From Joan Jonas to Theaster Gates, These 8 Artists Fooled the Art World with Alter Egos

Alexxa Gotthardt
Jan 2, 2017 1:00PM

At one point or another, everyone wants to become someone new. Maybe don a wig, adopt a new name, or adjust your personality. If David Bowie could seamlessly transform into Ziggy Stardust, and Beyoncé can metamorphose into Sasha Fierce, why can’t we do the same?

Artists of all stripes have long used alter egos to unlock or enhance aspects of their work. Marcel Duchamp, the king of conceptual art, was one of the first. He surprised the artist community by stepping out in 1920 as his feminine foil, Rrose Sélavy, who sat for Man Ray and made her own sculptures. It’s said that the Dada trickster used Sélavy to expand the traditional definitions of art and artist, conventions he worked long and hard upend.

Since then, many creatives have incorporated alter egos into their practices. Lynn Hershman Leeson used hers—the awkward, heavily maquillaged Roberta Breitmore—to explore feminist identity politics. Theaster Gates concocted his—the fictional Japanese ceramicist Shoji Yamaguchi—to kickstart conversations about the marginalization of certain ethnic groups and artistic mediums. And sometimes, as in the case of Rammellzee, artists have taken their projects even further, completely assuming their constructed persona in the studio and in everyday life. Here are eight artists whose oeuvres wouldn’t be the same without their alter egos.

Photo by @whitecubeofficial, via Instagram.

In 2007, Gates showed up to the opening of “Plate Convergence,” an exhibition of work by the late Shoji Yamaguchi, a Japanese master potter who, after World War II, had moved to Mississippi, married a black civil rights activist, and established a commune. Like the rest of the visitors, Gates ogled the elegant sculptures and rubbed elbows with Yamaguchi’s son. He explained to other gallerygoers how he’d met Yamaguchi on a trip to the South, and how he considered the Japanese master to be his mentor until his death in 1991. Then, later in the night, Gates revealed that he’d concocted the whole story, hired an actor to play Yamaguchi’s son, and made the ceramic works himself.

Gates has explained the performance as a means to open up his practice and experiment more freely with new mediums—in this case, ceramics, a medium traditionally excluded from the “high art” canon. But the act also bolstered seminal themes in Gates’s practice, particularly the struggles of marginalized ethnic groups in America and the investigation of black identity and history in general. By assuming the persona of a man who belonged to another minority group and working with material traditionally outside the fine art realm, Gates was able to spotlight the many facets of racial inequality in the United States.

Roberta's Multiples Looking at Roberta's Construction Chart Seen From Behind, 1978
Anglim Gilbert Gallery

In the early 1970s, not long after being rejected from an exhibition at the Berkeley Museum because her work contained sound (a medium not recognized by the art establishment at the time), Leeson decided to bring her practice straight to the public instead. Spurred by her interest in gender politics and the fluidity of identity, she transformed into the character Roberta Breitmore, an awkward, heavily made-up young woman who struggled with depression and her weight. Leeson then lived primarily as her alter ego for four years, from 1974 to 1978, in San Francisco. During this extended performance, Breitmore obtained her own driver’s license and credit cards, and she attended Weight Watchers meetings and appointments with her psychiatrist.

Had you been in San Francisco during those years, you might have seen Breitmore walking down the street, blond wig bouncing clumsily, sunglass-shrouded eyes averted to the ground. Indeed, Breitmore became a San Francisco legend—and Leeson’s performance has gone down in history as a galvanizing work for both feminism and performance art. Leeson’s action, documented in 144 sketches and surveillance photographs, along with ephemera from Breitmore’s life, remains searingly relevant today. With identity having become all the more malleable thanks to the internet and social media, it is now easier than ever to create virtual avatars.

MindPlace ThoughtStream , 2014
Galerie Crevecoeur

I don’t have to ‘get into character’ or anything. It’s always there under the surface. I just have to go be alone, and I’m Cynthia,” Moulton has explained of Cynthia, her alter ego and the subject of her psychedelic, dreamy videos. Across the films, Moulton’s Cynthia meditates on the complexities of the world and her own character, all from the comfort of her home. The domestic realm becomes a surreal playground where Cynthia engages with sundry self-help and beauty regimes.

In her videos, we see Cynthia shopping online for light-up waterfall decorations, self-healing with “sound medicine” piped through headphones adorned with conch shells and pine cones, and wearing a face mask as she wanders through a fantastical Southwestern-esque landscape dotted with forms inspired by Georgia O’Keefe and hot stone massages. “We share a brain. I don’t even think of her as a character. It’s just me. Getting into character is just getting into me,” Moulton has said on her relationship with of Cynthia. “It’s me in the bathroom; it’s me worried about ageing; it’s me looking at a beauty magazine.” Indeed, Moulton uses Cynthia as a powerful tool to unlock grander anxieties related to physical and mental self-care.

