On the great ‘Slap in the Face’ exhibition, or ‘A Reproach to the Art World’

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The  ”Slap in the Face’ exhibition at Vivid Projects is excellent. Twiggy is a performance artist who has been making ‘happenings’ for the last 30 years primarily in Birmingham but also in almost every major city in Britain, and quite a few abroad (from Barcelona to Moscow). He’s also a conceptual artist and a designer of costumes and looks ‘none-pareil’, each look different, each one uniquely his. The exhibition shows how the looks change over the years, how they interact, interrogate, critique, and play with the dominant culture of the day.

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It’s work that takes place underground, in or in front of gay or alternative clubs, on the margins where the permissible and forbidden are constructed; and its taken place on those margins even as those margins shift from year to year as those boundaries of the acceptable and the shocking and surprising get re-drawn through social change. Here’s an artist steeped in drag but who does something quite different; the looks he conjures are neither male nor female: they’re sometimes ironic, always playful, excessive, immensely expressive and always his.

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Gender always gets displayed, performed but always fluidly, no end of the binary is ever arrived at. I’ve been to see so many performance artists in galleries who don’t express anywhere near what Twiggy had done every weekend for thirty years and on his own dime. Moreover, unlike most performance artists, Twiggy knows not only how to question, ironise and play — formally and conceptually–, he also knows how to delight.

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He’s a living history of Birmingham gay culture as well. Almost everyone who’s gone out in the gay or alternative clubs of the city for the last thirty year has encountered, bantered, posed with Twiggy. And the exhibit also gives this element of Twiggy’s career its  due: there he is with girls on a night out, goths, ageing mothers, young boys newly venturing on the gay scene, old geezers, other drag performers who can’t quite compete because they know only Twiggy rules the roost in Birmingham. There too is the Lord Mayor and every gay parade since there’s been one.

Twiggy has brought joy to thousands, maximum inventiveness and expressiveness within his own art, he’s been part of a community and helped build it and was engaged in changing it even as he embodied and expressed those changes weekly in performance.  And until now he’s done this all alone with no institutional help of any kind from anyone in the art world. I’m really grateful that Trevor Pitt had the foresight to curate this great show with Twiggy and Dave Remes and also to Yameen Baig-Clifford for giving it a home at Vivid Projects and to Adam Carver of Shout Festival of Queer Arts and Culture for helping to commission it.

Maybe if he’d been doing this in London, he would be better known, and probably have been given his due as a major interstitial artist long ago with the V&A  bidding madly on rights to his costumes and archive. Certainly the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery should. They’re beautiful objects on display even if like most clothing or theatrical costuming it’s not fully alive until it’s inhabited in performance.  There are also documents that point to a long, vivid and textured history of an artist intricately engaged with a language and a form constantly expressing and interacting with changing communities for the last thirty years.

The neglect of his work by the art-world to now  is evidence of how hermetic it  is, how reified its structures and how commodified its product. An oligarchic neoliberal system pulling strings in a transnational context to  exclude all but a few and fix their price has no space for someone like Twiggy, who in fact does all that art should do (amongst other things: express, conceptualise, critique, give form to, delight). Here’s is someone local, someone great, committed to plowing  his very particular furrow for a long time and constantly creating on his own dime with not formal institutional recognition until now. He’s been doing all things we prize in artists but on the street and in the clubs. I’m glad he’s finally gotten his due in a gallery, though not yet to the extent he deserves. I hope that this great show is only a long overdue beginning of the acknowledgment and appreciation Twiggy’s art deserves in an art-world context.

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José Arroyo

 

 

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