Tabboo!

09.21.17

Tabboo!, Self-Portrait, 1982, acrylic on found advertising paper, 27 x 20". Photo: Max Lee.


Painter, theatrical designer, and drag artist Tabboo!, also known as Stephen Tashjian, was an essential figure in New York’s early downtown art and club scene. “World of Tabboo! Early & Recent Work” will feature a new batch of his paintings in addition to a suite of pieces he made when he first moved to New York and was living with his friend and collaborator Pat Hearn (who went on to open her own eponymous gallery in 1983). The show is on view at Gordon Robichaux in New York from September 24 to November 19, 2017. Additionally, a selection of Tabboo!’s works will be featured in “Club 57: Film, Performance, and Art in the East Village, 1978–1983” at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. That show opens on October 31, 2017 and runs until April 1, 2018. Here, Tabboo! talks about his art, New York, and life with Hearn.

THE FIRST TIME I met Pat was probably around 1977—the year Elvis died—when we were both going to art school in Boston: I was at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, for poor people, and she was at the Museum School. She had a shaved head and crazy eyebrows and makeup, and she wore wild psychedelic clothing. We hooked up immediately and started working together in Boston’s performance art scene, which was really small. But we couldn’t stay there forever. Pat got me to New York. She said, “Throw everything you’ve got in a garbage bag and let’s move.” She was a little more aggressive than I was, which sometimes can be good. But the very first day we got here, we were like, “Oh my God, did we make a mistake? What the fuck are we doing here?! We can’t afford the rent!” So we thought, “Well, let’s get out and just see the world, let’s go to the Kitchen, let’s go to White Columns.” So one day we went to White Columns, and the show there was by somebody who took Barbie dolls, sculpted their hair, xeroxed them, and then put the copies all along the walls. There were people there performing, a boy and a girl, probably the same age. She was singing, and he was beating some drums and wearing a hula skirt. So we walked up to them and start talking. The woman was Ann Craig—a big star of downtown. The guy in the hula skirt was Jean-Michel Basquiat. I was like, “I think we’re home.”

Pat and I had a little No Wave band called Wild and Wonderful—it started in Boston. (It wasn’t my first band, though—Jack Pierson, a bunch of other people, and I were in one called the Fucking Barbies.) We’d do things like slowly play Elvis’s “That’s When Your Heartaches Begin” backwards and sing over it. Pat would usually do the song, and I’d be playing drums. We were part of the scene that was based around Club 57 during the late 1970s and early ’80s. We did shows everywhere: the Mudd Club, CBGB, Club 57, the Pyramid Club. That’s how I met all those queens from Atlanta, like RuPaul and Lady Bunny. The Pyramid queens used to put on these theme nights at the clubs, too, like Old South Night, Trailer Park Trash Night, or Coney Island Baby Night.

Excerpt from Tabboo!’s interview for 500 Words.

Back then, I found my art supplies on the street. I’d scavenge through the trash of shipping and packing companies and find rolls of this disposable packing paper, like craft paper—something you’d wrap dead fish in. I once found all this Pepsodent toothpaste packaging and started painting on it. That stuff is not supposed to last, but I thought the world was going to end in 1984, or turn into something out of George Orwell, so I didn’t care about doing things on 100 percent cotton rag acid-free paper. I was young, dumb, full of cum, whatever. At the time, it was all about the Weimar Republic. That was the zeitgeist. It was coming out of punk, New Wave, and maybe the German stuff too: Kraftwerk, Klaus Nomi. I was inspired by German Expressionism, Neue Sachlichkeit, Otto Dix, all of that. One of my favorite movies is Cabaret—because of Bob Fosse, not just Liza Minnelli! I even met Nomi on my second day in New York. He tried to pick me up. He was a leather queen, alas. I wasn’t into it. But it was such a big deal to meet him.