In Jonas’s 1972 performance and video Organic Honey’s Visual Telepathy, the artist hums and preens in front of a mirror as she experiments with different identities. Masks are tried on, a feathered headdress is donned, until Jonas lands on a costume of her liking and becomes her alter ego, one she assumed numerous times over the 1970s. “The piece evolved as I found myself continually investigating my own image in the monitor of my video machine,” Jonas explained during a talk at MoMA in 1981. “My next move was to buy a mask of a doll’s face, which transformed me into an erotic seductress. I named my new persona Organic Honey, and I became increasingly obsessed with following the process of my own theatricality.”

The piece, one of Jonas’s most celebrated, laid the groundwork for her trailblazing body of work, recently honored at the 2015 Venice Biennale, where she represented the United States. In her guise as Organic Honey, she explored not only themes of identity and narcissism, but also the homogenization of female archetypes and stereotypes. Among her other innovative videos and haunting performances of the 1970s, it is this work that cemented Jonas’s place in the canons of feminist art, video art, and performance art.

Hennessy Youngman’s YouTube account, ART THOUGHTZ, has well over a million views. Across the video library, which he uploaded between 2010 and 2012, he wears a conga line of novelty caps and gold chains as he critiques, in deadpan, a variety of art world conundrums. Take, for instance, the ubiquity of Damien Hirst’s work: “Damien Hirst is going to be exhibiting his spot paintings at all the Gagosian Galleries worldwide, simultaneously, like some perfect storm of banality.” Youngman is the brainchild of artist Musson, who plays the character as part of his growing body of work that questions the hierarchy of art and the exclusion of ethnic minorities from art history.

Musson conceived of the character during his first semester of grad school, and the project quickly progressed. “I realized after the first video that this character was going to be a talking head, this rap art pundit, and I guess it was also a way of coping being in school, dealing with a history of ideas that I didn’t feel a part of. While having fun. All my work uses humor,” Musson has explained. ART THOUGHTZ set the tone for Youngman’s practice. In another project, Musson stretched Coogi sweaters, the likes of which Bill Cosby used to wear, onto painting stretchers, drawing amusing but poignant connections between African-American fashion and Abstract Expressionism.

Prince’s iconic paintings—bold emblems of the Pictures Generation—are inspired by images appropriated from pop culture: The covers of pulp novels became the subjects of his signature “Nurse” series, and swaggering Marlboro Men became his “Cowboys” canvases. But Prince is inspired by more than just the images that surround us. He has also appropriated characteristics of the people he encounters, transforming them into numerous alter egos. The most famous of these was John Dogg, a fictional artist in the 1980s who exhibited slick sculptures made from store-bought objects like tires, soda cans, and barstool seats, including in a solo exhibition at 303 Gallery in 1987. Prince conceived of Dogg with dealer Colin de Land as a means to further his investigation of authenticity and artistic individuality.

“Hugh Hefner did all his work from his bed. He had a big-ass bed and a minifridge and a Franz Kline hanging in there. Home—that’s where I’m fearless,” Prince has said of his tendency to stay away from the limelight. In addition to using Dogg’s name, he has also written about art and culture using the alias Fulton Ryder and Howard Johnson. One book published under Dogg’s moniker reproduced scads of risque erotic photos from the artist’s personal collection, and a catalog printed in conjunction with Prince’s 2007 Guggenheim retrospective even included a conversation between Dogg and Prince. It was also in that tome that Prince, for the first time since Dogg appeared in the 1980s, came out as his alter ego’s inventor.

Photo by @pcrailsheim, via Instagram.

If you attended an art opening in mid-1960s L.A., you just might have run into the alter ego of Light and Space pioneer Bell: a flamboyant, high-rolling, mustachioed version of himself. “When we’d go out to social events, like art openings and museum parties, I’d dress up in one of my thrift store suits, put on a false mustache and weird glasses, fix my hair so it stood out all over the place, and become Biluxo Benoni,” Bell has said. While Bell’s second persona didn’t directly relate to his influential minimalist sculptures—luminescent cubes that fractured light and transformed the perception of space—it did allow him to more confidently interact with his peers.

Bell has suggested that he constructed Benoni, also known as Dr. Lux, in order to integrate into the artist community that surrounded him. While boundary-pushing artists like Ken Price, Billy Al Bengston, and Robert Irwin were his friends, they were also his heroes—inspiring but intimidating creative minds. In Dr. Lux’s shoes, Bell became the charismatic, confident life of the party. “Whatever money I got I just spent. If we all went out to dinner I’d pick up the tab—even if I had no money at all. Those guys started calling me Luxury because of that extravagance,” explained Bell. Eventually, perhaps as he became more comfortable in his own skin and with his artistic success, Bell put Biluxo Benoni and Dr. Lux behind him. “I hid out in a lot of places as Dr. Lux,” he has said. “Then, at a certain point, I decided to stop dressing up and just be me.”

Alexxa Gotthardt