The New Orleans Art Review | Spring 2016
VOL. 33, NOS. 3-4
By Rebecca Lee Reynolds, via neworleansartreview.org
I WANTED TO crank up the volume. The guitars of Sugar’s 1992 hit “A Good Idea” were making me nostalgic for the 90s: for my college years, for riot grrrl politics and grunge music. The song is the soundtrack for Cheryl Donegan’s video Head (1993), in which we see the artist in profile, facing a neon green plastic jug sitting on a tabletop. Her cornflower blue sports bra contrasts with a pink background, and her pixie haircut recalls Warhol’s muse Edie Sedgwick. She removes a plug in the front of the jug, and white liquid starts to spurt out. She bends down to receive it in her mouth, then plugs up the hole with her finger and stands up to spit the liquid back into the jug. As the music builds, she increases her pace. Instead of spitting into the mouth of the jug, she rests her chin on the edge of the mouth of jug and lets it dribble out of her mouth. At one point she spits directly onto the wall, timed with the music so the spit happens at the moment of silence in the chorus. Her ejaculation shows up as dark pink splatters. Then she starts licking the bottle and even the table. The room has gone from clean to messy in the span of one rock song, and then she backs out of the frame, leaving the camera trained on the jug until the song fades out.
It was obviously sexual, but it was also subversive and funny. Donegan was spitting into the jug with insouciance. It made me feel slightly uncomfortable. A couple of guys walked into the room and sat down on the bench next to me. They started to giggle. One remarked, apparently in reference to the title, “that’s a pun.” It was like a Beavis and Butt-Head period commentary, and I felt just as I did then trying to understand what people found entertaining about the animated MTV show. The guys on my bench got the joke, but they didn’t get the work. It’s funny to look back on riot grrrl feminism from our vantage point today. I was just listening to a podcast the other day that posed the question of what happened to feminism in the 90s. Their question was prompted by two TV shows revisiting controversial female figures from the era: prosecutor Marcia Clark in The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story on FX, and Anita Hill in the HBO miniseries Confirmation. They never mentioned riot grrrl, as if that moment had disappeared. The blind spot was striking given that riot grrrl gave us the spirit of postfeminism, which I understand as a sly sort of suspicion that everything was not okay, but also that we need to play with the signs of gender and sexuality in order to destabilize them, to start to bring them down. We got to fuck this shit up, I imagine Courtney Love saying as she starts to smear bright red lipstick across her face and slips on a baby doll dress and an electric guitar (her band Hole brought riot grrrl to the mainstream). So Donegan does that too. The combination of pink and green is too girly to not be intentional.
The jug and the white liquid recall milk, specifically mother’s milk. Coincidentally, that was the title of the 1989 album by another popular 90s band, the Red Hot Chili Peppers. But the liquid also recalls paint, and the jug is typical of the plastic jugs that might be used in the studio. She’s aping the messiness and macho rhetoric of Abstract Expressionism, the same style that Paul McCarthy would target in his 1995 video Painter, where he bumbles around in an oversized cartoon outfit playing a drunk Abstract-Expressionist painter. In 1993 New York Times critic Roberta Smith interpreted Donegan’s work as “one-line jokes about painting, sex and other bodily functions,” describing an “ironic eroticism” that functions to challenge “male domination in painting and in life.” The irony could also reference Warhol’s 1964 film Blow Job, which shows only the expression on the male recipient’s face. Donegan plays with the cultural connotations of the blow job: giving men what they want, pleasing them in a one-way transaction that lacks reciprocity. Yet her playfulness also recalls Bruce Nauman performing Duchamp’s Fountain in his 1966-67 photographic self-portrait. Nauman’s work engaged the studio as a space of play and discovery, of actions performed and recorded, just as Donegan records her playful actions.
