A shallow stage, dramatic floor to ceiling curtain of silver mylar, pink lights, and disco ball have recently transformed the ground floor of Weston Art Gallery. Alluding to the settings of over-the-top performances of artifice, this open space literally sets the stage for Rachel Rampleman’s labyrinthine exploration of drag subcultures, body builders, make-up artists, and child beauty queens found in the lower floor in “Oh! You Pretty Things,” a survey of the Brooklyn-based, Cincinnati-native’s video work. Alternately alluring, humorous, and terrifying, the personalities and subcultures examined in Rampleman’s videos demonstrate the range of ways gender is explored through performance and spectacle under capitalism.
“Oh! You Pretty Things” spans over half a dozen of the artist’s series. Each body of work explores a particular subculture or means of performing identity in ways that bend, smash, or amplify gender binaries. Rampleman’s videos, fixating on performance, blend the ethnographic documentary gaze with spectacle and artifice. Installed on flatscreen and CRT monitors in a darkened gallery rather than through projection, the space becomes mysterious. Light pours out of the screens and into the gallery space and onto viewers as they strain their eyes to adjust to each light-emitting device and still navigate the dark space. Many of the multiscreen works also have their cords exposed, foregrounding the mechanisms of illusion in much the same way Rampleman’s videos foreground the production of artifice in the subcultures she explores.
In the most straightforwardly documentary entries, Rampleman’s often hand-held camera follows her subjects in their preferred environments. Two entries from the Rock ‘n Roll Series, for example, feature members of New York City’s Girls Girls Girls, an all-female Mötley Crüe tribute band, coming together from various walks of life to tailgate at a concert and later cover the band’s misogynistic anthems. Another set of documentaries follows LACTIC Incorporated, a fashion brand that repurposes corporate logos and throw-away objects from commodity culture into gender-bending garments. The camera follows a group of gender-fluid models as they sashay down the streets and stage a fashion shoot in Times Square or perform in a former pharmaceutical factory in Brooklyn. These documentaries are like backstage exposés of moments of performance that Rampleman’s other video installations isolate and explore through both single and multi-channel means. Paradise Binary (Ego Sensation, White Hills) (2013), for example, features a split-screen study of female bassist Ego Sensation of the psychedelic rock band White Hills in performance, and Hell Bent Binary (Gyda Gash, Judas Priestess) (2013) studies a performer of another all-female cover band through two-channel installation, to name two from the Rock ‘n Roll series.
The vacillation between documentary and performance for the camera similarly informs Bodybuilder Portrait (Tazzie Colomb) (2011), part of Rampleman’s much celebrated exploration of female body builders. On the left screen Colomb sits inside a generically feminine hotel room telling stories about her career as a body builder and dealing with how both men and women perceive her body in a confessional mode common in documentary forms. On the right, she poses for the camera in the same room, flexing her massive muscles in a sparkly black and pink string bikini. With daylight streaming into the room at odd angles, doors ajar, and an opened suitcase sneaking into the right side of the frame as she poses, this setting feels both intimate and pathetic, contrasting the self-possessed performance of Colomb’s body with the cheap, lonely textures of bland conformity and placelessness.
The newest work in the show from the Life is Drag series are presented as collaborations between the artist and Brooklyn’s alt-drag scene. These works feature performers shifting between speaking about and preparing their character and embodying them through lip-synced performance. The two-channel piece God Complex (Ziggy Stardust) (2019) visualizes this transition in diptych form. The same performer appears in in a backstage dressing room on two vertical flat screens: on one side he puts on makeup and prepares to become David Bowie over the course of a two hour loop, on the other screen he lip-syncs a Bowie song in the same room in a twelve minute loop. The allusion to labor alluded to in the contrasting temporalities between channels in God Complex also informs a single-channel work in the series, Untitled Queen Performing “Untitled Clarinet” (2019). Again featuring a single performer on a vertical screen (only this time sitting on a chair on a shallow stage with a silver curtain that complements the one upstairs), the gender fluid performer begins by speaking in their deep voice about an impromptu clarinet performance at a staff meeting that lead to a larger discussion of the joys and struggles of being an artist in a capitalist world. The six-minute video culminates in a lip-synced rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “For Free,” a song about a clarinet street performer who performs beautifully, though without compensation.
Contrasting these more ethnographic studies, which I argue generate a sense of empathy with their subjects, are works where Rampleman appropriates footage from television and the internet. The Female Maskers Series (2018), excerpted from YouTube, features clips of videos from an online subculture of men who wear a latex mask and bodysuit to take on a feminine identity for the camera. Less a literalization of pioneering psychoanalyst Joan Rivere’s 1929 proclamation of womanliness as masquerade than a manifestation of fetish and kink, these works sit uncomfortably next to some of Rampleman’s other works. Unlike the drag performers that grace a number of Rampleman’s screens and use artifice as a means of expression for living subject, these works (to me at least) reveal a subculture that performs femininity as profoundly passive and dehumanized, magnifying not performative artifice but restrictive social norms that objectify women and confine them to the home. Rampleman’s multiplication of these appropriated internet performances through multiscreen installation amplifies their uncanniness and recreates the YouTube environment in the gallery space. Not only are the images utterly terrifying (to me at least) in their animation of blow-up sex doll fantasies of women, but if the plastic women are doing anything at all in in these vignettes it’s vainly looking at themselves or performing chores of domestic labor.
Even more unsettling than the female maskers, however is another appropriation work Sexy Baby Studies (2018), a 28-channel installation on 6” tablets. Each tiny screen isolates a movement of a child beauty queen from a televised broadcast. These moments are often overtly sexual hip gyrations or coy glances and winks that are then played in reverse at the same speed and looped. Combined with the tacky costumes, excessive makeup, and cheesy stage settings, each screen isolates a moment of horror in this farce of femininity. Unlike the performances of LACTIC, female bodybuilders, or the alt-drag community with which Rampleman has most recently collaborated, the exaggerated, looped movements of these child performers deny them agency and instead imprison these children within biologically-determined gender roles.
Rampleman’s documentary research and isolation of moments of artifice and performance illuminate both the liberating and terrifying sides of the performance of gender under spectacular capitalism. The coexistence of these works within the gallery space does not suggest an ambivalence about their subjects but rather a deeper consideration of the concept of fluidity with regard to how gender intersects with other structures of power, mirroring the disorienting experience in the dark gallery space. Untitled queen’s frank discussion of the relationship between performance, identity, labor, and capital through the confessional monologue and lip-synced appropriation of Mitchell’s song (and hopefully the upcoming live performance on June 8th Rebel Revel) not only subvert stereotypes and gender binaries, but also potentially point to new possibilities.