As an artist friend recently pointed out, it has become tedious to comment on social demands to relentlessly perform one’s identity. Examples certainly abound, however. The “look” for a night out must be tweeted. One must “check in” as to where one is and with whom. An elegantly presented dinner cries out for the filter of an Instagram. An evening of revelry or a few days of travel must be thoroughly documented via Facebook. I had grown accustomed to party photos of friends embracing or dancing but now I also see the bland beige hallway of their corridor and the mirrored elevator through which they pass en route to a given event, as if auditioning for a reality TV program of their own. A new haircut, a bad day, or an existence itself can no longer be said to have occurred without the requisite online recordings. But as I said to my friend, the art world has always been preoccupied with issues of identities and how they change throughout a life course and a career. The Cindy Sherman retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art is but one recent and stunning example of an artist’s truly brilliant reckoning with these issues. Another example can be found in Jeremy Kost’s equally provocative show of paintings and Polaroid collages at a pop-up gallery co-sponsored by Hugo Boss and the Andy Warhol Museum.
The Museum’s sponsorship of Kost’s “Of An Instance” show is not surprising given the multiple references to Warhol’s own project and legacy in Kost’s work. Like many of Warhol’s most impressive silkscreens, Kost’s Fame Paintings are large, imposing, and actually sparkle as you approach them. The subjects of these silvery works are based on Kost’s Polaroid images of notables like Madonna, Liza Minnelli, Anna Wintour, Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, and Debbie Harry. The images’ color is inverted with the intended effect, according to Kost, of “blurring the immediate reaction” of the viewer to the visual identities of the famous. The goal is to thereby complicate the gaze by creating a bit of distance between the viewer and images of those who have lost any semblance of anonymity. In certain cases like those of Minnelli or Harry, Kost’s own works are presented alongside the actual tiny Polaroids that Warhol took, thereby displaying their enduring iconicity alongside the fresher radiance of stars like Beyonce.
As his website states, “Like his forbearer Warhol, Kost is a participant in the world he depicts and also somewhat of a voyeur, diligently capturing all the madness and the romance of celebrity, all the while translating a sense of intimacy and access.” Also like Warhol, Kost’s work ultimately upholds and celebrates the realm of the flashing lights, what a collaborator once referred to as New York’s “miasma of glitter.” Indeed, I first met Kost at the On Top party at the Standard’s Le Bain, a popular gathering spot for many of the nightlife figures and fame seekers that have come to populate his imagery. His show’s opening night was also an impressive mix of Factory veterans like Vincent Fremont and Jay Johnson, leading nightlife personas like Ladyfag, and drag stars like Raja. As Eric Shiner, Director of the Warhol Museum, told me, “I was thrilled to see a very Warholian sensibility amongst the guests at the crowded opening. It was as though Studio 54 had landed in the midst of the gallery, replete with the very socialites, celebrities, drag queens, gorgeous boys and the hoi polloi that make New York the perfect stage for Jeremy’s work to be made upon.”
The inhabitants of such a stage were also evident in a series of Polaroid collages featuring drag queens like Sharon Needles and transsexual icons like Amanda Lepore. Despite what appears to be a greater prominence of drag performance in cultural venues like RuPaul’s DragRace and mainstream feature films, Kost’s work with drag queens has been a mainstay of his practice for years. Here the identities of Kost’s subjects are altered in at least two ways. The drag performers themselves must obviously carry out a transformative process that culminates in the simulation of womanhood. But each collage also fragments and distorts the site of the shoot, whether a desolate landscape or a more idyllic setting, resulting in what Kost described as abstracting “place and character.” Beyond being mere collages, these are indeed constructions, as the layering of the Polaroids creates a unique texture to the works, perhaps seen most curiously in the pieces featuring Raja and Needles. The medium itself is important. As the photographer Hadar Pitchon noted, “Jeremy’s work to me is a reflection of the times we live in. Polaroids represent the sense of immediate gratification we all seek. I feel Jeremy is the holder of this Polaroid aesthetic at the moment and his work is capturing a moment now in New York and where we are going.”
As I walked through the gallery with Kost on a rainy weekday, visitors stepped in and reacted to the works with curiosity, awe, and a bit of bewilderment. As we discussed the pieces, Kost spoke candidly about the show’s subtext being a concern with his own past identity as a closeted and overweight man. Despite the success of his evolution into a well-regarded New York artist, a preoccupation with the direction and cost of this transformation perhaps persists. Kost’s self-portrait contemplates his mortality through the image of his body with a cadaverous visage. Warhol, of course, grew fearful and preoccupied with his own mortality following his shooting in 1968. Later works featured the Pop artist being strangled from behind by bodyless hands or skulls mounted casually on his body. For a handsome man in his mid-thirties, Kost’s confrontation with death may seem premature, but it is nonetheless one of the most compelling pieces in the show. He dons the same “look” that we will all eventually wear and simulates the final transformation that we will all inevitably undergo. Will we choose to tweet or Instagram that moment too?
Following sections of world-famous celebrities and drag queens, the exhibition’s final area features Polaroid collages of nude male models. Some of them are taken from a series titled We Were All Innocent Once. As I suggested to Kost, a title series like that could be read cynically. His portrayals of virtually perfect male forms are, however, quite romantic and Kost’s lens can be seen as a flattering instrument of adoration, rather comparable to the Paul Morrissey films of Joe Dallesandro. Kost also reflected on these models’ ambitious “quest for satisfaction,” thereby making the placement of their photos alongside Warhol’s Polaroid of a robust, young Sylvester Stallone a reminder of the fleeting quality of youthful vigor. Although Stallone has had iconic roles as Rocky and Rambo, is his the kind of legacy that these young models crave? The show’s celebration of their bodies’ apparent perfection is therefore accompanied by a tacit warning as much as a call to reverence.
As Kost suggested, the thread running through the varied “Of An Instance” works is a demand that the viewer pay attention to the labor of becoming that is basic to the human condition. Female impersonation, transitioning from one sex to another, and the quest for fame all imply arduous and even maddening transformations of selves. But any person can endure comparable renovations: old identities fade as we adopt new looks, acquire new jobs, begin new romances, and attract new social circles. Artists’ interest in these questions will not wither any time soon. And why should it? Questions of individual and collective identities and the imposition of the past on present selves can be meaningfully explored, as in the recent High Line performance of Simone Forti’s Huddle dance construction, Conrad Ventur’s re-performances of Warhol’s screen tests with their original Superstar subjects, or Derek Mega’s new Screen Stage film. As stages on which to perform our lives proliferate, perhaps transformative quests will at least become more artful.