Go to Justin Vivian Bond’s website and you’ll find instructions on how to refer to the artist: “prefix: mx; pronoun: V; gender: trans or T.” A guide for those who might otherwise misaddress the performance artist in such binary terms as he or she, which V obviously refuses, these self-assignations also convey an evolving persona. Bond is best known for the character Kiki DuRayne, a blowsy, washed-up lounge singer who, accompanied by her pianist sidekick Herb (Kenny Mellman), drank and sang her way through the 1990s in the cabaret act Kiki and Herb. But Bond’s output as a visual and recording artist since 2004, when Kiki retired (“to a nursing home in New Jersey”), has been little recognized.
Comprising paintings, photographs and furnishings from Bond’s recently demolished East Village loft, “The Fall of the House of Whimsy” was the artist’s first solo exhibition. The paintings were the biggest surprise. Intimately scaled portraits and self-portraits delicately rendered in pastel-hued watercolors and wispy penciled outlines, they have a quirky, retro elegance not unlike the impeccably dressed artist Vself, who, standing just over 6 feet tall, often sports an Anita O’Day meets Joni Mitchell look.
One of the paintings, Cat Boy (2011), features a blond, blue-eyed male wearing a headband with cat ears. He stares dole- fully out at the viewer, the half-formed contours of his slight shoulders and
torso dissolving into the white ground.
The rest of the exhibition, part bohemian den, part rococo parlor, re-creates the artist’s former living environment, replete with piano, ornately carved, gold-painted mirrors and vanity, midcentury lamps and a bright green bookshelf whose titles range from a biography on Lillian Hellman and a monograph on Francis Bacon to more esoteric subjects like Wicca and “sextrology.” Other personal items and memorabilia—dolls, photos, a scattered pile of used makeup on an old cane chair—make clear that these objects are not stage props but rather are meant to contextualize how a pivotal moment, such as the loss of a home, can engender cre- ativity. This is also exemplified by Bond’s debut album, Dendrophile (2011), which viewers could play on a turntable set up near the entrance.
“American Wedding,” the first song on the album—a beautiful, haunting array of melodic tunes, many self-penned— takes its powerful lyrics from the poet and activist Essex Hemphill, who died of AIDS in 1995. It begins with the memo- rable line, “In America, I place my ring on your cock, where it belongs.” Bond has made the song into a music video, lush and hypnotic, which screened continu- ously on a monitor at the foot of a day- bed. Like all of the work gathered here, including Bond’s memoir, Tango: My Childhood Backwards and in High Heels (The Feminist Press, 2011), it serves as both protest and invocation, love song and manifesto, declaring with anything but whimsy that we have certainly not heard the last of Mx Justin Vivian Bond.
Photo: View of Justin Vivian Bond’s exhibition “The Fall of the House of Whimsy,” 2011; at Participant.