New York

Leigh Bowery

Every time he got dressed and undressed, every time he posed, coifed, put on makeup, stitched a sequin in place, Leigh Bowery asked, Where does the body end? It does not end with skin, it does not end with a sheath of latex or stacked platforms but perhaps close to there; it does not end with you, although at times perhaps you’d like it to, for another you not to be in your pores surging like acid, the thought of another you in your head headachy, in your mouth wanting such an entry to stop or not.

Bowery was fond of lumpy obstetric bulges—around the stomach, of course, but also on the cheeks; those that expanded the ankles, or bubbled up from the neck. His bulk he either emphasized or corseted. He erased his face with latex and rubber masks with eye-slit openings and wiglike curtains of beaded fringe. In the two costumes on display in this exhibition, the pink-floral glitter frock of Helmet Head Meets Hollywood, ca. 1994, and the football-brown terry cloth and vinyl of Tutu Head with Pregnant Look, ca. 1993, the proportions were human—almost. Bowery extended the body into the space around it, highlighting its permeable, explosive quality. Helmet Head’s pouf-skirt balloon seemed anchored only by the chunky military skull cap. The peachy tulle of Tutu Head placed, like a paper crown on a leg of lamb, over the head instead of covering the genitals and behind, suggested the alimentary connections between the two. Bowery showed the body to be a pierceable, penetrable, inflatable, clumsy bucketlike thing. He saw his work as “both serious and very funny.” Without metal gear, his pierced cheeks looked like spooky dimples.

Drag accomplishes its disruptions in two ways: through a breathtaking accuracy (Mr. Fashion as Mr. Fashion; John Kelly as Dagmar Onassis; Phranc as Neil Diamond; John Heys as Diana Vreeland; Joey Arias as Billie Holliday) or through a decidedly not-nice transgression and exploration of the limits of self, skin, and voice (Charles Ludlam, Ethyl Eichelberger, Divine, and Bowery) that queerly removes femininity from gender. Both methods accessorize a subtle but potent aggression that forces us to reconsider the body and its voices. Too often most so-called drag ignores or forgets or hasn’t the intelligence to know just that—it’s too busy trying to be liked. To watch Bowery give birth to Nicola Bateman in Wigstock, 1995, or in a different performance shown in the video footage (1983–94) compiled by Angus Cook, was to notice how toothless Wigstock (and most of the drag it celebrated) was. Bowery was an antidote to such pleasantries. In his final incarnation as a model for Lucian Freud, he fashioned one of his best costumes by wearing nothing at all. The oscillation between nudity and adornment in his self-presentations proved Bowery’s unadulterated state to be as freakish as anything. But in his collaboration with Freud, as the various etchings ( 1992–93) and single charcoal drawing (1993) show, something is lost: he was his own best muse and model and the world after hours was his runway.

Bowery’s lesson was not to fear displays of disgust, hate, repulsion, and uselessness. They are signs of life, too. Famously polite, even gentle, he was not unfamiliar with the impolitic. Someone once overheard him say to an AIDS worker, “Don’t try to give them hope. If you’ve got HIV, you die, that’s it.” He kept his own status secret for years, and when he finally had to go into the hospital he would instruct those closest to him, “Don’t tell them I’ve died. Tell them I’ve gone to Papua New Guinea.” Bowery refused any sort of domestication, and it would be stupid to try to domesticate his work by placing it under some stable rubric: he was wild, scary, weird, beautiful, daring, and refreshingly astringent. To people who shouldn’t have tried to get into his celebrated London club, Taboo, but did, Bowery would hand a mirror and ask “Would you let yourself in?”

He deserves a pictorial history and a smarter biography than he is likely to receive, one that is formally as rigorous and daring as he himself was. Nick Knight’s headshots capture Bowery’s ephemeral attacks best because both have always known there should be no détente.

Bruce Hainley