A butch lesbian who came out early and with gusto; a singer/songwriter who started out a punk legend but embraced a more progressive folk; a sculptor with a gift for transforming paper and cardboard into charming, meaningful objects—Phranc is a rebellious spirit with a taste for the retro and nostalgic. A new exhibition at Craig Krull Gallery (Bergamot Station) examines the artist, musician, and one-time Tupperware Lady’s 40-year archive of multidisciplinary gestures of affection and activism.
The Butch Closet aligns Phranc’s parallel pursuits in music and art, beginning from her twin stories of influence—studying at the Feminist Studio Workshop at The Woman’s Building in the mid-70s, while simultaneously cutting a major figure in the Los Angeles punk scene—and offering a more thorough examination of the overarching garment motif that continues to express in her visual art to this day. The famous Jewish Lesbian Folksinger and the beloved Cardboard Cobbler are, after all, one and the same person; and clothes are one thing that plays an outsize role in how we construct our individual and group identities—consciously or not— and how they are constructed for us.
One room is dedicated to a full-scale recreation of Phranc’s studio-cum-cobbler shop and workbench shelves in a convincing organic jumble of tools, toys, snacks, collectibles, odds and ends, bits of fabric, reusable containers, notebooks and sundry—all made out of cardboard of course. It gives the distinct sensation of rummaging in your grandparents’ garage, a mix of wonder and ordinariness with a trace of childlike curiosity at the cleverness of the tactile clutter. Nearby are large, unfurled scrolls of pattern and plaid paintings on paper—this is Phranc’s textile stock, which she makes by creating all-over abstraction in the form of bolts of fabric, before cutting from them in the manner of a tailor to create the sculptural wardrobe.
Exceptional and biographically salient pieces from this wardrobe are showcased in the closet-themed gallery, in an array touching on some of Phranc’s most iconic moments in queer conceptual cardboard fashion. Fashion is explored as both an assertively analog armature on which to hang a subversive but heartfelt update on arte povera—a way of working and a choice of material that speak to both economic necessity and a rejection of prevailing capitalist paradigms of value.
Treasures from the closet range from a cozy and inexplicably sinister Lamb Chop Halloween costume to the gorgeous vintage-style and extremely flirty red dress and cutesy-core pleated skirts she hated being forced to wear, to more breezy and boxy menswear style Hawaiian shirts, and safety orange (but rather unsafe to use in an emergency) paper lifejackets, and a pivotal pair of cardboard combat boots borrowed for the exhibition from the collection of Ed Ruscha. It reminds viewers of themselves, their parents and grandparents, Nick at Nite, and the oppressive enforcement of binary and other conformities in society of the kind Phranc has spent her whole life acting to upend. Including the time she worked, in yet another fusion of revolution and retro, as a remarkably successful Tupperware salesperson—a true story told in the 2001 documentary Lifetime Guarantee: Phranc’s Adventure in Plastic now screening on the Criterion Channel.
Whether the message is that queer people can still dig Americana, or that reinvention can manifest in many kinds of dimensions, or that magic can be found in the commonplace and made from nothing, or that activism can take as many paths as self-discovery, or simply that being yourself is its own reward—really, it’s all of the above—Phranc is a melodious and inventive messenger.
Phranc: The Butch Closet is part of the citywide Circa: Queer Histories Festival organized by the ONE Institute. Phranc will give an artist talk and performance at the gallery on Saturday, November 4 at 3pm (limited seating, contact the gallery to rsvp). The exhibition is on view at Bergamot Station through December 2; craigkrullgallery.com.
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