Charting Controversial Art
"Serious Fun": Crotch-grabbing and shooting Sen. Helms.

New York City Tribune, Tuesday, July 17, 1990

What did performance artists do before the National Endowment for the Arts controversy erupted? Now, it seems, they do little other than bash NEA critics and officials. This places the arts agency in the peculiar position of funding shows devoted to attacking those who question whether the NEA should be funding the kind of shows it funds. Got that?

There's no denying that Ann Magnuson, who opened up the Lincoln Center's "Serious Fun!" performance-art series, is a talented actress. She moves from character to character with lightning speed and great facility. And it her show, You Could Be Home Now, she plays an impressive variety of characters, from a Middle Eastern hitchhiker to an acting teacher with a drill sergeant's personality, from a biker named Sweet Pea to a wealthy southern divorcee.

But Magnuson's acting talent is wasted on her own material. You Could Be Home Now is an incoherent jumble of sketches, songs, dances and monologues, which leave the viewer asking, Just what is her point? Watching Magnuson perform is like reading an essay composed of well-written and occasionally profound sentences that bear no relation to one another.

One in a while her humor is charming. Describing a failed romance, she explains, "It never could have worked. He's a minimalist. I'm a neo-expressionist. The only thing we have in common is that we both hate campy, post-cultural kitsch."

But usually, she's hopelessly obscure and tasteless, as in a dream sequence in which she's confronted by a giant black 2001-style monolith. "Next to it is a giant amniotic sac, containing the fetus from my first abortion--or is it my second grandchild? Wait a minute--it's Liz Smith!"

After the opening song-and-dance, she wipes her armpits on stage with a towel. At another point in the show, she grabs her crotch and announces she has to go to the bathroom. There may have been a time when such behavior was shocking, but to an audience jaded by the likes of Annie Sprinkle and Karen Finley, Magnuson's attempts to shock seem pathetic indeed.

Not as pathetic, however, as her comments about the NEA, which are peppered throughout the show--a show sponsored in part by the NEA and the New York State Council on the Arts (NYSCA).

As slides of naked breasts are projected onto a screen on stage, Magnuson suddenly yells, "Get those off. That is way too controversial. . . . I'm sorry, this is getting too arty, isn't it?" The audience howls--apparently by avant-garde standards, this is side-splitting stuff.

During a "song" consisting of stream-of-consciousness lyrics recited while Magnuson repeatedly strums the same chord on her acoustic guitar, she offers the audience a suggestion: "Maybe you want to put a bullet through Jesse Helms' pea-brain."

Gosh, Ann, thanks anyway.

"This is nothing new, it's just history repeating itself. It's just like the Third Reich." These are Susana Ventura's comments on the NEA controversy in her show Bitch! Dyke! Faghag! Whore! After a brief video segment on Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels, she continues: "The holocaust is happening right now. . . . We are walking daily to our slaughter every time they don't put a lot of money to find a cure for AIDS, every time they censor an artist, every time they block an abortion clinic." Ventura's venue, the Lower East Side's Performance Space 122, is subsidized by the NEA, the NYSCA, and the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs.

Unlike Magnuson, Ventura, who uses the stage name Penny Arcade, seems pretty much devoid of talent. She monologizes about her childhood lesbian fantasies ("I used to play sex games with Nadine's Barbie dolls") and tells a story about how she was raised by homosexual men ("I was taken in by a tawdry band of drag queens"). The chubby 40-year-old also performs a strip-tease act, accompanied by a rhythm track and what sounds like a legal commentary on Supreme Court rulings.

One of her monologues--delivered while she slices two onions--concerns a man who tried to use his position with a large theater to take sexual advantage of her. After telling this sordid tale, she launches into a tirade against a smug NEA functionary who questioned her assertion that sex discrimination exists in the art world.

As her fury mounts, she begins chopping the onions ever more violently, as she shouts, "I get so fucking angry and hurt!" She flings the cutting board to the floor, bashes her chair against the stage, and then puts the chair down gently. She scoops up a handful of chopped onions, sits down, and holds them against her face until she starts to cry.

"He shit on me!" she shrieks. We think she's still talking about the lecherous theater official. But no--now she's a prostitute complaining about one of her clients. "I know that men like to get finger-fucked up the ass--they have a prostate, OK--but he shit on me!"

Mark Russell, executive director of P.S. 122, told the New York City Tribune that the show was "not for review" because it is a "work in progress." What does that mean? he was asked. It means the show isn't complete and the artist hasn't "gotten all the kinks out."

But if Ventura got the kinks out of her show, there would be no show.

Next article: Just Give Me That Old Time Derision (New York City Tribune, 7/24/90)

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