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Cover Story - Drag Face

Looking at drag culture through the controversial portraits of Legendary Children

In mid-September, it suddenly became a little harder to see all the photographs at Gallery 1526's Legendary Children exhibition. That was when gallerist Melanie Bell agreed to cover parts of three photographs of Atlanta area drag queens in response to complaints raised by the manager of a business sharing the gallery's commercial space. He called the images porn.

The calls for censorship such as the one over Legendary Children almost always involve an act of ventriloquism — someone is constantly speaking for someone else: unnamed customers, faceless museum visitors, or that sociological trump card, "the children." The complainer is usually just the first link in a chain of deferrals to someone else's sensibilities deemed to be more delicate than one's own.

Legendary Children, which included photographs by Matthew Terrell, Jon Dean, Blane Bussey, Blake England, and Kevin O, stepped right into a messy set of questions about pornography, though the photographs themselves were posing entirely different inquiries. What makes you you? What's real and what's not? Who's outside and who's in?

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??"Violet Chachki"
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Jon Dean's portrait of Violet Chachki was one of the photos that caused the stir. It doesn't matter whether the creamy, white substance at the corner of the lips in the background is faux spunk or the real stuff. What matters is that we can't know for sure either way. That's an irresistible provocation. Next to those besmirched lips, the drag queen in the front looks tame by comparison. The background becomes the foreground and vice versa.

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?page??"Triple portrait"
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Drag performance doesn't end after the klieg lights shut off, as this triple portrait by Kevin O implies. Drag performance takes place both on stage and in the community of casual, real-life interaction, which has an impact even on an inhospitable world. It's possible for a group to live at the margins of society, and yet occupy that society's symbolic center. Think hippies in the late 1960s or civil rights protesters a few years earlier. Those groups influenced the culture at large way out of proportion to their relatively small numbers and demeaned social status. Something similar happened with gay politics in the early 1990s. RuPaul and the Lady Bunny - both originally Atlanta queens - weren't just part of a profound cultural change gaining momentum, they were its vanguard. The sun hat, the hoop earrings, and the contouring makeup visible in Kevin O's photo carry the same political charge on stage and off.

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?page??"Ellisorous Rex"
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Blane Bussey's series of drag queens in mainstream, non-theater locations carry the concept of endless performance to an extreme. Like the showy flamingoes of the Atlanta Zoo in the background, Ellisorous Rex is both on display and simply in the world. There's no clear line where a stage starts and stops. Paraphrasing Shakespeare, the stage enfolds the entire world.

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?page??"Kryean Kally"
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Jon Dean's portrait of Kryean Kally is awash in the aesthetics of shining artifice and extreme aesthetics. The world isn't a stage as it's found; instead, the stage is a world as it's created. There's a clear link between queerness and the gorgeous aesthetics of over-the-top artifice. I first encountered it in Isaac Julien's Looking for Langston. But it had already been there in the films of Kenneth Anger and the impossibly lush photography of James Bidgood. They worked out the aesthetic armature that Pierre et Gilles and David LaChapelle filled with glorious airbrushed detail. In Dean's image, the queen at the center is as artificial as anything else. Can there be any doubt that she's as artificial as the sky? Being someone - anyone it seems - is a matter of will and costuming. It's always a performance. We're artifice through and through.

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?page??"Violet Chachki"
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The chores and joys of self-creation are brought to light most dramatically under the hard flash of Blake England's through-the-legs shot of Violet Chachki. That triangle from shin to balls to shin - that's where the fault lines are: between male and female, interior and exterior, public and private. And the mirror catches a moment where all that's still being worked out, unfinished. That's why this image isn't porn. In fact that set of exposed opposites is why the image is necessary. We're all engaged in some similar preparation for performance. We're all making ourselves up. Some just do it with better clothes.



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