THE AMERICAN PERFORMANCE ARTIST Ron Athey cuts an imitable image. Tattooed from head to toe (and anus), for the better part of his adulthood, Athey has paraded a kind of feral masculinity. His works incorporate bloodletting, bondage, penetration, and glossolalia. Just one of those things is enough to jostle the art world’s more buttoned-up, making his a legacy one that has often been written about with averted glances rather than with deep focus.
Athey’s body is a responsive one, engaging religious, cultural, and sexual climates as they ebb and shift throughout his five decades of productivity. The recently published exhibition catalog, Queer Communion: Ron Athey (eds. Amelia Jones and Andy Campbell), is a Bible-sized tumble through its many nuances, chalking up his impact on Modern Primitive body art, HIV/AIDS activism, Los Angeles performance art, the ’90s culture wars, death rock and post-punk music scenes, independent publishing, and gay pornography. The table of contents alone counts six crowded pages.
The necessity of such a collection is laid out in practical terms. Like many artists of his generation, Athey became a victim of the housing market a few years back, and losing his rent-stabilized house meant that his garage — a.k.a. his archive — needed to be consolidated. The objects of his performance practice will hit the road later this year (COVID-19-willing) for an international exhibition tour. And his papers were acquired by the Getty, but in advance of their institutional interment, they let loose in Queer Communion to have one last lewd go.
In her breathy introduction, editor Amelia Jones makes conceptual her study of Athey through a study of his peers; what is on display in many of his performances is not the simply body as voyeuristic object, but the thresholds of pain that the artist creates in relation to the complicit audience. Jones forms a nice, heady correlation between the performance body, the body of the archive, and the queer community assembled for this volume. The focus for Queer Communion, she argues, isn’t him, per se, but all of the social, societal, cultural, and feely stuff, ebbing between stage body and our receptive ones.
It’s a weird layout decision then to jump directly into Athey’s published and unpublished writings first, after establishing so eloquently an argument against the centrality of the singular voice. But the “Writing Athey” chapters are undoubtedly the crown jewel of this collection, as it occasions the artist’s boundless humor and depth free rein on a number of topics. Athey’s voice rings with alacrity. Its pithy, informed, and sometimes bitchy frankness is unpretentious and singular. It’s no wonder he was raised to be a preacher. “I am testifying, but honey,” he confides, “I don’t want to make myself a prototype for an ideology. I’m a mess.” Elsewhere, he describes a performance as “an interesting exercise in symbolist bloat.” A great degree of ink is spilt on his personal history, growing up in an extremist Pentecostal household. A fascinating trajectory is laid for the brutality in his Gnostic performances, through personal recollections of the familial abuse that took place in the name of the lord behind closed doors and upon the altar of their varied places of worship.
The importance of those spiritual structures is something Athey never takes lightly — as it pertains to his practice, but also with an atheist’s circumspect reverence. There’s a wonderful passage in his LA Weekly cover story on Miss Velma and her Universal World Church that chides ironic tourism:
I looked around the room and noticed maybe 15 imposters. Some of them were trying to fit it [sic], but others were snickering. This made me oddly angry and embarrassed. While some of the service was comical to nonbelievers, it wasn’t a John Waters film, staged for their amusement. Despite my lack of faith, I still felt protective of the church. I was still filled with respect for and amazement at what had once been my entire life. My family worshipped this way for generations.
Reproduced in full is the pamphlet distributed at the Patrick’s Cabaret performance of 4 Scenes in a Harsh Life, the event that brought the artist to the center of the NEA controversy in 1994, with Jesse Helms shouting his name before the US Senate. Queer Communion is invaluable as a tool, tracing together a timeline for the bodies of work that are largely known better for their scandals or through hushed-voice hearsay. Also culturally meaty and illuminating are Athey’s columns for the gay porno mag, Honcho. One entry, reproduced in its original layout, profiles Griffith Park’s gay cruising spots. Another particularly flamboyant column concerns the artist’s flirtation with far-right aesthetics. Tattooed with the OG Indonesian glyph, rather than its fascist appropriation, Athey begins his article with the sensational missive, “I’ve decided to get the swastika on the back of my neck covered.”
Fitting for a figure planted so firmly amid a crossroads of countercultures, the book offers perspectives from a veritable who’s who of commentators: Lydia Lunch, Vaginal Davis, Zackary Drucker, Julie Tolentino, Cesar Padilla, and Bruce LaBruce cozy up alongside Athey scholars like Dominic Johnson, Jennifer Doyle, Lia Gangitano, Leon J. Hilton, and the contributing editors. While the reverence assembled in these pages each arrives at pedagogical imperatives worthy of its subject, I found myself savoring some of the more practical reflections, like Lisa Newman’s experience as Athey’s European booking agent. Her concise contribution homes in on the logistical dance that such a booker negotiates — shifting from the balancing act of tour scheduling to the reality of biohazard clean-up crews, and the essentialist integrity of a working artist’s fee in the face of ambitious production expenses and cost-minded festival promoters. Such logistical transparency grounds the work and crucially emboldens Athey’s near-alchemical ability to get shit done. David Getsy rather brilliantly contextualizes Honcho as literary wallpaper while cruising video arcades,
keeping an eye out for who was heading to the back. My dollar bills I was saving to buy tokens so there wasn’t money for magazines. The magazines were an excuse, and their highly trafficked pages indicated to me, again, that others were there before and would be again. Even though I didn’t take the Honcho home, the shock of interruption that Ron’s columns produced was carried with me.
The personal revelation of this Communion is an important one. And it’s the humanism that this collection so indelibly registers. In a sprawling and intellectually promiscuous practice, the through-lines are best testified here, not with the grandiosity of claims-making. That book exists: it’s Dominic Johnson’s coffee table hardcover, Pleading in the Blood: The Art and Performances of Ron Athey (2013). Queer Communion: Ron Athey has a crush on a man who makes work out of all of the cultural cosmologies around him. It reads like a series of love affairs, a 439-page cruising diary through one of the most garrulous, affectionate, and deeply misunderstood practitioners working today. Queer Communion recalls that good old adage about the devil — like her, Miss Athey shimmers in the details.