PRINT January 2007

Kalup Linzy

“I AM CALLING from KK Queens Survey, and today we are contacting artists in your community. . . . Metaphorically speaking, how many asses do you kiss a week? One to two asses a week, three to four asses a week, five to six . . . ?” asks the pollster. “Five to six asses. I used to kiss more,” quips the distressed artist on the other end of the line, “but I got an infection on my bottom lip from all of the bullshit!”

Occurring about midway through Kalup Linzy’s blistering lampoon of art-world power dynamics, KK Queens Survey, 2005, this bawdy exchange typifies the twenty-nine-year-old, New York–based artist’s trademark mixture of raunchy humor, campy theatricality, sexual intrigue, and poignant social commentary. For the last several years Linzy, who grew up in rural central Florida, has been making satirical videos inspired by personal events and the daytime-television soap operas that were a youthful obsession. He cites Keenen Ivory Wayans’s 1990s sketch comedy show In Living Color and the televised performances of drag queen RuPaul as influences, as well as early John Waters films, themselves indebted to kitschy television sources. In his videos, Linzy concocts his own alternative televisual world, replicating the convoluted melodrama and artificial style of afternoon soaps but inflecting them with outrageous humor and replacing daytime drama’s predominantly white, heterosexual characters with a cast of protagonists more relevant to his own life as a Southern, black, gay man.

Linzy’s most elaborate project to date is the serial “Conversations wit de Churen,” 2002–. Comprised thus far of five installments, the episodic videos weave in and out of interrelated plots revolving around the travails of the Braswells, a Southern, black, small-town family. As hilarious as “Conversations wit de Churen” is, recurring moments of pathos are generously interspersed among the gags. For instance, in Conversations wit de Churen III: Da Young and Da Mess, 2005, drag queen and aspiring singer Taiwan receives a marriage proposal from his handsome, rich, loving boyfriend, Harry. Instead of being overjoyed, Taiwan plunges into an emotional crisis as he tries to decide whether to make a public commitment to Harry and thereby risk losing the security of his family and church relationships. Played by Linzy with compassion and self-aware comic aplomb, Taiwan sends up almost every stereotype of a cross-dressing gay man but at the same time emerges as an empathetic character faced with an agonizing dilemma. Offsetting his amazing bubble-bath phone consultation with dial-a-psychic Lenita—who demands that her clients pose their questions to her in the form of improvised, soulful ballads—are his distraught calls to his domineering mother, Nora Lee, and his supportive grandma Leelabell. In Linzy’s universe, irony doubles back on itself, becoming irresistible sincerity.

The artist began making videos at the University of South Florida at Tampa, where he studied television production as well as art during his undergrad and graduate years. It is there that he developed his distinctive style, favoring low-tech production methods and a DIY aesthetic and serving as the writer, director, cinematographer, and editor of his videos while also playing multiple roles, both male and female. Artist friends of various ethnic backgrounds round out his casts, but Linzy often dubs his own voice over theirs, using software to shift the pitch and timbre into variations on his own reinvented black vernacular, characterized by double entendres, meaningful slang, and a pronounced Southern drawl. Frequently layered on top of these performances are cheesy special effects and sentimental sound tracks. Most often, men play women, and occa- sionally women play men, with everyone decked out in over-the-top drag. Donning unconvincing wigs and ill-fitting dresses (frequently combined with pointedly overgrown facial hair), the actors perform an endless parodic relay that disrupts conventional categories of gender, sexuality, and race. The characters embody various stereotypes but ultimately subvert them through Linzy’s incisive forms of exaggeration. Emphasizing through performance the constructed nature of identity, Linzy confronts received notions and offers in their stead complex positions of subjectivity that not only assert what makes each of us distinctive but also highlights connections we might share, such as our responsiveness to the universal emotions—love, hope, disappointment—that animate his story lines.

Most of the action in Linzy’s videos, however, takes place off-screen and is retold via phone calls. For example, in Conversations wit de Churen IV: Play wit de Churen, 2005, we meet emerging artist Katonya, played by Linzy in a bra and blond wig, and root for our heroine as she dishes on her bedroom phone with her best friend, Matissa (memorably played by Matthew Day Jackson in a satin toga), and argues with her boss, who then fires her, over the phone, because she skipped work to be with her boyfriend, who dumps her, over the phone, when he discovers she has been fired, and so on. Such phone sequences dramatize connections between people but also mark the distance between them, since each character is always seen sequestered in his or her personal space. Our attention is thus focused on the dialogue and its delivery. This emphasis on dialogue underscores the work’s relationship to African-American rhetorical and performance traditions in which language represents both an expression of autonomy and a validation of a specifically black cultural history. Linzy’s reinvented idiomatic language recalls, for example, literary precedents like Zora Neale Hurston’s novels, which embrace an African-American vernacular, while his stylized expressiveness, cross-dressing antics, and critical use of humor all reference histories of minstrelsy as well as performances on the chitlin circuit (the network of venues that emerged during segregation where black theatrical acts performed for mostly black audiences), in addition to contemporary black comedians like Eddie Murphy or Martin Lawrence.

But Linzy’s linguistic strategies might be most productively considered in light of Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s notion of “signifyin(g).” For Gates, signifyin(g) is a rhetorical mode of “black double-voicedness” whereby words and ideas can be “decolonized” through a process of semantic substitution and reappropriation in which words accrue new meanings while still retaining their original connotations. Like a palimpsest, speech in Linzy’s works operates on two levels: A surface layer of meaning is a commentary on another layer, which must be “read” through it. And this is true of the visual as well as the spoken language that he reclaims. In one shot in Da Young and Da Mess, Taiwan, with a flower tucked behind his ear, reclines on a couch in a pose clearly quoting Manet’s Olympia. Linzy replaces the white female figure and accompanying black attendant with his own character, a cross-dressing, gay, African-American man who presides serenely in the central position of attention and beauty. This mirroring of meaning is representative of Linzy’s compelling combination of witty camp and poignant drama, which transcends the limits of irony and allows his work to function as an affirmation of black gay identity and as an astute social observation of empathy, love, friendship, and family.

Debra Singer is executive director and chief curator of The Kitchen, New York.