I met with Justin Vivian Bond on a sunny and warm Monday in the East Village. As I was lead into v’s apartment I couldn’t help but feel like this place was a reflection of v’s being. The walls are adorned with works that v has created through the years as well as works by other artists, in the living room stands an upright piano with records and song books all around. Justin offers me some water and we sit down next to v’s 17-year-old cat Pearl. We begin discussing conversations between people and Justin tells me a story about one of v’s friends who v had to tell to stop talking, because “a conversation involves more than one person, and right now you’re not having one.”
Mx Bond is a well-known cabaret performer from v’s days as Kiki in the duo Kiki and Herb and v’s own solo career. Justin has put out 2 solo studio albums, 1 live EP and has toured the world. I became interested in v’s watercolor and installation work after seeing the show Mx America at Joe’s Pub. In this show v talked about Estēe Lauder model Karen Graham and v’s obsession with her. I found this compelling and I did some research on Mx Bond. I looked through images of v’s work at Participant Inc., AMP Gallery in Provincetown, and was interested in discussing v’s upcoming solo exhibition at Vitrine Gallery in London titled “My Model/Myself.”
Do you have any work in your apartment?
I sent stuff off to London, I don’t have a lot of work here, and I’m not prolific in that way. Those on the wall are photographs from a show I did at Participant in 2011. I don’t have anything, I sent the watercolors and I’ve sold mostly everything else.
I only make like 5 a year.
Well if you're selling them that’s even better.
I don’t have any that are; I may have one or two. Let’s see. No. I took even the ones that aren't going to be in the show to London. I gave her a couple to keep in the back to show people. There was this one ugly one, that I don’t think you’d want to see of this crazy kid that I painted once. Yea, I don’t have anything.
Do you work here in the apartment?
Well it depends, I paint here sometimes but it’s so distracting. When I was up at Bard last summer I was getting ready for my show in Provincetown and I had this nice airy sunny room. I like to paint by natural light with watercolors; it’s the only way. I would sit on the floor and paint, I also painted some of them in a cottage in Provincetown and some at my friend’s house in LA, and I painted a few here over the winter. I don’t have a studio. (gesturing: “they are only that big” approx. 11x8 inches).
I did the leaves for the wallpaper here, and sent them to George Venson who I collaborated on the wallpaper with.
How did the wallpaper collaboration come about with George?
I had a show at AMP Gallery last summer in Provincetown, he came to it, and I’d never met him before. I met him at a party and he’d been to my show. He thought the watercolors were beautiful and he said, “We should collaborate on something some day.” I thought he was attractive and charming, so I thought, “alright that sounds great.” Then I Googled him when I went back to where I was staying and saw his work, which I think is beautiful. Then I ran into him again and I said, “I’d love to talk about doing wallpaper or something with you.”
I’ve been sort of obsessed with this designer Billy Baldwin who was an interior decorator from Maryland. Not the same area that I am from. When I was a teenager I was obsessed with certain things that I’m still obsessed with including Billy Baldwin. Although, I didn't know that much about him, all I knew was he had decorated all these homes of rich people like Babe Paley.
A few summers ago I read this book of his, which talked about rooms in certain houses that inspired him. I went to several of them. He designed a print with his lover in the 50’s or 60’s; he was inspired deeply by Matisse. He met Matisse at the Baltimore opera when he was a kid, and Matisse invited him over to do a studio visit with him when he was living with the Cone sisters. He [Billy] did this pattern with trees and leaves that he designed with his lover. It’s still available it’s gorgeous. I have a swatch of it somewhere.
I kept thinking with Billy, Estēe Lauder, and this model [Karen Graham] there isn’t a link. Even though they are all linked in my mind. It’s all got to do with him being this gay man, and his memoir is amazing about going into WWII as an older man, who somehow got drafted. Estēe Lauder who is this Jewish woman from Queens, and me being this not rich trans person from Maryland. He catered his fantasy of the good life to rich people but through the connection with the women. Estēe Lauder did the same thing by presenting this white WASPy perfection. I fanaticized about that when I was a kid and the wallpaper with George became the link that made it work bringing Billy Baldwin and the decorative interior aspect. A lot of the photographs of Karan Graham [Estēe Lauder model] are in beautiful settings, in one she's in a privet in Southampton with all these tall formal trimmed hedges around her, the idea of doing this wallpaper with her image and my image and the leaves and everything and putting it in the gallery was exciting to me.
The press release for the upcoming exhibition explains that you will have multiple medias happening at once (wallpaper, installation, watercolors and performance). It sounds like it will give the viewer an insight into your mind.
