'It must be nice to disappear...'

This week, a musing on a favorite VOOM portrait by Museum Marketing Manager Maggie Anderson. (A.k.a. me, your blog editor!)

It’s tough to choose a favorite VOOM portrait when I like so many of them for so many different reasons. I like William Pope L., the performance artist-turned-surrealist-Humpty Dumpty with a little Lambchops-like companion that sings “Mary had a little — me!” for it’s sheer absurdity. I like Kool, the snowy owl, for successfully transforming the Museum’s sculpture court, an expansive, echoy space that all too often dwarfs its contents, into a transcendent aviary. I like Johnny Depp — posed as Dada master Marcel Duchamp dressed as his female alter-ego Rrose Sélavy as photographed by Surrealist photographer Man Ray and set to poetry by T.S. Eliot — for its myriad historical layers. The list goes on.

But one portrait does continue to stick out in my mind. This portrait sits contently, tucked away in a corner, waiting patiently while viewers get their celebrity fix with Brad Pitt and Salma Hayek. It waits while ears are drawn to the militant music of Samson, the skunk, or the lively calypso beat of Celine the Briard Dog.
This portrait is JT Leroy, a kimono-clad, sunglassed, blond-mop-topped figure leisurely slouched in front of an eggplant-colored backdrop. And while this sitter might not have the star power (I’m guessing most of you have never heard of Leroy) or cutesy appeal of some of the portraits, what Leroy does have is, in my opinion, far better: a really great story.

The first thing you should know about JT Leroy is that there is no JT Leroy. The name is a fake, a pseudonym adopted by American writer Laura Albert. Albert had written for several years under that pen name before using it to publish her first novel, Sarah, in 1999. As readers made connections between the novel’s tale of a 12-year-old boy enduring prostitution and sexual abuse and Leroy’s own, strikingly similar, history, the author’s popularity skyrocketed. Leroy began making public appearances — but, claiming shyness, he always appeared wearing a disguise: blond wig, hat, and sunglasses.

It was very difficult to tell if he was really a he underneath it all. Which was convenient, because he really wasn’t.

In October 2005, the news broke that JT Leroy was actually Laura Albert. And then in January 2006 it was confirmed that the bewigged public figure of JT Leroy wasn’t even Albert; it was her friend Savannah Knoop.

Countless media outlets had been fooled. It was a great literary hoax — or was it? The counterargument ran that Albert was just doing want innumerable authors before her had done: publishing fictional work under a pseudonym. No scandalous fakery there.

But the difficulty seems to arise from the author’s decision to create a faux-persona to go long with her pseudonym, thus creating the opening for many to assume — which they happily did — that her fictional work was autobiographical. Whether you buy that argument and find Albert guilty (and I don’t, particularly in light of recent deceptions that involve authors lying in memoirs, which, unlike fiction, actually do claim to have a basis in reality) the courts did. In June 2007, the writer lost a lawsuit brought by Antidote International Films, which had purchased the rights to Sarah before the Leroy myth was debunked.

Thus the story of JT Leroy is the embodiment of an oxymoron. In it, Albert played both the deceiver and the victim. Her story was a lie and the truth. And the affair rings of the predictable gullibility of the public and the refreshing confrontation of said bodies’ lust for a good true-life story.

And Wilson’s portrait of JT Leroy, shot in 2006, encapsulates perfectly the binary nature of the thing. It’s at once a portrait of a fake — of an author who not only created a literary pseudonym but also physical one — and a genuine article, one of the most convincing characters we’ve seen in a long while. It's simultaneously an illusionary glimpse into a life of a persona, and a very real success of an artwork.

It helps that the portrait is gorgeous. The diagonal posture of the slumped sitter draws the eye into the work, and Wilson's trademark lighting masterfully lights Leroy’s pouting lips and kimono.
This powerful visual is enhanced by Wilson’s chosen sound accompaniment, the Lou Reed song “Vanishing Act.” The thoughtful, delicate rendition of the tune begins “It must be nice to disappear / to have a vanishing act / to always be looking forward / and never be looking back.”

The sunglasses, the slouch, the song — it makes me think of 1960s drug haze, but the good kind, the kind where (or so the movies tell me) senses are heightened, colors are more beautiful, and a person is so incredibly relaxed she might just melt right off the screen.

In addition to being visually pleasing, I think JT Leroy represents one of Wilson’s most successful embodiments of what he’s trying to achieve with his video portraits. It confronts the idea of reality, invokes both historical perspective and a personal story, reflects on the cult of celebrity and pop culture’s pervasiveness, and it makes you question the very purpose of a portrait. All those things are seen to some degree in the other portraits, but they come through here with clarity.

Looking at that androgynous, slumped figure, we have no idea what physical body we’re seeing. Is it Savannah Knoop? Laura Albert? Someone new? One could come away annoyed by the haze surrounding the sitter’s identity in JT Leroy. Or, one could revel in this chance to choose it.


Buffie said...

Like Maggie, I too find it hard to pick a favorite portrait.

Each image is like the cover of a book (a really fancy book) waiting to be opened. In some cases, it is not entirely apparent what Robert Wilson's message is regarding his subjects, but each portrait is most definitely one of a kind!

Maggie's insightful description of the JT Leroy portrait is an excellent summary of the story behind the photo. Her post, as well as Dale Fisher's post on the image of Steve Buscemi, are entertaining and informative. As I look at the images for the last time over the next few days, I'm sure I will read more into each image than I did before!

Anonymous said...

Maggie, great blog about JT Leroy! I only knew the vague history - you made this cool portrait much, much better for the viewer.