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Documenting a Legend

By HENRY P. RALEIGH
ART TIMES May, 2005

Documentations of artists tend to be fairly predictable affairs, homages rather than critiques  — the camera caresses the artist's works, a few glimpses of the early days, the artist pontificating on art and life, perhaps even hamming it up. Henri Georges Clouzot's 1956, "Le Mystere Picasso" is a notable case in point, a handful of gallery and museum personalities attesting to the art's significance - actually the same folks that had elevated it in the first place. The 1972 "Painters Painting" featuring Warhol, de Kooning, Johns, Hoffman and Rauschenberg, and the 1992 "Joseph Cornell: Works in a Box" are typical of this genre. Celestial celebrations are reserved for long dead artists in Hollywood epics and only if the artist is of sufficient historic stature to call for a Charlton Heston or a Kirk Douglas. But the average artist documentary is relatively sedate and invariably polite, its interest lies principally in its information value, a good deal less in its entertainment value. There are exceptions - "Schiele in Prison" in 1980, made by Mick Gold, a rock photographer, reveals the paranoia that marked Egon Schiele's tortured self-portraits, much aided by readings from Schiele's prison diary. Yet in this as well is the static sameness shared by other documentaries. A more recent one, however, is quite another matter and is enough to make your hair stand on end. It’s the 2002 "The Legend of Leigh Bowery" directed by Charles Atlas, a filmmaker who has also to his credit an acclaimed documentary of Merce Cunningham. After a short run in a London theater the film played briefly in New York's Cinema Village before going directly to a 2004 DVD (Palm Pictures and Arthouse Films).

Leigh Bowery is probably not well known to American art audiences. He made but two club appearances in New York in 1993 — few would know that Leigh Bowery was to London's club underworld of drugs and drag queens of the 1980's what Warhol was to Manhattan's arty underworld of the 1960's. That's as far as a comparison can go for Warhol is a Mr. Rogers compared to Bowery and his singularly bizarre work. Called variously a fashion designer, an entertainer, a performance artist, a musician he is difficult to define although not a surprising product of the Post-Punk art world of the last half century with its characteristic in-your-face taste for range and decadence. Anyone familiar with Lucian Freud's paintings would have seen portraits of Bowery in the nude — a bald, bloated, six-foot four monument of a man. He was Freud's favorite model.

It is just as difficult to place Leigh Bowery's art in any of the usual categories for he was the art. As fashion designer he made outlandish costumes solely for himself, at times for drag dance troupes, as entertainer he offered the visual shock of his clothing creations in often public spaces, and as performance artist he provided voyeuristic and frequently alarmingly obscene presentations of himself as monster and clown. At the d'Offay gallery in London Bowery wore a succession of costumes, preening behind a one-way glass, appearing to an audience as a child, a woman, an animal, as a blue-skinned Hindu goddess — a performance that went on for several days, portions shown in the documentary. The monster/clown aspect permeated all of his work and is both arresting and disturbing, qualities well captured in Atlas' film.

Everything about Leigh Bowery is artifice, he transformed himself into his art through the manipulation of the ample flesh of his body by taping and mastic glue into strange, perverted anatomical aberrations This is an art made to be photographed, to fix on film the threatening intimidation and almost hypnotically fascination of his designs. The documentary is at time horrifying yet not without a horrifying beauty.

In 1985 Leigh Bowery co-founded the notorious London disco club Taboo, renowned for its sexual and drug excesses. Here Bowery performed and was seen by Rosie O'Donnell who would later back a short-lived Broadway production, Taboo-The Musical. Scored by Boy George the character of Leigh Bowery was played by Matt Lucas, a British comedian. Included in the film are interviews with Damien Hirst, Lucian Freud's daughter, Normal Rosenthal of the Royal Academy of Art, Boy George and others - the DVD adds a special interview with Rosie O'Donnell.

In 1994 Leigh Bowery filmed his marriage to his long-time assistant, Nicola Bateman as an art piece. HIV positive, a fact he successfully concealed from all who knew him and his new wife, Bowery died six months after his marriage and was buried in Australia next to his mother at his place of birth, a town with the unlikely name, Sunshine.

"The Legend of Leigh Bowery" is not a film for the squeamish. It is, nonetheless, an absorbing document of a period in the British New Romanticism movement much as the Morrissey/Warhol "The Chelsea Girls" and the Palmer/Weisman "Ciao! Manhattan" is for our own less than attractive cultural moment.

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