When I did it in Provincetown last summer, I got an imitation Louis XXVI chair, I used a hot pink makeup case, and I asked Estēe Lauder to send me makeup, which they did. I put the makeup in the makeup case and placed it on the chair shrouded in mosquito netting that I hand sewed gold mesh onto.
For this one I got a girls vanity table and I’m doing the mosquito netting again, but there’s a plant and a glass top and I’m putting tear outs of Karen Graham that I saved. They are precious; I may have a hard time parting with them, because they are special even though they are just paper magazine tear outs. There will be books, My Mother Myself by Nancy Friday; I’m recovering the books with My Model/Myself with the same graphic design. They are beautiful, that 70’s graphic, it’s like when they did that great series of Joan Didion ones, that burgundy and teal weird embossed lettering.
There will also be two videos, one of Karen Graham and one of me. I found this video of her that Nick Knight did, where she’s standing there [posing], he asks her to model for two minutes and doesn't say what to do. About halfway through she says, “two minutes is along time.” That’s the only thing I've ever heard her say. I’m doing it where we’re both modeling at the same time. At some point she’ll say, “Two Minutes is a long time,” ” and then I’ll say, “Two Minutes is a long time,” then my voice will come out of her saying, “Two Minutes is a long time,” and then her voice will come out of me and say, “Two Minutes is a long time.” For six weeks the people in the gallery are going to hear every two minutes, “Two Minutes is a long time.” Poor things.
You’re also going to be preforming in the window. Do you have something specific planned for that performance?
I’m going to model; I did this thing in my show Mx America [cabaret show at Joe’s Pub 2013]. I modeled at the beginning for two minutes. I get freaked out in crowds especially at openings. They have a window in the gallery I’m going to put down a red carpet and a velvet rope and a light and a plant and a backdrop of the wallpaper of her image and my image. I got this dress because I was looking though this book of photographs by Victor Skrebneski, they mention the designer who she’s wearing [Karen Graham]. I decided to Google these designers, I had heard of Valentino and I’d heard of a couple of the others, and then there were some I had never heard of. I Googled these designers, and at least three of them died of AIDs in the early 90’s. I went down this horrible AIDs wormhole that day. I went over to my friend Jim Hodges for dinner and talked to him about it. He was asking me about the designers in case he knew any personally. The next day I was Google imaging them and I discovered their clothes are available on eBay and vintage clothing websites. Then I got the idea that I should try to find one of their outfits and model it in the window. I bought this outfit designed this guy named Frank Masandrea who died of AIDS in the late 80s at the age of 41.
I’m going to be in that window for hours because I get so anxious when I’m in a room full of people. This way I can still be there and not be so overwhelmed by the crowd. I plan on standing in the window and modeling the Frank Masandrea dress as people go by up and down the street. I’ll probably do it another few times.
Have you ever had contact with Karen Graham?
No, I’d like to at some point, but I’m still discovering things about her. I don’t want to creep her out or anything. She sort of retired and she’s not really involved in public life or anything. I respect that, but she does teach fly-fishing. I have this fantasy that at some point, when I’m ready I can take a fly-fishing lesson.
If you meet her, then maybe it takes away the image you've created.
Exactly, you don’t always want to meet people that you are inspired by. Until I am through with all this, and I’ve been kind of obsessed with her since the 70’s so it may not ever end.
You've been collecting images of her since you were a teenager?
I haven’t collected them since I was a teenager. I rediscover them when I went home to Maryland and found these file boxes that I had movie stars and stuff that I collected in the 70’s. I had an entire collection of Karen. They are the ones that I used to do the present work. I had left a gift for myself. I still have all of those, I found them in my parents house I couldn't believe it it’s so crazy.
I’m going to use some of them. Some of them are doubles, so I can put them in the show.
You have mostly done watercolor work of Karen. What other media or subject matter do you work with?
My show at Participant was watercolors of various people; some self-portraits and some were of radical fairies. They were all personal friends. That show was called The Fall of the House of Whimsy; it was about how our environments affect us. At that time I was living in a loft on 2nd Avenue above Mars Bar, our building got torn down to build condos. I was subletting there, but I’d been there for 3 years. I took photographs inside the place, then I moved out in June and my show was in October. I was on tour and I came back and we had a big party the night before everyone had to be out of the building. They started tearing the building down in December. I put some of my actual furniture in the gallery, your objects and how you use them as markers of space and time and all of that. I did activate the space there by doing performances with radical fairies. I would also come in in my raincoat and lay on my couch and go to sleep because it was the only thing that was like a home to me because I hadn't found a new place yet.
Can you tell me about the Aspirational White Women, what your connection is with the Aspirational White Woman of Elegance?