I’ve done everything: drag, painting, theatrical design, music. I’ve never confined myself artistically. It must have something to do with having been a professional puppeteer as a kid. I was even a card-carrying member of the Puppeteers of America. I was in puppeteering magazines! I made my puppets, I did the voices—both male and female—and created the sets. I was an auteur.

Anyway, what I do now is so different. The kind of work I made back then reflected the life I lived. I mean, I was a professional drag queen for twenty-five years. I didn’t wake up until 4 in the afternoon. I didn’t come home until 5:30 in the morning. I was a woman drinking and doing drugs. That’s how I lived. I made art about what was around me, what I knew. So what do I know now? I know my friends. I know my plants. I know all my tchotchkes, my puppet collection, and New York City. I’ve been around the world, but I don’t travel that much these days. I’m basically a homebody. So that’s my subject matter. I paint with acrylics on linen, realistically with a touch of abstraction. I’m influenced by the old stuff—Matisse, Toulouse-Lautrec. A lot of contemporary art leaves me cold. And I paint from my Alphabet City apartment, which I’ve lived in for about thirty-five years. Here’s my big fancy artist statement: I don’t have one! I just do what I do.

New York is not what it used to be, but I’d rather be here than in Charlottesville, honey. I’m not too sad about it because I accept change. But it can be tough. So many people I came up with died, from drugs, hepatitis C, AIDS. So much has disappeared: all the little bookstores, antique shops, and Polish restaurants. And the art supply stores, too—New York Central, A.I. Friedman—have vanished. Why does NYU buy out everything and turn it into dorms? And what’s with all these young college kids? They come here, go shopping, party a little, get their degrees, then go back to wherever the fuck they came from. Why do they dictate everything? All these enormous universities are like kudzu, you know? I mean, I love kudzu, I love its pretty green color, but it sucks the life out of everything. Well, whatever—I’m in a show at the Museum of Modern Art! I’m doing fine.

— As told to Alex Jovanovich

Tiona Nekkia McClodden, The Brad Johnson Tape, X - On Subjugation, 2017, video, black-and-white, sound, 2 minutes 24 seconds.


Based in Philadelphia, the artist and filmmaker Tiona Nekkia McClodden often formulates her work in response to lesser-known creative predecessors, pulling up the deeper roots of black American art, literature, and identity. The ten-part VHS video The Brad Johnson Tape, 2017, is her latest project and pays homage to the poems, essays, and correspondence of the late writer, who died of AIDS-related complications in 2011. One segment of the work, On Subjugation, and another recent video, Essex + Audre, 2015, are on view in the group exhibition “Speech/Acts” at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia through December 23, 2017.

EARLY LAST YEAR, I went to this magazine shop called Avril 50 in Philadelphia. I typically go there every month to get my art magazines because it has the best selection in the city. I bought an issue of the journal Other Countries: Black Gay Voices, and when I was flipping through it on the train, I came across a poem by Brad Johnson, called “On Subjugation.” It just knocked me over. I had this physical reaction that was almost lustful—I felt so hot! It was like someone was cruising me or speaking directly to me.

I couldn’t stop reading it. I scanned it and printed it out and kept it in my pocket to look at from time to time. I have it memorized—I’ve read it almost every day for a year. But when I googled Johnson’s name, I couldn’t find anything. Then I did a deeper search and found an interview with Steven G. Fullwood, the founder of the Black Gay and Lesbian Archive at the Schomburg Center for Research at the New York Public Library, who said the center had just acquired Johnson’s work. I was like, It has to be him.

I visited Johnson’s archive in New York on Valentine’s Day this year. Once I saw it, I committed to creating a body of work for this man. I learned that he wrote “On Subjugation” while serving in the navy in the early ’80s, right after he got out of Yale. This was long before “Don’t ask, don’t tell.” Imagining the mind-set that must come from being in the military—and attending an Ivy League school—as an out gay black man made the text a lot clearer to me.

