This Life, her first solo show at No Gallery. Throughout the exhibit, frames fitted with vintage dowry linens embroidered with the initials of couples past are emblazoned with larger than life acrylic transfers of notorious madams including Heidi Fleiss—a Hollywood favorite—and Kristin Davis, a buxom blonde hedge fund manager-turned-hustler. Through her work, Vaccarella—a sex worker herself, celebrates the outsized power of women in the underworld while deconstructing the darker side of their notoriety, insinuating that when it comes to politics and sex, it’s still a man’s world. Raucous party scenes are juxtaposed with tabloid images and austere portraits, reminding the viewer that while these women were seen as heroes by several generations of sex workers, the clients they serviced, and the systems they were exploiting, were not so forgiving when it came to getting caught. To learn more about her process, No Gallery alumnus Richard Kern asked Vaccarella about pimps, porn, and the price of marriage while photographing her in her Bronx studio.
The work in Valentina Vaccarella’s “Bless this Life” rests on a simple irony: monogrammed, embroidered French bridal linens (they’re antiques, of course—like marriage itself) pulled taut across stretcher bars and besmirched by rough images of modern madams. Vaccarella stuck inkjet printouts to wet gesso, then rubbed away the paper, leaving behind thin, sticky-looking images that resemble ill-used posters. The process results in long tears; the raised fleurs and eyelets of the sheets break up the worked-in picture. Vaccarella sets up a parallel between two institutions: religious, political union, and the oldest profession of them all. The show would be moralizing, if it weren’t so glorying.
What Vaccarella’s women did with and for their escorts was more complex than simply selling them off. Madame Claude gave them makeovers and etiquette lessons, Deborah Jeane Palfrey insisted they be gainfully employed, Heidi Fleiss threw them a never-ending party. Business was business, but escorting at its highest-end could be a waystation and finishing school, an opportunity for girls to not only make money but to hone the skills which would finally land them the ultimate security: a stable marriage to a wealthy man. Beneath the glamour of extravagant gifts, destination gigs, and celebrity clientele, many of Vaccarella’s subjects shared a steely, unforgiving realism about intimacy and money that was stepped in their own experiences of economic desperation and bad romance. Men had money and women had their bodies, which were valuable but depreciating assets. Marriage was the ultimate prize, which in its manipulations of intimacy was akin to whoring anyway. For others who didn’t share in this belief, the thrill of pulling in money and exercising their business acumen was just as addictive. Whether in dire straits (Anna Gristina, Madame Claude) or flush with new money (Kristin Davis, Heidi Fleiss), the enterprise of being a madam became an all-consuming occupation.
Because they operate deeper in the shadows and outsource their dirtiest work to others, madams have not seen the slightest bump to their reputations. Many who hold ostensibly pro-sex work beliefs would balk at the idea of even giving them the time of day, usually opting for another less lady-like term to describe their dealings: pimps. If the jobs are similar in description, for the women that Valentina Vaccarella surveys in her show, Bless This Life at No Gallery, it’s completely opposite in spirit. To quote the legendary LA brothel keeper, Madam Alex, “This is a woman’s business. When a woman does it, it’s fun, there’s a giggle in it; when a man’s involved, he’s sleazy, he’s a pimp. He may know how to keep girls in line, and he may make money, but he doesn’t know what I do.”
“I’ve been visiting Japan off and on since 2002. In a culture that so values aesthetics, “contemporary art” occupies a strange position, perhaps because in its most compelling manifestations it can elicit completely contradictory responses. This contentious quality has possibly limited the value placed on it by the larger society. In Japan, there are a number of art scenes, but the one with the most honesty always seems to be simmering below the surface, never being extinguished but never gaining a sure foothold. When I visited friends in Tokyo in 2018 I found a compelling hub of heterogeneous creativity. I ran across a number of distinctive oddities such as a group of studios built in a defunct sumo school; an artist-run gallery in a nondescript basement with a stairway entrance overflowing with an engrossing collection of rare avant-garde books; an aspiring gallerist I befriended who slept in his exhibition space with no windows or bathroom.
A cheerfully ferocious “wrecker of civilization”—kin to Aleister Crowley and Austin Osman Spare, to William Burroughs and Brion Gysin, to Fluxus and Viennese Actionism—Genesis Breyer P-Orridge (1950–2020) occupied a crucial position at the nexus of interrelated postwar artistic streams for nearly a half century. “TIME=EMIT,” a recent show of the shape-shifting provocateur’s work at No Gallery, was billed with fitting impertinence as “a three-person solo exhibition,” revealing a sliver of the object-based strand of the polymath’s sprawling career via he/r tripartite personal and artistic identity. (P-Orridge adopted the pronouns he/r and s/he as they were third gender.) The twenty-odd works on view sketched a portrait of a figure constitutionally driven to translate he/r experience in the world via a program of making and remaking, one that extended to he/r very subjectivity.