That was what I sort of thought of as the ideal when I was a kid, it wasn't fully my ideal because I was obsessed with folk singers and folk music, I loved hippies and I was into politics, I was inspired by all of that. There was this sort of disconnect with what we were told we should be, from the women I knew. This bizarre obsession with Karen Graham which was reactivated in a way when I found those magazine pages; by the time she had retired in 1985 she was off my radar, it [the obsession] was mostly when I was in high school. When there was a new model in the Estēe Lauder ads I wondered what had happened to her, I found out she had left modeling and moved upstate to open a fly-fishing school. The idea that she retired from modeling in order to become a fly-fishing instructor reignited my obsession with her. If I hadn’t found that part out I probably wouldn't have been nearly as interested.
My record was called Dendrophile, as someone who is obsessed with nature, I write my songs in the woods typically. I have to get away. That dynamic made the White Woman of Elegance interesting to me, there’s this whole entitled capitalist ideal of what you should be and a very specific attitude that the people who are able to achieve that seem to have. The current buzzword for it is “entitlement”. I see it as a kind of condescension that is indeed horrible yet I am strongly attracted to arrogance. I find arrogance and cockiness arousing or whatever. Not that I think it’s healthy but that happens, I’m not going to fight it. Anyway, putting the ‘aspirational’ with ‘white” - you’ve go to put the white in there- it’s like calling somebody cis-gendered you're automatically making them other, so aspirational woman of elegance without the ‘white’ doesn't have the same effect linguistically or politically; for one thing it’s lacking alliteration but it also points out that these people are not what you are. And of course, calling your self an aspirational white woman of elegance indicates that you're aspiring to become something that you are not. Like as a trans person I find that it’s often presumed that I’m actually aspiring to be a woman and I’m not. I am aware that I am not a woman but I find it interesting that many women, when talking about themselves will say, “When this or that happened I felt like I was really a woman.” I want to ask them, “Well, what were you before? Or “I never felt like a woman until I had a kid.” Well, what did you feel like before you had a kid, and how did having a kid make you feel like a woman? Are females who don’t give birth somehow not quite up to snuff? Not really women? It’s just a sly way to point out all of it being a construct.
I’m all for playing in it and I love it, but I also like to remind people that it is just a game and it is a role that you're playing. Some people don’t even think about it, I would say, “good for them.”
You’re definitely playing with identity. The watercolors of Karen and you have multiple visual similarities.
Yea, that’s what’s fun about it. It’s all a phantasmagorical landscape in my mind and it’s a narrative that is whimsical, but if someone looks at it and goes, “you don’t look like that,” well no actually I don’t. There is no resolution. It’s just what you are going with.
It creates this space between the two of them because you are still yourself, and she is whoever she is. She doesn’t look like that, and you don’t know too much about her other than she has a fly-fishing school.
Yes, that’s true, I do know a few other things. I don’t even know her sign! The one thing I spent hours and hours on Google trying to find her sign, all it says is born 1945 in Gulfport, Mississippi, nothing says her full birthday. I’m dying to know what her sign is. It sounds ridiculous, what sign is Karen Graham? I’m almost sure that she’s an Aries or a Scorpio but I don't know. I could be completely wrong she could be an Aquarius, because of the water. She really likes water, well she could be a Cancer or Aquarius, and I guess that makes sense.
Do you create narratives about her?
No, I like the things that I know though. She was engaged to David Frost and jilted him, left him at the altar. The story she told about playing with the tadpoles in the swamps as a child. I like the few things that I know. I don’t make up stories about her in my mind or anything. I never fantasize about Karen Graham knocking on my door, or anything like that. When I was a kid when Patty Hearst was kidnapped I would fantasize that the SLA came and hid in my family’s house, but that never happened. It did in my head; I used to go on walks with Patty Hearst. I never went on any imaginary walks with Karen Graham, not yet…thank god.
You wrote about cats staring at a blank wall and not having a thought in their heads in your piece titled Justin Vivian Bond on Karen Graham. You said you often do this and just blank out, is this somewhat meditative for you?
If you’re successfully meditating aren’t you basically just blanking out? I still have a blank wall in my tiny bedroom, it’s painted brown but it’s blank. She stares at things [Pearl the 17 year old cat] and I think, “What are you looking at?” I like to stare at nothingness. It is meditative just staring at that face [Karen Graham’s face]. Just look at it there is nothing coming back at you; there is nothing behind it. It’s amazing.
When I paint her, like when I paint her eyes I don’t feel like I need to put anything in there, because there is nothing there.
