Phranc, the self-styled “All-American Jewish Lesbian Folksinger,” is known to many as a pioneering punk rocker in the '80s, then a progressive acoustic bard with a unique knack for infusing a gruff and melodious singer-songwriter style with elements of LGBTQ awareness, activism, empathy and a sharp charming wit.
One could use almost the exact same language to describe the aesthetic of her parallel career as a visual artist. She calls herself “the Cardboard Cobbler,” remaking ordinary objects (guns, toys, flags) and garments (pretty dresses, sportswear, cowboy clothes) with an aura of childhood, summer and the insidious power of gender norms — all out of paper, cardboard, thread and paint.
And in a way they are the same. By reclaiming and deconstructing iconic genres such as folk music and the country club sporting life, she undermines their cisnormative hegemony and makes the idea of Americana accessible for anyone who wants it. Phranc herself has a sort of retro-boyish sartorial panache, so one is free to infer irony in her more hyper-feminine garments, such as the heroic red dress whose hem floats on an invisible breeze at the heart of her new exhibition, “Swagger” at Bergamot’s Craig Krull Gallery. Though a bit too lovingly crafted and richly detailed for pure irony, there is something in the dresses that pushes back against their embodiment of a so-called feminine “ideal.”
In fact, Phranc describes how the paper dresses refer to her childhood visits to her uncle’s dress shop downtown and being forced to try on dresses (which made her very uncomfortable). She later realized that experiences like that were formative in her sense of self, though surely not in the way her family intended. “Butch fashion is my armor. The dresses I was forced to wear when I was young only made me more determined to dress the way I do today,” she says.
“These favorite bits of clothing and inspirational phrases and totems help me hang on to life,” she says. “I wear outfits that make me feel strong, strong enough to walk out the door and into the world with my head held high.”
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Also included are nautical totems such as life jackets, swimwear and boat flags — all of which honor her lesbian-feminist heroes. “In the gay and lesbian community, surviving was/is often dependent on reading [social and cultural] codes.” The nautical flags are the in International Code of Signals alphabet and are read as following: JUNIOR DYKE, COME OUT, CLOSET CASE.
“My paper life jacket is strong enough to float me in a world that wants me to drown,” Phranc says. “My sewing machine is my weapon. How butch am I? Sew Butch! Swagger on!”
There will be an artist talk with Phranc and Tom Knechtel on Saturday, Aug. 4, at 11 a.m. with coffee and doughnuts. The exhibition continues through Aug. 25. Craig Krull Gallery, Bergamot Art Center, 2525 Michigan Ave. B-3, Santa Monica; (310) 828-6410, craigkrullgallery.com. Tue.-Fri., 10 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; Sat., 11 a.m.-5:30 p.m.; free.