by Ingrid Dudek
PARTICIPANT INC. | FEBRUARY 4 - MARCH 11, 2018
A fixture in New York’s downtown scene throughout the 1970s, Jayne County was—in her own words— “the first completely full-blown, in-your-face queen to stand up on a rock'n'roll stage,” fronting various glam and punk bands at CBGB, the 82 Club, Max’s Kansas City, and other underground venues. A far lesser-known aspect of County’s extraordinary career is her visual art, a practice to which she has recently rededicated herself as her high-intensity performing has proved too physically challenging. Since 2001, Participant Inc. has made a name for itself revisiting the work of some of the unsung heroines of downtown New York’s recent history—highlights have included their much-praised Greer Lankton retrospective in 2014 and their exhibition of Ellen Cantor’s early paintings and totemic sculptures in 2016—and County is no exception. “Paranoia Paradise” is a labor of love by curator and longtime friend of the artist, Michael Fox, and Participant Inc. director Lia Gangitano, honoring the rarely seen visual art of rock’s first openly transgender performer.
County’s career speaks to the heady, ad hoc, and seemingly boundless, improvisatory nature of the period. She arrived in New York in 1968 on a Greyhound bus from Atlanta, just in time to participate in the Stonewall riots of 1969, and became fast friends and frequent roommates with Leee Black Childers, on his way to becoming the resident photographer at Andy Warhol’s Factory. It was through him that County came in contact with the drag queens that orbited Warhol’s scene. (For a brief and especially chaotic time, County and Childers had superstars Holly Woodlawn and Jackie Curtis as concurrent roommates.) County began writing her own plays and was a scene-stealer in the Warhol-produced play, Pork, which debuted in New York and toured to London. She was also enthralled by John Vaccaro’s glitter-rich and campy Theatre of the Ridiculous, and in 1969 was invited to perform alongside Curtis and Patti Smith in the play, Femme Fatale. Throughout this period, she worked as a DJ as Max’s Kansas City and honed her drag persona in a series of proto-punk bands: first Queen Elizabeth, followed by Wayne County and the Backstreet Boys and, most-enduringly, Wayne County and the Electric Chairs (County changed her first name to Jayne in 1979). With the Backstreet Boys she appeared in the 1976 documentary The Blank Generation, and with the Electric Chairs she was cast in Derek Jarman’s 1978 historic punk film, Jubilee.
You’d have to pay close attention to County’s 1995 memoir, Man Enough to Be a Woman, to know that in addition to her astoundingly prolific performance and music career that she was also a visual artist. During one of her extended stays in Europe, she would learn that her landlord had kicked her out, dumping all of her possessions on the street, presumably including most of those early paintings. For this reason, the earliest works in the show—primarily comprising works on paper, as well as a few paintings and collages—date from 1982, and continue up to the present.
Growing up in rural Georgia, County’s mother had converted to the Radio Church of God (now the Grace Communion International), an early radio and television evangelist ministry adverse to modern medicine and favoring a Saturday Sabbath and end-times prophecies. County recalls rebelling at a very early age, building altars to pagan gods in the woods behind their house, and creating makeshift idols from cat figurines wrapped in tin foil. This defiant, DIY sensibility is a through-line in County’s work. Indeed, the imagery in her drawings is often cosmic, phallic, bombastically psychedelic, or drolly camp. Isis and other Egyptian gods appear more than once, and in other works mermaids and frog-legged drag queens populate drawings stylized to resemble Roman mosaics. There is a sense that her imagery throughout is both older than time and from another world.
Many of County’s works display an exuberant horror vacui, and some of the finest are the smallest, intricately executed on the thin cardboard backing that accompanies packs of bobby pins or pantyhose. Genital forms comingle with organic shapes, surrounded by the phallic noses of heavily mascaraed figures in silhouette. A robed, Christ-like figure appears to be pleasuring polyphallic creatures, each endowed with a single, evil eye and multiple ankhs. They recall the psychedelia of the Blue Meanies in “Yellow Submarine,” but more outrageously sexed up.
County has said more than once that art is a kind of therapy for her. “I think that my art serves as a way of putting out the fuse before it ignites and becomes a ballistic bomb of some sort,” she observes in interview with Fox in a zine published alongside the show. “Some people are at odds with the world and they become serial killers, and others become artists.” But one shouldn’t assume that any of her confrontational furor has diminished into decorative equanimity. Some of the fiercest, funniest works express County’s contempt for performers whom she believes have co-opted her look, as with two delightfully antagonistic drawings targeting the drag queen Lady Bunny (they’ve since made up), or for those she dismisses as “fake faggots” (in a drawing featuring Lou Reed, David Bowie, and Marc Bolan).
County’s anger is not unjustified. More confrontational, more raucous, and more raunchy than many of her contemporaries, County was forerunner to what we would now consider gender-queerness, and there is no doubt that many of those she influenced achieved greater success by packaging versions of gender-bending glam that might be more palatable to mainstream audiences. Her first band, Queen Elizabeth, was contracted to Bowie’s management agency for years. No album was ever produced, nor was the footage of her 1974 stage show ever released (though it is purported to have inspired Bowie’s “Diamond Dogs” show). But far from being merely guided by personal grievances, County’s works speak to a punk ethic of protest and rebellion that, refreshingly, has not diminished with age. This is most evident in the defaced magazine covers featuring Mitt Romney, Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and other right-wing pundits and politicians. One suspects that if it weren’t for a bad back, her ire over the current political environment would drive to perform more than ever.
The exhibition also includes a vitrine featuring archival images and music-related ephemera from County’s career as well as some striking current photographic portraits of her by Fox. These images are separate from the show, appearing on the reverse of an exhibition wall facing the gallery’s back office. No doubt this was a strategic decision to give priority to her artworks, but one nevertheless suspects that the exhibition would have benefitted from incorporating more of County’s performance and musical material. Her visual art in many ways seems not separate from the other aspects of her life, but an essential part of it. Artists like County threw themselves into the task of inventing a space for themselves in the world without ever looking back, often at considerable personal risk. With little distinction between media, County challenged and expanded the possibilities of gender performance and embodiment long before such considerations entered mainstream discourse. The fearlessness of her art, in performance and on paper, are long overdue for recognition.
INGRID DUDEK is a writer based in Brooklyn. Her work has appeared in Art Asia Pacific, Art in America, and the Brooklyn Rail