In the modeling thing [referring to Nick Knight video], she’s so uncomfortable. You think what is she thinking about when she’s out fly-fishing? Is she just staring at the water, and then the fish comes up? She’s an equestrian so she rides horses too. All of these acts are solitary, she’s a solitary practitioner in the old Wiccan term because she’s been married a few times but it seems like all the stories are, “when I was a kid I went into the woods alone and played with the tadpoles, I’m a fly fisher.” It’s a real solitary thing even though she’s an instructor. You know how they say, woman look at each other; and I don’t believe in these gender roles but, women tend to look at each other and communicate face to face, where men will sit on a porch and stare at the mountain and talk to each other without looking at each other. It’s what you do when you're fishing, you don't really look at the other person. Her thing was looking at the camera or whatever and just like, “two minutes is a long time,” who was she saying that to? Obviously to Nick Knight but still she didn't look at him when she said it. That’s very interesting to me, because I am a solitary person too.
You've made connections with her based on what you know.
I didn't know anything about her when I first started collecting images of her. I had my relationships to the photos. When I was in high school I loved reading those trashy Sidney Sheldon books. Then I read on Wikipedia that she went to the Sorbonne in Paris study French and was discovered by Eileen Ford coming down the steps at Bonwit Teller because she didn’t like elevators. It made it sound like her life was just like some Jaclyn Smith mini-series, or Sidney Sheldon or Judith Krantz novel, of these trashy things that could only pass for true in the 70’s, like how could this even be real? Then after she jilted David Frost she went off to Vegas to marry some shady real estate magnet in Vega who rode in to town and put a big diamond on her finger. Evidently that marriage was short-lived, and then she married and quickly afterward divorced her high school sweetheart and has remained unmarried since the 80s. Good for her!
How do you see you performance work in relation to you fine arts work? What is the connection between the two?
There is a definite confluence between the two. Even with Kiki and Herb I was interested in it conceptually, in that we created these characters. I created this character Kiki who was 60 some years old, and the reason I created her was because I was in my 20’s and I was living through the AIDs crisis and it was overwhelming. I was politically involved with queer activism in San Francisco and all my friends were dying. I was reading this book called Intimate Nights: The Golden Age of New York Cabaret by Jim Gavin, which ended kind of in the 60’s and 70’s. It’s still sort of going on but that was the age where being a nightclub entertainer or a cabaret performer you could really be a star, like Frank Sinatra, Rosemary Clooney, or Julie London those kind of people were stars. They could command thousands of dollars a week for performances and tour all over the world. Then rock and roll and the Beatles, singer songwriters came in and they were done. I felt like that was what it was like to be young and queer at this time, you were creative, you were a dancer on Broadway or at Lincoln Center and then you got AIDs and you were dead.
That was the conceit, Kiki and Herb’s career was over but they were still here and trying to make themselves relevant in the face of all this stuff. I could be as angry or as crazy as I wanted to as this older character. It allowed me to hide behind a character and to say all these things that I couldn't say myself. When I stopped doing Kiki and it was time for me to do other things I went into my own personal obsessions.
I did this show about Karen Carpenter when I toured the Close to You album. I felt like the reason that record resonated so much and continues to is because Karen Carpenter was the same thing; she was a tomboy who loved playing the drums. Then became a pop star and they said, “you can’t sit behind those drums, you have to come out and sell the show to the audience,” she became incredibly self conscious, they tried to teach her how to walk like a lady, because they said she walked like a trucker. Her gender presentation was completely failing for what was required of her. She basically, killed herself slowly trying to achieve something that was outside of her.
Dendrophile was being worked on at the same time as my show at Participant. I wrote it at a fairy sanctuary in Tennessee. It was about my love of nature and my love of radical fairies and these gender queer people. The paintings were happening at the same time that I was writing those songs, I did some of the fairy paintings there in Tennessee.
I’ve always been obsessed with Joan Didion; Silver Wells is my homage to that California 70’s vibe. It’s called Silver Wells because Silver Wells is the town Maria Wyeth in Play it as it Lays was from. It was a town in the book that had never existed in real life. In the book it only existed in her memory.
Mx America was the springboard for the reengagement with Karen Graham. I did this show at AMP last summer, which is a smaller version of what will be in London. I’m still totally enjoying it.
I did The Drift last year, which was inspired by Tennessee Williams novella The Roman Spring of Mrs. Stone.
You’re reading quite a bit then.
I don’t read that much. I love reading but I don’t have a lot of time. I’m reading the trashiest book right now. I started back with Gordon Merrick these weird queer pulp romance novels. Have you ever read one of these?
No, I haven’t.
Oh, my god it’s so good. [reading the cover] “The new and dazzlingly different novel about homosexual love by the author of Lord Won’t Mind, Gordon Merrick an idol for others.” I’m totally enjoying this. Isn’t that great! [reading the back cover]“Walter Father of the Year, Clara his wife, Tom his new lover, Jerry his illegitimate son and lover, Walter, AN IDOL FOR OTHERS.” He’s a Broadway producer, very successful.