View of “Vaginal Davis,” 2021–22. Photo: Graysc.

View of “Vaginal Davis,” 2021–22. Photo: Graysc.

Vaginal Davis

Vaginal Davis is one of those artists whose relationship with the art world seems to have ebbed and flowed over the years. Perhaps this is because the work of the queercore icon, poet, performer, and writer consists to a great extent of zines, blog posts, and ephemera that are hard to value capture. Film scholar Marc Siegel refers to the artist as an “organic intellectual” of the queer scene; the term that feels apposite to the singularity of a trajectory that extends beyond contemporary art to the social, literary, and nightlife worlds.

“The Wicked Pavilion” was a two-venue exhibition. Galerie Isabella Bortolozzi housed a library and a tween bedroom complete with an assortment of nail polishes, princessy furniture, and a penis the size of a human tucked into a tiny bed. Everything was Josephine Baker pink, from the covers of the mock books to the display cases to Karen Lofgren’s small vagina dentata sculpture, featuring real teeth. It’s meant to bite off toxic masculinity, not male genitalia! At Eden Eden, Bortolozzi’s project space a few blocks from the gallery itself, the visitor was treated to several decades of the artist’s video work. That Fertile Feeling, 1983, weaves a humorous plot around a very sobering racialized lack of access to health care. Cholita!, 1995, features the song “I’m Not a Puta, I’m a Princess” by Davis’s underground band Cholita! The Female Menudo. In Tom Cruise Loves Women, 2000, Davis teases out the erotic ambivalence of the titular teen heartthrob. In Voodoo Williamson: The Dona of Dance, 1994, the eponymous protagonist rescues youngsters from addiction by instilling in them blind devotion to her dance troupe. As in most of Davis’s work, social commentary appears in an unassuming, off-the-cuff manner: Here, the giveaway is Voodoo Williamson’s consistent mispronunciation of the word heroin as “hero-in,” pointing to her cavalier attitude toward those she claims to care for. But because ambition is a stronger drug, the lead dancers, unbeknownst to her, are planning to abscond.

The centerpiece of the presentation at Eden Eden was the 1999 video The White to Be Angry—also the title of an album by Davis’s speed-metal band Pedro, Muriel & Esther (PME). This pastiche of a rock video deals with affect and disaffect, identification and dis­identification. In an arresting scene shot against the background of a Confederate flag, two young white supremacists lock eyes, but are soon diverted into channel zapping. If the far right provides a forum for displaying and enacting manhood, it can also, the artist seems to suggest, become a site of conflation between homosocial and homosexual orientations. Indeed, José Esteban Muñoz once discussed Davis’s work in terms of “tactical misrecognition,” referring to the process by which queer or racialized artists find footing in a world made to erase their identities by resignifying stigmatizing images and stereotypes.

In a 2002 article for the journal Werkleitz, the artist said she was determined to lead a new utopian movement. She took the name Vaginal Davis after seeing a bootleg copy of the 1972 Soviet documentary Our Friend Angela Davis. In this film by Yuri Monglovsky, the antiracist activist—who had been on every post-office wall as one of the FBI’s most wanted criminals until her arrest in October 1970—is crowned with a tiara that keeps falling off her Afro. Vaginal Davis recounts wanting to sexualize the revolutionary icon, but not in the normative manner of that Soviet tiara––a bejeweled ornament tied to social hierarchy, royal houses, and beauty pageants, as ill-suited to a socialist state as to African hair texture. The artist also claims she survived the aids crisis simply because she was not having sex. This might seem surprising, coming from someone whose work revolves around sexuality. But Davis’s frenzy of representation could just as well be construed as a way to overwhelm the cultural scripts that engender a gap between the way intense arousal is experienced by one gender (pornography) and the way intense arousal is experienced by the other (romantic fantasy), neither of which can sustain either her or her affect.