It’s a rainy night in L.A., and artist Savannah Knoop welcomes her friends to ACP, a small gallery in a private home in Hollywood. It’s warm and steamy as a locker room, and water drips from the ceiling into a saucepan on the floor. The name of the show, “Heads and Tails,” evokes the tensions and fluidity between rules and permission that has shaped her work and remarkable life's path, marked by both fame and anonymity, flip sides in the coin toss of life.
In the space, her sculptures are playful representations of serious ideas in wood, metal, textile and rubber, each demanding to be touched and played with. Two coins dangle from a beam; three iron-clad hats cling to a wall; a small, incredibly heavy softball encased in bronze has mutated into a heart-shaped blob. The space is dominated by two large, comical, wooden “rocking tails” with ass-shaped depressions carved into the thicker end.
In the early to mid 2000s, Knoop was the public face of the imaginary transgender male author JT LeRoy, a persona created by Laura Albert. It came to be known as the biggest literary con of a generation. Much like Knoop herself, this art tests notions of propriety, convention and identity. It wants to be held, to be worn, to be close, so it can test you. In the case of the large wooden “rocking tails,” it wants you to gently place your ass on the carved depressions fashioned after Knoop’s own ass and rock back and forth. Only then can you fully experience the art — and Knoop — in their fullness.
“I’m scared,” I tell Knoop as I lower myself onto the tail, then, “Oh … wow!” as the piece forces me to rethink my entire relationship with the ground. “It fires your quads!” Knoop says, watching with a smile. “It truly delights me to see how people move so differently on the tail. Everyone rocks so differently. My practice is social in that way, it requires people. Always has.” I point to the bronze ball on the table. Cast from a softball, it is now a wrecking ball, sprouting outward in the shape of a heart. It reminds me of Knoop. I try to pick it up, but it’s too heavy. “When I made this, I was thinking about time, chance and evolution, and how we frame it, and how we think of time passing as this direct path that is supposed to be really straight, tidy and linear,” she says. “But then life plays a trick on you, because there rarely is a straight line from A to B. And it becomes this chaotic game, a game you’re not expecting to play …”
I first met Knoop in 2007, about a year after The New York Times had exposed her. JT was the striking peroxide-blond, gay, teenage, truck-stop hustler who had supposedly authored two best-selling books, Sarah and The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things, pieces of tragic, illuminated, brilliant prose that propelled JT into the highest echelons of pop culture. Soft-spoken, and always in a hat and sunglasses, JT found himself the subject of an adoring media, while a devoted army of celebrity friends sang his praises: Dennis Cooper, Winona Ryder, Courtney Love, Billy Corgan, Madonna and Asia Argento; the latter directed and starred in the film adaptation of The Heart Is Deceitful Above All Things. They all fell under JT's spell, even though the books were clearly marked as “fiction” and JT looked kind of a lot like a girl in a wonky blond wig and BluBlocker glasses …
If there were an Oscar for sheer goddamn chutzpah, the trophy would have gone to the very young, very punk and very queer Knoop, who had been “cast” as JT by her sister-in-law, Albert, the real author of the books. Albert was desperately shy, damaged and overweight, and refused to go out in the world as herself. She created the cool, mysterious JT as her literary alter ego, and when interview requests starting coming in for JT, she asked Knoop to pretend to be him, and transform herself into the living sculpture that was JT’s public persona.
“I was 19, when JT started,” Knoop says. “I was enthralled by Laura as an artist and a writer, and the feeling was, 'Oh my God, she picked me, she wants me, she sees me! This heavy-duty, amazing person wants to work with me!’ This collaboration was as much a good fit for me as it was for Laura as it was for JT — bless that invisible entity that we occupied together.” As a young artist aching for identity, Knoop felt compelled to put her talents for costuming and physical performance to the test, soon realizing that the world was her stage.
When the veil was lifted in 2006, the fallout was heavy. “I felt like I couldn't get out from under that experience, for a while,” says Knoop, who immersed herself in fashion design, and started an avant garde line called Tinc in San Francisco. “To this day, when I want to relax, I go to look at clothing, Comme Des Garçons or someone good like that. Clothing is always the best art.”
While working on Tinc, she started writing a memoir, as a way of making sense of the JT experience. Had she been looking for JT or was it the other way around? “I realized it was both,” she says. “That idea of moving through the world performatively, playing with my identity — queer people often have those questions, and I feel like even without JT, I would have gotten into all those spaces on my own. I just happened to trip over into Laura’s world. It really was her world. It wasn’t my world.” Her writings were published in 2008 as Girl Boy Girl: How I Became JT Leroy, which she developed into a screenplay with I Am Michael director Justin Kelly. In 2016, The Hollywood Reporter announced that “Kristen Stewart, James Franco and Helena Bonham Carter were “circling the biopic of JT Leroy, a Hollywood-set transgender story” with Kristen Stewart “in negotiations” to play Knoop.
After the economic crash of 2008-09, Knoop left San Francisco and headed to New York City, becoming seriously immersed in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, in which she could play with those same aspects of power and vulnerability that had always fascinated her, in a safe and controlled environment. “I am obsessed with wrestling,” she says. “In jiu-jitsu, you’re trying to eat space; it’s all about submission grappling, where each person is trying to eat the other’s space and dominate them. When I first started I was surprised by how kinky it seemed even though no one else in my group was framing it that way.”
In 2013, Knoop fully committed to exploring her fascination with fine art, enrolling in an MFA program in sculpture at VCU in Richmond, Virginia. Almost immediately, she fell into an unorthodox routine for a grad student. She'd work on sculpture at school until 4 a.m. or so and then beeline to an after-hours strip joint called the Old Dominion Club, where anyone could get up and dance if they wanted to. “It is almost psychedelic how heteronormative that place is,” she says. “There are all these rules that you encounter according to what body you are being seen as. In a space like that, it’s very hyper-structured — a guy can't get on the pole … because they are the pole, kind of.”
The pole, the place, the gender roles — they stirred up that old instinct for secret subversion and roleplay that had powered not just JT but her topsy-turvy unisex fashions, her fetish wrestling in New York. To the surprise and confusion of the Old Dominion Club regulars, Knoop started dancing on the pole, wearing “Carhartt's ripped in the ass and weird makeup,” performing jiu-jitsu moves. They weren't very happy about Knoop at first, but eventually she made friends with people, which she says took about eight months. She re-created the Old Dominion experience inside the art department at VCU, complete with a pole, as part of her degree.
She’s not sure if the art is a path, per se, as much as a strategy for living, she says after the opening in L.A. Perhaps the art is actually a way of giving herself permission to explore the things that nurture her. Turn her on. And, in turn, establish those permissions for the rest of us. Permit us to flip our own coin. “I have learned through all this to just be, you know, honest about what I’m interested in, and how I move through the world. That's what these past 10 years have been. Exploring these themes. Not just of my art but my life.”
“Heads and Tails” is on view by appointment at ACP until March 13; 5152 La Vista Court, Hollywood; (323) 333-7351, artistcuratedprojects.com.