Later this summer, Kalup Linzy will become the first sometimes-in-drag black performance artist on daytime television. The 32-year-old Brooklyn video artist will join Hollywood actor James Franco (better known for roles in movies like Pineapple Express and Milk) on General Hospital, with filming starting this week. It’s a breakthrough of sorts, said Mr. Franco, a friend of the artist who recently joined him in a duet of “Proud Mary” at a party at the Bowery Hotel. “Kalup is an artist portraying an artist [on a soap]-and an artist who depicts soap opera in his works.”
Mr. Linzy, and his entangled fascinations with melodrama and mass media, first got art-world notice in 2005 with his breakthrough video, All My Churen. Parodying ABC’s somewhat similarly titled soap, the video premiered in a viewing room of the then tiny Chelsea gallery Taxter & Spengemann. In it, Mr. Linzy and a small group of his peers and performers dress in partial drag and chat, like Southern housewives, on the phone. They gossip, spar, mourn a dead (since resurrected) dog and ask to borrow money. In another video in the series, Mr. Linzy compares those pointed squabbles with the elevated matters of the art world. All My Churen, with its issues of family, gender and identity, immediately drew attention, succeeding on the level of both entertaining melodrama and a skillful parody of one.
That first career-breakthrough show almost didn’t happen, his art dealers explained. At the time, Mr. Linzy had recently relocated to New York from a prestigious artist’s residency at Skowhegan, Me., where he met Pascal Spengemann. He began to hang around the gallery. They asked him to bring his stuff over, recalls co-director Kelly Taxter. “So he brought us a VHS tape. Of course, we couldn’t watch it, because VHS was dead in 2004.” Technological issues resolved, the gallery went on to screen the soap series and has shown Mr. Linzy’s work twice more. In 2006, he exhibited gouaches that featured childlike, Rorschach-like black characters in silhouette, along with the videos. Last year, his works, now in canvas and incorporating collage, were exhibited at the influential Studio Museum of Harlem. The artist brings an aggressive, queer sexuality to his work: In one 2009 video, two clearly identifiably male silhouettes complain that a third man “doesn’t wash his ass.”
The artist and James Franco met last year at the Raleigh Hotel during Art Basel Miami. Mr. Franco was in the midst of filming his own artistic investigation of soaps, his own role as an artist/serial killer on the soap, while Mr. Linzy was performing at a party thrown by Picasso granddaughter (by Marie-Therese) Diana Picasso. But Mr. Franco said he actually first saw the artist when Mr. Linzy gave a lecture at Columbia, and was impressed enough to pull him into the job of playing a performance artist for the General Hospital project. Since Mr. Franco has been selected as the U.S. artist for the 2011 Venice Biennale, their collaboration may be showcased on a global stage. So, now, Mr. Linzy is poised, interestingly, right between widespread acclaim, even over-saturation, in the contemporary art world, and virtual anonymity outside of it.
Mr. Linzy grew up with a grandmother, who was deaf, and an aunt in Stuckey, Fla., a village of about 250 people in between Orlando and Tampa. They were clearly devoted to soap opera, and their effect on Linzy’s euphoric, dissociated senses of sound and storytelling is profound. The upending of high and low art is both a tired and interminable subject, but Mr. Linzy is interested in soap opera for the “wrong” reasons: the emotional immaturity of its repeated, unrestrained gestures, the really crude melodrama. Said Mr. Linzy, “It’s traditional drama, like it dates all the way back to Shakespeare. All it asks is, ‘What’s going to happen next?’ You know it’s not real; the actors know it’s not real; and it doesn’t even look real. But they play it out really dramatic.”
The artist isn’t particularly tall but he’s solid and has wide and pleasant features-and dresses, while not performing, quite discreetly, which is an important part of his personas. He doesn’t look like other actors, but he doesn’t look like a drag performer, either. At a recent performance for Art Production Fund and Campari’s 150th anniversary, Mr. Linzy channeled the character Taiwan, in a limp blond wig and a Proenza Schouler bodysuit the artist got when he collaborated with the designers. (He performed 11 songs, accompanied by dancers or Mr. Franco.) But Mr. Linzy’s characters are only half-heartedly gender identifying-their dress is understated, their voice and mannerism stylized but not believable. “With the littlest means possible, he creates an entire world with symbols,” said Ms. Taxter. “Rather than exaggerating everything it means to be female, it’s a parody of a parody.”
Much of the critical discussion of Mr. Linzy’s work is that it’s high on seduction and parody, short on accomplished formal strategy. And there are questions of gender politics, whether the artist’s half-drag is radical-or tame. It is significant that a black, gay, gender-confusing artist will be represented on daytime TV. But for all the artist’s talent, his role on the show still required the facilitation of a white male celebrity.
Alex Gartenfeld is editor of InterviewMagazine.com and ArtinAmericaMagazine.com