Jeanne Lanvin, Madame Grès, Elsa Schiaparelli
Britney Spears eye shadow, Wet n Wild nail polish, Afro Sheen Hair Conditioner, Aqua Net Extra Hold Hair Spray, water color pencils, and glycerine on cardboard
13 1/2 x 3 1/8 in (34.29 x 7.94 cm)
Image courtesy of the artist and Adams and Ollman
Vaginal Davis (b. 1959, Los Angeles, CA; lives and works in Berlin, Germany) is an important figure in the “homocore” movement that reinterpreted hardcore punk through queer culture. Her art objects often use untraditional or DIY materials, such as cosmetics or matchbooks.
This work is part of a series of Davis’ portraits of “women trapped in the bodies of women” using makeup and hair products as paint – in this case, Britney Spears eye shadow and Wet n Wild nail polish, among other beauty ingredients. Layers of expressive marks cover the bumpy cardboard ground, creating punk portraits of elegant women in fashion – here, Jeanne Lanvin (the French fashion designer and founder of the Lanvin fashion house and beauty and perfume company), Madame Grès (a pioneering French Jewish couturier and costume designer of the 30s and 40s who created body-conscious draped gowns), and Elsa Schiaparelli (the Italian fashion designer who pioneered modern haute couture, collaborated with many avant-garde artists and developed many innovations in women’s fashion like the wrap dress).
Davis was born intersex, at a time when doctors assigned children with her anatomy a gender of “male” or “female” through surgical intervention. (These procedures persist today, though at lower rates.) Her mother refused to let doctors operate. So Davis grew up with the word “male” on her birth certificate but with her mother and four older sisters referring to her by female pronouns. Their household in South Central Los Angeles, Davis said, was a “Druid Wiccan witches’ coven” where her identity as a daughter was not questioned but affirmed.
Davis got her start in L.A.’s predominately white punk scene as the front woman of an art-punk band called the Afro Sisters, where she referenced and drew inspiration from iconic black radicals like Angela Davis, after whom she named herself. Throughout the eighties, Vaginal Davis developed multiple personas and performed incongruous identities. She was a black revolutionary drag queen, a teen-age Chicana pop star, a white-supremacist militiaman. These characters often referred to one another: against her better judgment, Vaginal Davis pined for Clarence, a rabid white supremacist; Clarence, too, harbored secret affections. Their dynamic caricatured that illicit desire that exists despite—or, perhaps, because of—racism. This kind of political critique, simultaneously absurd and hyper-real, made Davis a muse to a generation of queer writers and critics, like the late José Esteban Muñoz, who died in 2013.
– Cyrus Grace Dunham, “The ‘Terrorist Drag’ of Vaginal Davis,” The New Yorker, December 12, 2015
Adams and Ollman
Other works by Vaginal Davis
Vaginal Davis’ website
Vaginal Davis at Adams and Ollman
Vaginal Davis at Isabella Bortolozzi
“Vaginal Davis: An Invitation to the Dance,” Adams and Ollman, Portland, 13 September – 20 October 2018
“Vaginal Davis: The White to Be Angry,” Art Institute of Chicago, 1 February – 26 April 2020
Ryann Donnelly, “The Teachings of Vaginal Davis,” Art in America, November 20, 2012
“Vaginal Davis: HAG – SMALL, CONTEMPORARY, HAGGARD,” Participant, Inc., New York, 4 November – 16 December 2012