The soundtrack carries it own ambivalence. The song is typical of the fuzzy sound of Grunge music, but the lyrics are destabilizing. The subject could be drawn from Appalachian folk song. The main character is getting pleasure from drowning a woman. Her response: “now that’s a good idea.” Is it a typically creepy rock song expressing male desire for domination? Or is it so obviously wrong that it’s mocking that attitude? Given the background of Sugar’s lead singer Bob Mould, I would guess the second. So is this a brilliant pairing of tongue-in-cheek performances? Is Donegan giving her male viewers what they want? Artist and critic Collier Schorr describes the performance as “bravado,” comparing it to Sharon Stone’s over-sexed character in the 1992 movie Basic Instinct. Writing for Artforum, Schorr brought in the performative, and faked, version of sexuality in pornography, writing “the role she plays mimics that of a sex-industry worker, whose choreographed purr and bounce fake you into believing that what she does feels good.” Schorr reads Donegan’s act as “simulation of total abandon” in order to question “who owns women’s pleasure—whether it’s made by men, or by a woman’s own body.” In a 1997 interview, Donegan discussed her own intentions: “firstly, to make a video that used sex in a style antithetical to the MTV jump cut” by using duration and fulfillment to reclaim “female agency.” Donegan focused on the activity of “creation” as evidenced by the stain resulting from spitting on the wall: “to me, of course, this was very important as it delivered the evidence of pleasure, of excess. And the fact that it is genderized is important—it is her pleasure that results in the mark, her concentration, her absorption that precipitates the explosion—the mark that says ‘I was here!’ This is the challenge to the convention that demands that women be the objects of desire and not the subjects of their own.”
Head is shown alongside the more recent video Lieder (2000), in which Donegan takes on Viennese Actionism as if it was a Saturday morning cartoon. Donegan’s head is covered in black plastic and pink liquid is dribbling out of two jug horns that obscure her head like a mask. The plastic jugs are protruding from her eyes, awkwardly taped on with black and green tape. Like the previous video, the camera is still and the scene is framed as a tableau, but the video cuts back and forth between a bust length shot against an aqua background and a waist length shot of Donegan rotating in a swivel stool against an orange background. In the second setup, she wears a strapless black plastic dress with pink tape sash rising above a pregnant belly. Lieder is the length of a pop song, but has no pop song soundtrack; the only sound is the squeak of the stool’s swivel and the echo of white noise. These sounds alternate with pure silence as we watch her blind body attacked by gobs of paint. Sometimes the pink and Kelly green gobs of paint land on her plastic-wrapped body; at other times, they land on the wall behind her. An assistant helps clean liquid off her chest. Bright pink tape keeps the plastic over her head until she starts to rip it all off. The tape speeds up here and we sense manic anxiety to remove the blinding obstacle. But then she gives up. Her chest slowly falls as if uttering a sigh, “oh well.”
Instead of the clear rhythm of Head, this video is more abrupt, expressing frustration as well as whimsy. She is a blind target, playing the part of Jasper Johns’s target while also playing the objectified female body of Viennese Actionism and the canvas body receiving flung paint à la Jackson Pollock. The title, Lieder, is a German term associated with classical music, specifically the song cycles popular during the Romantic era. I remember learning in my college Music Appreciation class that Schubert’s Lieder are considered the highpoint of the genre, but Viennese Actionism counteracted such notions of high art with explicit debasement and defilement. Their performative body actions in the 1960s were documented in photographs and video that are often hard to watch, resembling scenes of torture or S&M rituals. The artists in the group claimed that such actions were intended to cleanse society of its darkest desires, and they have utilized Biblical iconography that depends on realizing the true horror of the Crucifixion narrative while also deploying the rhetoric of Christ’s death functioning as redemption for humanity. Donegan’s willful playing of the blind receiver in pink and green empties the historical reference of its high stakes and uses humor to make the setup more ambiguous. Instead of being taken aback and shocked by the Viennese Actionists, we get to be curious viewers, asking questions about how complicit we are in the activity of looking—at painting and at bodies.