ART News

PERFORMING TRASH, PERFORMING THE GUTTER: THE ART OF STEPHEN VARBLE

16th February 2022 | Guest Writer: Marianna Capelli

Greg Day, Stephen Varble at the 12th Annual Avant-Garde Festival, 1975. Digital print. © Greg Day 2021.

During the last decades, art historians have actively worked to reconstruct a queer history of art by spotlighting undeservingly forgotten artists. As a consequence of the AIDS crisis, among many others, we lost a generation of creatives and gender-and-sexuality-expression pioneers. In the 1970s and then throughout the 1980s-1990s, the scapegoating of queer people became exceptionally violent, and queer art was censored for alleged obscenity and then greatly defunded. This inflamed a desire for confrontation among LGBTQIA+ creatives: reacting with loud, disruptive and public performance movements. Art became an effective means of protest via guerrilla-street-art actions, the reclaiming of agitprop, and performance art.

Greg Day, Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor, October 1975. Digital print, 2018. © Greg Day, 2021

The Berlin Schwules Museum exhibition “The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day” (06/11/2021 – 21/03/2022), curated by David J. Getsy, Eleonor Shea professor of Art History at the University of Virginia, is an exploration of the forgotten work of Stephen Varble.

As Getsy asserts: “The fact is many queer, trans and genderqueer artists - especially from the 1970s - no matter how visible they were, are often
side-lined or written out because they complicate those conventions of the normal.” [1] Moreover, people who passed due to AIDS-related complications, like Stephen Varble himself, were readily written off and neglected. In the case of Varble, his anti-institutional views also contributed to his exclusion from art histories.

“Stephen Varble – Fountain of Safety – SoHo” (1975) photograph by Allan Tannenbaum Courtesy of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble” is currently showing at the Schwules Museum (SMU) in Berlin (Lützowstraße 73 – Tiergarten District). Founded in 1985 by the non-profit organisation “Verein Freundinnen und Freunde eines Schwules Museum in Berlin e.V.” (or, Friends of a Gay Museum in Berlin),
SMU is renowned for its collections, library and archive work. It strives to be a reference point and a centre of information on and for LGBTQIA+ people.
This is the fourth venue for The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble. SMU’s display specifically focuses on the ongoing collaboration between Varble and Greg Day. It features a selection of Day’s renditions of Varble’s performances, as well as costumes and photographs of his community of friends and collaborators, such as Peter Hujar, Shibata Atsuko, Agosto Machado, and Warhol stars Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, and Mario Montez.

Stephen Varble, Gutter Art flyer [recto], 1975. Xerographic print on paper. Courtesy Greg Day and the Leslie-Lohman Museum. Photo: Courtesy Greg Day and the Leslie-Lohman Museum.

Stephen Varble (1946-1984) was an American artist from Kentucky, mainly active during the 1970s in New York. He first gained access to performance art and, in particular, queer performance during his time in at University in Lexington. After completing an MFA in Film Directing at Columbia University in 1971, he gained notoriety in SoHo galleries and Fifth Avenue for his loud, guerrilla-like performances that challenged preconceptions of gender expression, sexuality, class and institutionalisation of art. His art often concentrated on the ephemeral, since he used trash, food waste, stolen and found objects to create his iconic costumes. Fortunately, we can still admire his art thanks to photographer and anthropologist Greg Day (b. 1944). Not only is he responsible for the recording of Varble's work, but he also carefully documented (among other things) the LGBTQIA+ Rights movement and the genderqueer art performance in NY and Europe.

“Varble would appear as a vision of transformed trash in a dress of milk cartons, chicken bones and pipe cleaners.”[2] He had realised that his Trash Couture could more easily, in comparison to film, fit into (and challenge) everyday life, while also conveying his anti-capitalistic message. Gutter art needed to be as accessible as possible to his (willing and unwilling) viewers, as opposed to the commodification and privatisation of art promoted by institutions and galleries. He carved a place for himself in an increasingly
conservative Nation, raising his voice in an attempt to be finally heard, especially by those who despised everything he stood for.

Unknown photographer, Stephen Varble during the Chemical Bank Protest, 1976. Collection of the Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art (Gift of Geoffrey Hendricks in memory of Stephen Varble).

His inherent discomfort towards all structures imposed by society was no different from his rejection of the binary. Varble used masculine pronouns but expressed himself in a fundamentally gender-confounding way: melting stereotypically masculine and feminine elements, he formed a unique and personal gender presentation, which today could be considered non-binary-adjacent. Gender-non-conformity (and what will later be known as the genderfuck movement) was central to his art and life.

This discomfort culminated in what became known as the infamous Chemical Bank protest. In 1976, he strutted inside a Chemical Bank branch in New York and demanded to get his money back after a fraudulent withdrawal. This all happened while he was in a “dress made of fish netting covered in fake dollar bills, wearing a toy fighter jet as a loin cloth” and two blood-filled condoms as breasts, which he proceeded to puncture and sign “bad checks for $0,000,000 (none-million).”[3]

Greg Day, Stephen Varble in the Demonstration Costume with Only One Shoe (for the Chemical Bank Protest), 22 March 1976. Digital print, 2018. © Greg Day, 2021

Stephen Varble is just one of the many queer artists we lost, together with most of their work. Thanks to professionals like David J. Getsy, we are finally reuniting with the memory of a remarkable performer who profoundly influenced the 1970s New York scene. Such work of remembrance and celebration is crucial in the case of LGBTQIA+ creatives of the past. Especially for those who did not fit into the art history standards and, like Varble, opposed any affiliation with institutions. It is our responsibility to get to know their history, celebrate them, and pass it on to the next generations. Hopefully, exhibitions like “The Gutter
Art of Stephen Varble” will encourage this restorative discourse and give way to exciting future initiatives.

The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day” is at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. Visit it until the 21 st of March 2022!

Greg Day, Stephen Varble in the Elizabethan Farthingale, October 1975. Digital print, 2018. © Greg Day, 2021.

References:

[1] David J. Getsy’s article “Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble” on The Archive, Winter 2017, Issue 62, Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art New York. https://www.saic.edu/~dgetsy/Publications-Files/Publications2-Articles/Getsy-VarbleExhibition-2017.pdf.

[2] ibidem

[3] ibidem

About the Writer
Marianna Capelli was born in the middle of nowhere, Northern Italy. She moved to London in 2015 to study Asian Art History and Mandarin Chinese at SOAS University of London and fell in love with the contemporary art world.

Temporarily back to the provincial life, she spends her days burying her nose in a book (or multiple books, mostly). The rest of the time, Marianna likes being opinionated about things and writing about art, culture and everything queer.

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