The Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art is pleased to present Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble, the artist’s first-ever museum retrospective, on view from September 29, 2018 to January 27, 2019. Rubbish and Dreams follows Varble’s work as a performance artist, playwright, and costume designer from 1971 until his death from AIDS-related complications in 1984. The exhibition brings together photographs, drawings, sculptural objects, and videos, as well as works by Varble’s collaborators and contemporaries that tell a story of street performance in the 1970s.
A performance art pioneer, Stephen Varble was an essential figure in the SoHo of the mid-1970s. After moving to New York from Kentucky to complete an MFA in Film Directing at Columbia University in 1971, he became associated with New York Fluxus in the early 1970s. The exhibition will include a number of works made in tandem with his partner at the time, Geoffrey Hendricks. In the mid-1970s, Varble took to the streets with his “Costume Tours of New York,” which involved unauthorized intrusions into SoHo galleries, banks, boutiques, and uptown museums. In these, he would wear outrageous, gender-confounding costumes made from street trash, food waste, and stolen objects. Fearless, he appeared at events such as the Easter Parade or disrupt everyday business of galleries by spilling liquids like milk or cow’s blood from his costume sculptures made from rubbish.
He said in 1976, “By making my gowns from things I find on the street, I show that you can look divine with nothing. If you use your imagination. […] It’s a life acted out frame by frame, not in celluloid but in rubbish and dreams.” At this time, Varble became an increasingly antagonistic critic of commercialism. His works lampooned gender and class, and he targeted sites of luxury commerce, such as Tiffany’s. This exhibition charts Varble’s use of costume to confront institutions and assumptions about gender. It extends further to his shift to video art and drawing in the late 1970s. Throughout, Varble’s work called attention to the transformative power of costume and its ability to disrupt.
Rubbish and Dreams will document major costume sculptures created by Varble, along with the performances for which they were developed. This first museum exhibition of Varble’s work includes previously unpublished photographs and never-before-seen drawings, videos, and ephemera. Most significantly, Rubbish and Dreams will offer the first public showing of Varble’s final work Journey to the Sun, an epic piece of video art made between 1978 and 1983.
The exhibition’s curator, David Getsy, remarked, “Stephen Varble’s work was in danger of being entirely forgotten because of its antagonism to institutions, but this exhibition draws on private archives to reconstruct his story. His glamorous ‘gutter art’ confronted passersby with mash-ups of gender and mockeries of wealth and luxury, and he is part of a history of oppositional performance art in the 1970s that sought its audiences outside of galleries and museums. The work is especially important today for the ways in which it challenged binary accounts of gender and confronted art’s institutions.”
Although the majority of the Varble’s sculptural pieces, drawings, and performance records have been lost over time, Rubbish and Dreams makes use of a network of friends, collaborators and associates for testimonials, interviews, and private loans of work. Additionally, Varble’s performance art will be contextualized in relation to other street-based performances of gender in the 1970s, with representative works from artists such as Geoffrey Hendricks, Betsy Damon, the Hot Peaches, Adrian Piper, Scott Burton, Colette, Pope.L, Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt, and Jack Smith. Throughout, the exhibition offers a focused account of the irreverent and critical potential of performance art developed in New York in the 1970s.
“As the Museum continues to put forward the legacy and impact of many important artists that became lost in our cultural history, Steven Varble represents a unique time in SoHo, when it filled with creative energy and artistic expression.” Gonzalo Casals, Director continues, “We can trace our origins back to the early 70s, when we began to showcase unknown and underrepresented queer artists of the time. This exhibition continues our mission of reclaiming our community’s heritage.”
Funding for this exhibition has been received from generous support of The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts and the Graham Foundation for Advanced Studies in the Fine Arts and in part from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council; and from the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.
David J. Getsy is guest curator for Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble. He is the Goldabelle McComb Finn Distinguished Professor of Art History at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, and his books include Abstract Bodies: Sixties Sculpture in the Expanded Field of Gender (Yale 2015), Scott Burton: Collected Writings on Art and Performance, 1965-1975 (Soberscove 2012), Rodin: Sex and the Making of Modern Sculpture (Yale 2010), and, most recently, the anthology of artists’ writings, Queer (MIT Press, 2016).