“Democracy” depicts several humanoid figures, each heightened by Loven’s delirious palette of blues and reds, huddled together close and engaged in some kind of orgiastic ritual of excess. When seen from a certain angle, the painting almost resembles an image of a protest. Is a protest not, at root, a ritualistic expulsion of mass-energy? Remove the signs, the catchphrases, and the ideologies, and what you have is an anarchic ancient rite. In “Embraced by Demons,” a Christ-like figure receives fellatio from a monstrous apparition; he’s blinded by ecstasy in the abyss. The unreality of the sequence is heightened by the transparency Loven applies to its figurations. Loven derives some inspiration from the compositions and themes of medieval manuscript art, but the resultant paintings are totally original. Thus, the reference images function less as “source material” in Loven’s paintings than as commentary on the violent and sexualized images of pre-Modernist art acting as creative stimuli. An excess of oblivion becomes a creative spigot. These paintings, quite unlike Loven’s earlier work, feature figurations that are utterly unrecognizable from their sources. They are projections of the artist’s mind’s eye.
Of a Rablesian grotesque, these paintings are not satire. In “Democracy,” Loven isn’t trying to reveal “the truth of” a protest (as a criticism) so that the protest can be dismissed, but celebrates it for the thing that it actually is: a ritual of catharsis. This painting is ebullient because it unleashes the shadow dimensions of its figures — their repressed libido, rage, violence, sexuality — and evokes transcendence by embracing and depicting both the positive and negative qualities of its behavioural excess without judgement. In “German Intellectual in Hell,” a figure resembling an academic appears to be violently laughing and crying all at once, unleashing a lifetime of suppressed libidinal energy. But we do not laugh at him. On the contrary, Loven demands we bask in the academic’s purgation. We feel it with him. There is no shame in Loven’s scenes. These paintings offer their subjects nothing short of spiritual renewal through the grotesque exaggeration of their repressed negative and positive excess. And it feels good.
“Grotesque”. It’s generically applied to forms and images that often skew disembodied, tangled, malformed, or exaggerated to the point of satire. Mikhail Bahktin, however, theorized a more specific and liberatory understanding of “the grotesque.” The grotesque isn’t just satire and therefore, implicitly negative –Bahktin in his text on Renaissance writer Francois Rabelais– it is an exaggeration of both the positive and negative attributes of a scene; Bahktin viewed the grotesque exaggeration as nothing less than a profound, spiritual renewal of the subject. It is this specific notion of the grotesque that is employed by Sven Loven. In his new exhibition, “Hell is Hot and the World is Cold,” the artist’s first solo exhibition with No Gallery, Loven has made several small to mid-scale paintings that purposefully elide the tropes of modernism to look towards the expressions of early Western pictorial painting: angels, demons, good, evil, totems, symbols, and universal emotions. In their many contradictions — malignancy and benevolence, tragedy and beauty — Loven’s figurations are free. His figures are given space to emancipate the energy they repress to integrate themselves into society with all its social codes and mores.
In The Weird and The Eerie, Mark Fisher challenges the English translation of Freud’s unheimlich. Understood as the genesis of the uncanny, Fisher instead states that the literal translation (the unhomely) is a more fitting descriptor for situations to which “uncanny” is often applied, gesturing at the discomfort the term describes.
When considering the new works by American visual artist Jesse Draxler, collected for his most recent solo exhibition with no gallery in LA titled Table of Losses, the idea of something being unsettled by its proximity to home, or normality, seems all the more fitting.
Originally slated for a June opening, the exhibition was postponed until October. During the lockdown and ensuing psychosocial confusion, many artists lost themselves in finding solutions – attempting to answer impossible questions or focusing on the preservation of wellness in uncharted circumstances. Conversely, Draxler welcomed that sense of uncertainty and the cracking of normality into his work. He continued to produce new pieces in the months between the postponement and rescheduled date, ending with a body of work addressing a bleak reality and the power humour has in escaping it.
To the degree that art expresses the zeitgeist, and that right now everything everywhere is a terrible, stupid dumpster fire of fear, loathing, and depression, then NO Gallery has a show for the times. Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There presents divergent works by three artists -- Jesse Draxler, Jordan Weber, and Mark Mulroney -- which achieve common ground in the mucky terrain of mental breakdown, demon-hunting, and gallows humour. It’s perfect, really.
Exhibiting together for the first time, the nine LA artists in No Gallery's inaugural show each have distinctive practices that take unpredictable detours. In dialogue with one another, they exhibit the instinctive, restless drive of the city's most compelling culture-makers. Tapped into what is making us tick while holding fast to quixotic visions, they cut a clear path for the gallery to follow as it makes its place in LA.