Hunter Reynolds

Hunter Reynolds on drag, gender, and resurrecting his alter ego

Hunter Reynolds, Patina du Prey’s Memorial Dress, 1993. Performance view, The ICA Boston. Photo: Charles Mayer.

Hunter Reynolds is a New York–based artist and AIDS activist who for over three decades has used performance, installation, and photography to rethink and expand gender, politics, and sexuality. In 1989, he cofounded ART+ Positive, an affinity group of ACT UP, of which he was an early member. Here, Reynolds discusses his alter ego, Patina du Prey (1989–2000), who is the main subject of the exhibition “From Drag to Dervish,” on view at P.P.O.W gallery in New York from November 21 to December 21, 2019.

PATINA WAS BORN ON OCTOBER 21, 1989. I was documenting the feminization of my male face—putting on makeup and taking pictures, which I had never done before. I wanted to address negative feelings that many male queers have against trans and gender-fluid people. That day there was an opening at the Kitchen. My roommate, Aldo Hernandez, and I decided to go with me in half drag, with a feathered hat and chest hair on display. I already knew I didn’t want to fully co-opt the female form, but I hadn’t yet solidified ideas of how I wanted to present. I was a regular at the Pyramid Club, so my perspective of gender was influenced by the amazing queens there. We came up with Patina du Prey on the way to the opening, and my roommate offered to introduce her to people. I figured, “It’s 1989 in New York City—it’s not going to be a big deal.” Astoundingly, I was met only with aggression. Even people I knew were pushing me away, like, “Why are you talking to me?”

When I later looked at the pictures from that night, I was confronted by my own identity. I wasn’t sure how to deal with that, so I put them away. Then, in 1990, Andrea Rosen had an exhibition titled “Stendhal Syndrome: The Cure,” which proved pivotal for Patina. I made a jacket and did my first performance where I handed out palm cards and took photos with people as a way of healing them.

Simultaneously, I was doing photo shoots that became the “Drag Pose” series. I was calling it “third-gender exploration”: no wig, no breasts, hairy chest, and makeup. I would go to art-world openings and street events as Patina too. I wanted to figure out why I was getting so much hostility by taking drag out of context. I wanted to understand this “third gender”—its sexual complexities, its mutability. Then, at a show at Simon Watson Gallery, I decided that the best way to deal with these issues was to perform in a cage. The idea came from the club scene; I just put the cage in the gallery. People had a difficult time looking at me, but if I veiled myself with some tulle, it allowed them to look.

After that, I made The Banquet Dress, which was part of an exhibition called “The Banquet” with Chrysanne Stathacos. We printed a fabric that was a combination of both our works, my blood-spot imagery with her hair. The dress had no breasts and was basically a half-male, half-female dress, the form that all my dresses took for the next seven years. For “The Banquet,” Chrysanne and I were inspired by Méret Oppenheim’s performance Spring Feast, in which they served food off the body of a naked woman. The Surrealists were very misogynistic, and they treated Oppenheim like shit. We substituted a man for the performance. Nodding to Dionysian mythology, we also had women we called “maenads” around the table, reading feminist theory or whatever they wanted to read.

In 1993, I moved to Berlin for a residency at the Künstlerhaus Bethanien, leaving everything. I didn’t know if I would be alive in two years or not. Those years were some of the worst of the epidemic. Thousands of people died just before the AIDS cocktail came out. As part of my first European performance I wanted to do a reading of names of people who had died due to complications with AIDS. I went to Washington, DC, to see the largest display of the NAMES quilt, got the catalogue, and did the first performance on one of my hospital bed pieces. That led to “Memorial Dress.” Frank Wagner curated the first major European art exhibition about AIDS, and he and I decided to produce a dress with all the names from my reading. I transcribed 26,000 names, printed them out, and pasted each one to create a silk screen. The whole process was really arduous, but it was exhibited widely. I got to perform in the dress and made a memorial book for people to add the names of family, friends, or lovers to. I wanted to add these names to the dress and did so three years later with Visual AIDS in 1996.

Around the same time, I started doing street performances in a white dress and studying Turkish Dervish dancing in Germany. This led to “I-Dea the Goddess Within,” a collaborative work that I made with Maxine Henryson, whom I’d been working with to document various performances in public. When the series ended in 2000, it marked the end of Patina, and Hunter the healer took over. This upcoming show is a sort of retrospective for Patina, from the dresses to everything surrounding them. These dresses have never been shown together, so everyone will be able to see them as a whole. Don’t ever kill your alter ego off—she won’t have it.