By Catherine Wagley
By Catherine Wagley
By Wendy Gilmartin
By Jennifer Swann
By Claire de Dobay Rifelj
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Catherine Wagley
By Zachary Pincus-Roth
“You need to warn a person before posting a picture like that.”
“What? No. NO! Good God, Chloe . . . what the fuck are you thinking!”
“Her eyes are open and she looks very tense in this photo.”
“What a freaky, unexpected and nightmarish thing.”
“The saving grace in this is that Limbaugh has no desire to knock anyone up and breed. Take comfort.”
Indicative of how surreal the whole thing was for Rajskub is a paragraph from a June 24 report in The Washington Post: “As for Rajskub, the morning’s activities seemed to leave her a bit dazed. ‘I don’t really know what’s going on here,’ she said. ‘I said it on the panel, and I meant it, that acting allows you to stay inside a fantasy world. But this is very bizarre. I don’t know what to think. I’m really beside myself and speechless to be here.’ ”
When she did regain her speech, it took the form of hyperbole and exaggeration. Yet the stories she spins in her performances are neither political satires nor mere personal confessions. They’re an oddly introspective and self-deprecating form of expression that could be called Dostoyevskian comedy: characters who rebel against their better judgment and thereby deal their own losing hands (as in Notes From Underground: “Every fiber of his intellect told him what a disastrous mistake it would be to enter the room and join the party. He held the door handle for a minute, ruminated as he turned it, then entered the room.”).
For Rajskub, this means agreeing to her fiancé’s proposal for a threesome, even though the idea repels her. Or when she appears before the head of Homeland Security and a Supreme Court justice as an expert on counterterrorism, cognizant that she knows nothing about the topic.
Mary Lynn Rajskub grew up in Trenton, Michigan — a suburb of Detroit. She remembers performing in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, as a street urchin in A Christmas Carol, and playing Raggedy Ann in the local community theater. She says she was always reflective, “not quite a loner, but with loner tendencies. I had friends but always felt displaced somehow. I used to act so nobody could tell how I was feeling, and then I’d lose control.”
Strolling through the museum, Rajskub gravitates toward the more contemporary galleries. She’s looking for a Mark Rothko, which we can’t find. Her favorite painters straddle an expressionist-impressionist-modernist spectrum: Jean-Michel Basquiat, Chaim Soutine, Jean Dubuffet, Marcel Duchamp, Rothko.
Before college, she was doing watercolors of flowers.
“You pick out your favorite greeting card,” she explains, sipping her coffee and toying with a napkin. “Then take a piece of paper and draw a grid. And that’s how I learned to draw.”
When she applied to the Center for Creative Studies, an art school in Detroit, she showed them her flowers.
“I didn’t really have any taste in art — I didn’t even know what a sculpture was — and they said, ‘Oh, you need still lifes or portraits.’ So I did the still lifes and portraits in charcoal. I got in and got a scholarship.”
Rajskub says she couldn’t have made a better choice, eventually learning that her taste leaned more toward the emotional and abstract than the formal. In 1992, she moved with a friend to the Bay Area and was admitted to the San Francisco Art Institute, which she found lacking in structure, and also lacking space to store canvases and equipment. That’s when she started doing performance art in class.
“When a performance is over, it’s over. You don’t need to store anything. But I thought, I’ve got to get out of the classroom.”
With the help of comedian friend Jerry Kramer, Rajskub started doing open-mike poetry in bars, which was big in the ’90s, especially in San Francisco. “There was the transvestite from the street reading her poetry, the intellectual, so it was an exercise in characters, how they think they’re coming across versus how they’re really coming across.”
Comedy clubs were closing, and many comics were trying out their routines in alternative venues. Inspired by comics “who had a complete sense of their personality, doing things they might not try in comedy clubs,” Rajskub did a long performance-art piece in which she dressed in a towel, read from a scroll and fired shots from a prop banana.
“Then this woman in the San Francisco Weekly wrote that I was one of the strangest, funniest performance artists, and I said, Whooah.”
Rajskub used her stage fright to inform her persona, which she says people found slightly freaky. At one gig, she asked to be strong-armed onto the stage, as though she were being forced into the limelight against her will. She says the “comedy” was met with something between hostility and sympathy.
Kramer suggested that in order to frame the act as “performance,” she should announce at the top of the show that she’d just taken Ecstasy. That helped.
“They needed a context for bizarre behavior that didn’t fit into the standup mold,” Rajskub explains. And that context gave her the license to come up with ever more abstract imagery.
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