After a while, I came to understand how Johnson saw himself, which was heartbreaking. He was hard on himself. He dealt with a lot of rage and sadness, based on the ways that he felt he should succeed—and, very frankly, he should have been able to. But his writing goes between this romantic, lush language and hard-core, aggressive, sexually driven passages. I’m in the BDSM community, so I was like, Okay, this is a daddy. The way that he talks about leather in some of his poems is fantastic.

I had to work up the courage to make The Brad Johnson Tape for almost a year. For the project, I put myself through ten exercises, or—to use the language of a BDSM player—ten scenes, while reading one of Johnson’s texts out loud. Each scene also incorporates a device or situation that’s related to SM physical play. For one of them, I beat myself with a latex rope while reading an essay of his, because the entire feeling of the text is of him annihilating himself. For another, I read “On Subjugation” while being suspended by my feet from a suspension rig that I built in my studio. I recorded all ten scenes using an old VHS camcorder, on one single tape.

Part of my research into Johnson involves this physical thing I want to feel. I want to put myself through these situations to experience the same feeling I got from reading him—to feel the thing I feared and desired the most in an attempt to invoke a pure jouissance. There are moments in these exercises in which I cry, and I have to read between tears, or in which I am in such ecstasy that my eyes are pulsing. That’s something I can’t exactly convey to an audience, but it’s something I needed to feel. I’d say that the text is master. Or I’d say, truly, that Johnson is my dom. And the way to keep him in this dominant role is to put my hand on his text and read.

— As told to Juliana Halpert

Harry Gamboa Jr., Gerardo Velázquez, Synthesized Music Composer, 1991, gelatin silver print, 14 x 11".


A native of Los Angeles, Harry Gamboa Jr. is a photographer, performance artist, writer, educator, and founding member of the Chicano collective Asco. He will be the subject of several shows this fall, including a comprehensive exhibition of his ongoing “Chicano Male Unbonded” series of portraits, opening at the Autry Museum of the American West in Los Angeles on September 16, 2017, and a retrospective of his Asco photographs, which is on view at Marlborough Contemporary in New York through October 7, 2017. Here, Gamboa discusses his recent projects and the evolving context of his practice.

I GUESS I’VE COME TO THE ATTENTION OF THE AUTHORITIES. Recently, the LA County Board of Supervisors suddenly felt they needed to give me a commendation. It’s one of those things where someone points a finger and you must appear, which is absolutely the opposite of the reception I got when I was young. We make an arc.

The Asco group began in 1972. Immediately, I started directing and having people perform. The absurdity of being in LA just bled through everything. Early on, I figured out how to make staged events look as though they were documentary, manipulating perception and playing with the themes and techniques of Hollywood cinema. After watching a film, I remember just a fleeting moment, and it always costs multimillions of dollars to make them, so why go through all that trouble? We decided to just shoot the single image that everyone is going to remember. We called these “No Movies.”

The fotonovela, a kind of graphic novel illustrated with photographs, was a format that was used in Italy, Spain, and Mexico around the time of World War II. They were very sexualized, fantastic, and very violent. I just finished designing twelve fotonovelas for the Getty Museum in a project titled See What You Mean, to be presented sometime this fall. The agreement was that I would use reproductions of some works in their collection. I immediately took an image of the Van Gogh painting Irises, 1889—which is basically the visual identity of the Getty—out into the streets and put it alongside the freeway. In the end, my work is always used to typify the opposite of the emotions Van Gogh’s work evokes.

The “Chicano Male Unbonded” series that will be shown at the Autry began in 1991, at a time when there was so much concerted effort to promote negative Chicano stereotypes. I felt it was necessary to play with those stereotypes. In terms of the people I choose as subjects for these portraits, I’m usually looking for someone who has shown me some element of personal integrity. There wasn’t enough time to print or include an image of him in the exhibition, but the person that I photographed most recently was an Episcopalian priest named Father Richard Estrada. I saw him being arrested while protesting against deportations in Houston, and given the way the police were roughing him up and the dignity with which he handled it, I immediately figured that’s the kind of guy I had to find for this series.

