On New Year’s Eve 1980, I watched the new-wave band Human Sexual Response perform at the now defunct Boston Phoenix. I was 14 and my sister and her classmates from the Massachusetts College of Art snuck me past security. As the stage lights came up, four large refrigerator boxes appeared. The band began to sing their haunting coming-of-age ballad “The Diary of Anne Frank” while cutting themselves out of the boxes with utility knives. Later that night in a post-show hotel-room party, I saw two guys play tongue hockey for the first time.
The Boston art-school scene in the late ’70s set the stage for an influential group of artists, dealers, and curators who gravitated to the East Village in the early ’80s—Pat Hearn, Jack Pierson, Mark Morrisroe, Mike and Doug Starn, to name a few, and Stephen Tashjian, known as Tabboo! A lush new book edited by Lia Gangitano chronicles the last 20-plus years of the artist's work.
Large color reproductions are split into chapters with titles like “East Village Apocalypse” and “Pretty Pretty Flowers.” The chapter “Pyramid Flyers” shows advertisements that Tashjian made for the Pyramid, the drag-punk club on Avenue A. These flyers, hand-drawn and collaged, advertising bands like Blowtorch Boys, The Fabulous Pop Tarts, and Elektrik Dik, were the first works by Tabboo! that I saw after moving to New York in 1983. They are part Marimekko on acid and part high-school-notebook-“I have a crush on Johnny” with spirals of loopy text, grimacing skinheads, poodles, doodles, and deluxe portraits of drag queens all packing the page. They became iconic advertisements for nights not to be missed—I only wish I had seen A Musical History of Pittsburgh an Operetta in 3 parts or Baby Gregor is Jelly Joplin.
The East Village then was a cacophony of battered tenements, drug dealers, punks, homeless people, and artists living on the cheap. It was an explosive moment of creativity, theater, kitsch, and hilarity. Tashjian joined forces in the burgeoning East Village drag scene, rising to fame with Lady Bunny, Hapi Phace, Sister Dimension, and Dean Johnson, headlining at now long-gone clubs like the Palladium and The World. The performance side of Tabboo!'s work took on epic proportions. Working with downtown luminaries such as Ethyl Eichelburger and John Kelly, Tashjian wrote and starred in send-ups ranging from Faust to TV’s The Golden Girls.
In the late ’80s things drastically changed in the East Village and the city at large. The Tompkins Square riots of ’88 (a block away from the Pyramid) had imposed a violent edge to the neighborhood. As Tashjian writes, “Most of the huge nightclubs had closed. The city was being invaded by vapid ‘Sex and the City’ girls.” Nothing is more humorless than sky-high rents and chain stores displacing a creative hotbed. AIDS had seriously obliterated a wealth of creative lives. Tashjian explains that he needed to fall back in love with New York, and his drawings of the city are visual love letters to the ever-changing cityscape. Beautifully rendered and delicate, they twinkle on the page. NYC from my Roof (1998) captures the undulating grays of the city and its shadows. Blurry, misty glitter dapples down from the sky, puncturing the buildings like tiny drops of water against glass. Domino Sugar Factory, 1992 looks across the river at night. Dark and mystical, its sky is brushed in soft waves of purple and black, and its horizon emits the soft lights of Williamsburg beyond. Who could predict that that Brooklyn neighborhood would have its own renaissance and then would also change rapidly, with the Domino Sugar Factory soon to become million-dollar condos? The New York pictures are not sentimental. They don’t have that longing feeling of a time passed, and remind me of driving over the Williamsburg Bridge when returning from the airport after a long trip. Upon looking at the New York skyline and the complexity of the city’s silhouettes, I think, I’m home.
Like the New York paintings, Tashjian’s portraits have an arresting honesty. In a self-portrait from 2005, he appears naked, his skin, body, and face modeled with marks of black paint. He holds three brushes with paint on them as if the portrait existed at the time of its making. A swipe of red paint slides diagonally down to his right hand, holding a brush that brackets his cock. A blue-gray shadow stands behind him. Here is Tashjian without the drag, without the wig or performance. Flloyd and Carlos (1991) is a portrait of two boyfriends. Flloyd is shirtless with his pants’ button undone, revealing a small patch of pubic hair. Carlos has his arm around Flloyd; he looks toward us with a confident sexuality, almost sultrily. Flloyd looks past us with a content expression of love. The portrait is loaded with symbolism—two men in a provocative loving embrace, displaying interracial and homosexual love—which now, in the short time since it was painted, we take for granted. Carlos wears a cross on a delicate chain tucked beneath his suspender (two years earlier, ACT UP members had chained themselves to the pews of Saint Patrick's Cathedral.) Flloyd's beautifully painted right pinky is impossibly bent back, becoming an almost upside down middle finger—a “fuck you” to the stereotypical faggot raised pinky. Gay artists had certainly given us taboo images already, but Tashjian's work has an immediate, diaristic approach. Text paintings like More Fairies Than You May Even Want To Believe and Gay Boys Camp have a decidedly handcrafted, in-the-moment edge. My favorite, The Thrill of Hope, is poignant and poetic—something about the letter e in the word hope falling to the bottom of the painting is heartbreaking. And a drawing form 1996 cracks me up: a dude stands shirtless with his underwear pulled down, his hand holding the folds of his underwear like a holster. The text reads “’sup?” signaling the moment of danger, uncertainty, and hyper-sexuality when cruising.
Although I’ve never met Tashjian, a part of me feels I know him well. I wonder if he was at that New Year’s Eve show in 1980? My art school years were punctuated by weekly stops were CBGB and the Pyramid. The queens at Pratt used to borrow frocks from the school archives for a night out at Pyramid, and I'm sure I danced more than once on the bar. New wave and punk co-opted the more “innocent” images of advertising of the ’50s and early ’60s; bouffant hairdos, poodles, and Technicolor-clean teens got rearranged to expose the real lives those images wanted to gloss over. Tabboo adopted this vocabulary and expanded its visual reach, mixing gay life, celebrity, glitter, and theater.
In her excellent essay, Elisabeth Kley writes “Tabboo!’s fierce delight in decorating potential violence is reminiscent of the seductive environment of effeminacy and crime described in Jean Genet's novel Our Lady of the Flowers.” Tabboo! has a way of unfolding a forever-folded piece of paper, each crease revealing what Lia Gangitano calls in her essay an “encompassing, bittersweet worldview.”
—Sean Mellyn is an artist based in New York. Optic Nerve: Sean Mellyn Prints and Multiples 1993–2013 is on view at Underline Gallery from June 20 through August 1st.