TRASH AND VAUDEVILLE. It’s the name of a store on New York’s East Seventh Street that opened in 1975 and “has been providing Rock n’ Roll to wear ever since.” In Lizzi Bougatsos’s latest show, “Idolize the Burn, an Ode to Performance,” the musician, performer, and artist transforms one such provision into The Crucifixion, 2022—a black leather brassiere augmented with underglaze ceramic and a man’s necktie. A stained, shopworn tag names the boutique and its most conventionally attractive detail: the original price of $26.
Props for performance—including toe shoes, a music stand, paper fans, a taffeta’d bodysuit—appear throughout Bougatsos’s exhibition at Tramps in New York. Staged in sculptures and assemblages, these found, outsourced, or otherwise not entirely handmade objects or details bring about calculated distancing effects. Though a memento of dance or a delicate accessory can be charming, this show is not so much endearing as it is an invitation to become unsettled, brushed up against by knives (literally and metaphorically), or confronted with signs of affliction and ruin. This is the heated raison d’être of a hushed installation in which the immaculate bloodred painted floor of the whole gallery—just off the south side of Washington Square Park—stays intact thanks to a polite request that visitors remove their shoes upon entrance. Treading lightly, then, prompts a sensitivity to this show as a space for reflection on the wreckages and deprivations of time and pain and their attendant gifts of introspection and perspective. The work goes against the grain of the “experiential” or “immersive” that is so modish in art today: No boring, reality-denying headset required. Use your own head instead. DIY.
For my money, perfume is already amply experiential, and upon entering the installation one detects the faint whiff of some aroma. Two upturned bottles of Christian Dior’s Poison role-play the lightbulbs of a wall sconce in Egypt with Blue, 2022; The Unseen, 2022, a multitiered, low-hanging, and indisputably dangerous brass-and-silver-bladed arrangement, also includes a small bottle of a Thierry Mugler scent on its top rack. Another sculpture, Her Refrigerator (Preserved Forever), 2022, evokes a cooler kind of sensuality: A sheet of clear Mylar swathes a bouquet of flasks and vials, all set atop a low, plain acrylic stand. A tiny YSL-capped vessel shrinks in the presence of a full-size bottle of Tom Ford Black Orchid, along with yet another weighted round of Poison and a number of boxes of oud. These are not the scents of a wallflower but of someone who will be seen and heard—and linger after they’re gone, inspiring a sense of loss in those left behind, or burnt through.
In the vicinity, another arrangement, also shrouded in Mylar, offers feathers, a fan, fake floral bits, and visibly used, chipped and dinged drumsticks—the artist is also a percussionist and vocalist—on an Alexander McQueen product-box plinth. Speaking of death, allusions to damages are part and parcel of the mise-en-scène here. Some two decades ago, the artist played with fire in a performance and was left with massive and painful burns. Oblique references to the incident populate the installation: In A Punk Gesture, 2019–23, two oddly sutured short-sleeved tops that turn out to be burn suits rest on a piece of fabric-covered cardboard and on the floor, recalling a Susan Cianciolo installation tactic. Nearby, Untitled, Diptych, 2019, features a clinical arrangement of yellowed silicone patches affixed to canvas with brown packing tape. The gleam of the plastic encasing these scraps, set just a bit back from another slight glare of framing glass, is optically similar to the wetness of an open wound. You can’t miss what this is about—this is trashed flesh transubstantiated, preserved, conserved, and saved. Thanks to the uncanny corporeality of these materials—note the gelling and oozing of the semi-sheer tape’s adhesive—they perform the role of the artist’s own burned body. She doesn’t need these dressings anymore. Rather than explicitly display the truth (backstory is a rote narrative convention today), Bougatsos lets it linger on the scene lambently, allegorically, or like an odor meant to keep away the bullshit. Motion pictures might have killed vaudeville, but lest we forget: Coming back from the dead is a great gimmick. To walk through the fire and still idolize it—that might even be sacred.
“Lizzi Bougatsos: Idolize the Burn, an Ode to Performance” is on view through March 22.
Paige K. Bradley is an artist and writer based in New York.