Photographs of a total of eighty-four men will be displayed at the museum. These men all have style in the first place, but I ask them to come dressed as they would like to be seen in two hundred years. Because this is LA, I shoot everything in a film noir style, only at night and only with available light. All of a sudden, my subject and I both become vulnerable. While we’re out working, we could be confused with negative stereotypes. Sometimes people come up and ask me what kind of gang this is, but all of the men I photograph are either colleagues or other artists, or writers or lawyers. I’d say half the people in the group have very advanced degrees from top-tier schools. As it turns out, it is an absolutely essential project, given this situation where we have a president that refers to males of Mexican descent as “bad hombres.”

For more on Harry Gamboa Jr. and Asco, see the October 2011 issue of Artforum, including Julia Bryan-Wilson’s essay on the group’s Asshole Mural, 1975.

— As told to Travis Diehl

Bosco Sodi

09.05.17

Bosco Sodi, Muro (Wall), 2017, New York. Photo: Studio Bosco Sodi


On September 7, 2017, the Brooklyn-based Mexican artist Bosco Sodi will deliver on one of Donald Trump’s campaign promises: he will build a wall that was paid for by Mexicans. Beginning at 7 AM, Sodi and his crew will erect Muro, 2017, in Washington Square Park, with 1,600 clay bricks that were fired by hand at the artist’s studio in Mexico. Once his first New York public art installation is finished, Sodi will step back around 3 PM and watch as the community takes it apart.

I DON’T MAKE POLITICAL ART. In the past, various artist friends and associations have invited me to work on political projects, but I always rejected the idea because it wasn’t natural for me. It always felt too forced. But the idea for Muro—a nearly six-foot-high and twenty-six-foot-long wall—came about organically. It was born out of conversations I’ve had with the craftsmen who work in the area near Casa Wabi, my foundation in Oaxaca, Mexico.

The craftsmen told me stories about wanting to be immigrants in the United States and about their experiences living there illegally. Then, one day in February, they brought these clay timbers we had been making for my upcoming show at SCAI the Bathhouse in Japan to my studio, and they stacked them like a wall. When I saw it, I realized this was a piece I needed to make in New York.

Mexicans will build the wall. Since the word has gotten out about this project, I’ve been receiving hundreds of emails from people asking if they can help. I invited architects, writers, and people who work in kitchens and supermarkets in New York. We will begin working on the installation at 7 AM. There are 1,600 clay timbers, so building it should take around three hours. The wall will be completed around 3 PM, and then it will be up to New Yorkers to tear it down.

The clay timbers I designed for Muro were all made in Mexico and transported to New York by truck, along the same route an illegal immigrant might take. Each block will have my signature. Anyone who wants to help tear the wall down will be allowed to take one brick. If you choose to join the experience, you become a co-owner of a piece of art. This opens a door. In the future, if the political situation is still the same, people can get together and rebuild the wall for others to dismantle.

My wife was a little bit worried because I have an artist’s visa, and you never know what will happen. But, as I said to her, I believe in this, and I have to do it. I would be a coward if I didn’t just because of a visa.

I chose to build the piece in Washington Square Park because it is a place where a lot of demonstrations have happened, and I wanted the project to be outside, not in an arts space. I thought the city would be reluctant to give me the permit, but there was no trouble. To me this spoke to the diversity of New York, which is a different world from the rest of America. It was very beautiful.

I’m a little scared, however, about how many cameras will be there. But this project is for the community; every individual has the right and obligation to participate. As soon as the wall is done, I will take a step back. The work will be finished. It will be up to the spectators for it to be a success. I want it to be poetic, not like a protest. But maybe someone will take a brick and try to break it. Then it will just be a part of the performance and the conversation. It would be very boring if everyone agreed on everything, no?

— As told to Lauren Cavalli