Estelle Getty would be rolling in her grave if she knew that there's a pornographic painting of her vagina out there. The World of Wonder Storefront Gallery opened its doors last summer with the now infamous “Golden Gals Gone Wild,” an exhibit inspired by The Golden Girls that includes erotic depictions of Dorothy, Rose, Blanche and Sophia, and a lone rendering of the girls as Hindu goddesses. (We always knew they were holy.) In recent months, the gallery has displayed art celebrating all things Britney Spears (“Just Britney,” with yet another vagina showing) and Madonna (“Dial M for Madonna”), while the current “Dollypop” pays tribute to the queen of country. The works range from a portrait made entirely out of candy to a doll lovingly crafted out of pipe cleaners. Just look for a giant pair of breasts in the gallery's window — you can't miss 'em.
Gallery owners Fenton Bailey and Randy Barbato know all about turning pop-culture trash into art and honoring gay icons. After founding their World of Wonder Productions in 1991, the producing and directing partners began their careers managing RuPaul, and spent the next 15-plus years creating work for TV and film both here and abroad. They've worked with countless artists and pseudocelebs, from Ellen DeGeneres and Heidi Fleiss to Perez Hilton.
But Bailey and Barbato didn't make their mark in Hollywood until The Eyes of Tammy Faye, the 2000 documentary that saw the rise and fall of the late Tammy Faye Bakker through the late televangelist's unbeatable soul. Since then, the partners have released their first feature film on party promoter turned convicted killer Michael Alig and the New York club scene, 2003's Party Monster, followed by 2005's Inside Deep Throat, another documentary on the behind-the-scenes story of the most legendary porno ever made.
The East Villagers moved shop to L.A. in 1995, taking with them their “weird collective” of artists and art enthusiasts, and following in the footsteps of Ann Magnuson, author and former club kid James St. James and more of their '80s N.Y. cohorts, who eventually migrated West.
“We love New York,” Barbato says. “But part of it was getting to that point in our lives where we were wanting to settle down a bit more. It's so difficult to do that in New York. Just the simple things, like space. And the weather's kinda nice here. It was the superficial, simple things like that. We moved out here for the quality of life. Then it turned out there all these New Yorkers are out here.”
Seeing the dire need for more trash on Hollywood Boulevard, Bailey and Barbato decided to open World of Wonder in 2007, in the same building that houses their production company, conveniently located next to Skooby's Hot Dogs and the Iglesia Universal Church.
“We've always been obsessed with art,” Barbato says. “Here we are, right on Hollywood Boulevard. We're at the center of all things pop culture. We used to rent it out to a porno store, and their lease was up. They used to sell dildos and essential oils, and now we're selling topless Bea Arthurs and Dolly Partons.”
The gallery primarily stages group shows on pop art. And St. James — his book Disco Bloodbath was the basis for Party Monster — can occasionally be seen manning the gallery and curating exhibits.
“He's an institution here at World of Wonder,” says Barbato, “which I think is our gift to Hollywood Boulevard.”
But you're probably more familiar with Bailey and Barbato's current TV ventures, including top reality shows like Pam: Girl on the Loose on E! and Tori and Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood on Oxygen, or the HBO documentary Heidi Fleiss: The Would-Be Madame of Crystal, which chronicles the former Hollywood madam's attempts to open the first all-male brothel in Nevada. (For Anglophiles and children of the '80s, the duo have also been longtime followers of U.K. former pop star Pete Burns, directing a documentary and another reality series for the Dead or Alive lead singer, who has become the poster boy for plastic surgery gone horribly, horribly wrong.)
Even if you don't get around to finding Dolly's breasts by the time “Dollypop” closes on October 8, the gallery's future shows will include the same artsy-tartsy style: RuPaul is curating an upcoming exhibit; the intersection of celebrity and politics is the subject of another; and plans are in the works for a show all about owls. Owls?
“Owls have always been interesting subjects for many artists,” says Barbato, with the conviction of someone who believes in UFOs. “They seem to be resurfacing. They were very trendy in the '70s. That's another example of a personal obsession of ours. You know, 'whatta hoot'? I don't know what owls, drag queens and politics have in common, but somehow for us, they do have something in common.”