'Theory Made Flesh?', Ricardo Montez

Listen to performance studies scholar, Ricardo Montez read an excerpt from his new publication Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire. Describing a performance at the Paradise Garage that saw Grace Jones’ body painted with symbols, Montez considers the complexities present throughout the singer’s artistic collaborations.

In the series Grace Jones: Musings, we listen out for contemporary literary and academic voices that rehearse, record, and resound Jones’ contributions to black and queer imaginaries, looking at the role of music and performance in creating communities of affect and resilience.

Transcript

Haring, recalling his introduction to Grace Jones in 1984 via Andy Warhol, told his biographer, “Of course, I had seen Grace Jones before, because she was the diva and disco queen of the whole Paradise Garage scene. But I really, really want to paint her body, because she’s the embodiment of everything that’s both primitive and pop.”

In Haring’s statement, the ambition to paint Jones’s body is set in subtle opposition to his knowledge of Jones’s diva status — as if Haring’s desire to work with Jones exists despite an established persona that is well recognized in the club world he inhabits. When Haring arrives at Jones’s body, her flesh has been articulated through a series of excessive symbols of blackness. It is through this surplus of codification that Haring approaches her; he understands her as a sign vehicle mobilized by male artists. Jones’s flesh begins to literally accumulate fetish signs as Haring marks her for a further mobilization of the neoprimitive, as established by his predecessor, Jean Paul Goude. Haring argues that his drawing style is similar to Eskimo, African, Mayan, and Aboriginal art, and for him, “Grace is all that put together.” Jones reports in her memoirs that she felt a connection to Haring; in addition to her deep respect for him as an artist, she found something powerful in the way his line operated on her skin. She is explicit in making the connection between Haring’s body art and Goude’s manipulations.

“What Jean-Paul would do to me in a photograph, externalizing my spirit, Keith did to my actual skin and body … They both understood that the truly beautiful is always bizarre … Covered with Haring — his light and joy, his swoops and strokes, his handwriting — I would be dressed perfectly. As he painted me, I could feel myself change.” According to Haring, the two left the photo shoot with Mapplethorpe to attend a birthday party, Jones naked and still covered in his line — an anecdote that suggests that Jones did in fact feel perfectly dressed while “covered with Haring.”

The mobility of Haring’s line as a vehicle that inspires change, movement, and a provocation of the spirit takes on a particular valence when introduced to the venue of the Paradise Garage — the dance club that was instrumental to both artists’ development. For Haring, the Garage was a transformative space of cross-racial contact distinct from the other gay clubs in the city. Moving to the beat of master DJ Larry Levan, Haring and Juan Dubose attended the club regularly for five years. “It’s packed,” Haring told John Gruen, “on gay nights it’s nothing like other gay discos, because the kids here are gay but they’re really tough street kids — and they’re incredibly, incredibly, beautiful! … The whole experience was very communal, very spiritual.” The scene at the Garage reminded Haring of his hippie days prior to moving to New York, and he likened this communal energy to a Grateful Dead concert. The collective energies of the 1960s bled over into this urban setting, where perhaps the promise of civil rights movements and sexual liberation could be felt as differently marginalized bodies came together, unwashed hippies replaced by hot trade.

For Jones, the Paradise Garage represented a venue where she accessed an exploration in music and performance absent elsewhere in New York City. The disco scene that had been instrumental to her early success and that had shaped her first album had become, like disco music itself, more superficial and commercialized — driven by the performance of hyperconsumption that marked so much of 1980s music and fashion. Both Haring and Jones shuttled between midtown’s Studio 54 (the archetypal space of glamorous excess) and the Garage, occupying coveted positions in their ability to gain entrance to both venues. Jones writes, “Studio 54 appealed to my sense of outrage; the underground clubs appealed to my sense of adventure. It was the two sides of me — or two of the many sides — craving freedom … The key was learning how to balance these two sides — the irreverent me who’d turn up at a nightclub like I was the circus coming to town, and the me who was always interested in innovation.” Like Haring, Jones describes the Garage as a space of transcendence, with the elevated and tightly secured DJ booth acting as an altar from which the spiritual guide moved his worshiping subjects: “a writhing, dedicated sea of people blissed out on beat, it was the only place where you could get away for a while.”

From within the elevated altar of the DJ booth, an unidentified person videotaped Jones as she took to the stage in 1985 to perform an extended set that began with her single from that year, “Slave to the Rhythm,” and then moved to “Feel Up” and “Pull Up to the Bumper” (hit singles from 1981’s Nightclubbing) before circling back to “Slave to the Rhythm” as the finale. This extended set, captured via the grainy and now obsolete technology of vhs, records Jones inhabiting Haring’s line and performing what she describes as an “Egyptian empress as astronaut. Future turned into graffiti, skin into a canvas, Africa into space.”

Through partial illumination, pillars on stage come alive for brief moments, lit up by the pulse of strobe lights and the flashes of cameras capturing the scene. In the quick alternations between darkness and light, Haring’s silver lines, which cover the pillars, leave momentary screen burns on the video record. Jones, already on stage during the opening notes of “Slave to the Rhythm,” seems to emerge from the painted architecture, the lines on her body seamlessly meshing with those painted on the set. As more of the stage is illuminated, the entirety of her painted body is revealed, adorned with Haring’s neoprimitive script. Spiral-shaped accessories designed by David Spada complement Haring’s linear designs, and this layering of silver metal against her flesh does indeed evoke the Afro- futurist aesthetic Jones describes above. After the first number, the stage goes dark again as the sound moves into “Feel Up,” with a steady drumbeat. When the lights come up again, Jones is straddling a giant drum painted with Haring’s lines, atop of which she will spend the entire song. As she beats the drum, the song builds in momentum, and Jones gyrates in synch with the increasing rhythm, riding the neoprimitive instrument with mounting frenzy.

The racialized script encoded in Haring’s line fuels this scene of primitive orgiastic excess. But the scene cannot be fully captured or fully explained by that racialized script: theory will not write itself stably onto this flesh. As the set continues, Jones occupies the entire stage, dancing from one side to the other continuously, physically reaching out and touching her audience. Sweat begins to bead through and overtake Haring’s line, creating a blur of white paint across Jones’s flesh. In this ephemeral, performative dissolution, the temporality of the line — its applied and provisional nature — becomes visible. This is a line written over the flesh of Jones — it suggests on one level the image of a primitive black body reduced to its carnal nature — and yet this staged production, mobilized as it is by Jones for her audience, is completely unstable. Just like the music with its drum beat that gets lost in the synthetic amplifications of the dance club remix performed live, the line announces itself as a synthetic overlay onto flesh that is itself a palimpsest of the fantasies that produce it. A precivilized past and the future in technological sound are revealed as temporal fantasies, as the artifice through which Jones performs her blackness. They are but two registers of meaning that pulse forth in this animation of the neoprimitive, where Jones herself is suspended between significations, a suspension that animates the spiritual field of collectivity, contingently organized as it is by desire and difference.

Ricardo Montez is Associate Professor of Performance Studies at The New School. His research examines the performance of race, ethnicity and sexuality in visual culture and media. He was a Faculty Fellow in Latino Studies at New York University and held the Cotsen Postdoctoral Fellowship in Race and Ethnicity Studies in the Society of Fellows at Princeton University. His book, Keith Haring’s Line: Race and the Performance of Desire (2020), considers cross-racial desire in Haring’s life and art.