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“This is about a living surrealism. Pretend you are dreaming. Everything is a blur. The scenes move from one into the other but for no logical reason.”

—Vanalyne Green, Trick or Drink

I’ve wrestled for [seven! — Ed.] months to find ways to write about Vanalyne Green, an artist I’ve never met but with whom I feel an extremely close kinship solely through her remarkably confessional work.[1] Watching each of her three major video works for the first time, I felt a desire to capture images, ideas, snippets of dialogue or text, sounds, songs, feelings, facial expressions, backgrounds, and atmosphere. Her videos lay bare personal experience while analyzing popular culture and classical forms of art, as well as examining both personal traumas and socio-culturally-inculcated tropes with rigor, precision and an incisively original point-of view. They do so by traveling atypical routes to address big, weighty subjects: love & sex. Disease & disorder. Substances & addiction. Sports.

I situate Vanalyne Green within a long line of personal heroes—including George Kuchar, Adrian Piper and Steve Reinke—whose work occupies this specific, tender space at the meeting point between two extremes. Their work feels so intimate, so close to the bone that it becomes outwardly radical, a generosity of spirit allowing the viewer access to what feels like the innermost chamber of another human’s closely held thoughts and experiences. At the same time, these artists locate this intimacy within a syncretic universe, essayistically bringing together stray images, found sounds, borrowed ideas, free-floating media and (importantly) other people to get to the heart of this interior, personal vision.

Trick or Drink

Vanalyne Green, 1984.

The roots of this vision can be found in Green’s experiences as a student and young artist in California. After enrolling in a co-ed sculpture course taught by Judy Chicago at Fresno State University in 1969, Green became immersed in several years of feminist art education. She was a student in Chicago’s one year Feminist Art Program at Fresno State in 1970, and went on to study with Sheila Levrant de Bretteville at CalArts.[2] At this time, Green was a radical performance artist working in several groups. Both the Cunt Cheerleaders and Feminist Art Workers were interested in performing in public for non-art audiences.[3] Second-wave feminism’s enduring motto of “the personal is political” characterized not only this early moment but it also carried through to her work since:

“There was something about ‘the personal is political.’ What I tell my students, when I talk about that time period, is that maybe you didn’t have the self-confidence to talk about who should run for governor or president. Maybe you didn’t have the self-confidence to think you could write a book. But you knew how you liked your coffee. And you could start to make work from that place, which was what I did.”[4]

Her earliest video in the LUX Collection, Trick or Drink (1984), feels the most familiar in form. It comes off as a self-analysis of Green working through traumas located in the past but still prevailing in the present, and locates these in the feelings of addiction, shame, desire and recidivism relating to both her parents’ alcoholism and her struggles with eating disorders (and the links between these disorders). The video experiments with different modes of address and visual techniques towards the aim of identifying how one builds her own worldview from the context of her surroundings and upbringing, topics explored in contemporary works like Jan Oxenberg’s Home Movie (1973) and Marion Urch’s A Mother’s Room (1981). Green reads entries from her diary over a montage of childhood photos, advertisements and her own writing. Retrospective scenes are set with narration while we see illustrations and photos from the popular imagination of the late 1950s and 1960s: the years of her adolescence.

Trick or Drink

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The heavy subjects discussed in this film are related with the appropriate weight. Green’s voice and countenance are very matter-of-fact as she describes, for example, experiences of bulimia to camera. The  tone of the 20-minute piece is consistent throughout, except for one moment: a punchy, white guy reggae song “The Power of Positive Drinking”. The singer—one Lewis Allen Reed, who certainly knew something about drinking—warbles, extoling the virtues of getting positively sloshed while, on screen a text is shown that reads like a pamphlet on the emotional characteristics of adults who grew up children of alcoholics. Though Trick or Drink shows little of the sense of humor and playfulness that shines through in both Green’s later videos and earlier performances, this moment of rupture provides clues towards how her next videos would develop.

In Vanalyne Green’s next video, A Spy in the House That Ruth Built (1989), her personal style emerges into its full form. Its focus: desire, transgression, abjection and, mostly, baseball.[5] The artist probes America’s “national pastime” through historical, aesthetic, material and feminist frames. Major League Baseball, as a professional organization, is renown for tightly controlling its public image, and Green’s outsider perspective becomes the first of many transgressions the video documents. She shoots a still photo of her foot on the grass of the field, a tantalizing image that represents an “inflitrat[ion of] this world that doesn’t belong to her.”[6] While a ban on signing women players was lifted three years after this video was made, baseball has always been a man’s game, the national sport in which half the nation can only look on as an observer.[7] And she observes. She leers. Wonders what it would be like to “fuck a ball player.” She becomes obsessed with the idea, her video camera providing an affirmatively female gaze, poring over the bodies of All-Stars like Dave Winfield and Rickey Henderson.

Green’s brilliant intervention into the sport, moving from passive observer to instigator, infiltrator, even pervert, becomes a daring and evocative overture towards subverting the gender divide in toto. In just four seasons, she went from a new observer into someone intimately familiar with the game, its atmosphere and its psychology. In the end, her sexual conquest was never consummated and the sport transforms back into something she feels excluded from, becoming once again a patriarchal construction that ends up re-triggering familial traumas in unexpected ways. But in the midst of this period, she does find success in subverting this patriarchal system through her interventions and, ultimately, through the finale of the finished work. She discusses the analogy that boys use between baseball and having sex. “Did you get to first base? Did you hit a home run?” Through her actions, Green feels as though she’s turned the tables: “I took the way men had fragmented my body and turned sex into my enemy, and I used it against them. And I did it through baseball.”

Saddle Sores

Vanalyne Green, 1999.

Just as baseball became an undeserving object of desire, Saddle Sores (1999) places at its center another unworthy object: a man named Cowboy Bob. Green recounts the initial attraction with this brusque, cartoonish character in romantic terms. This time the sexual act was indeed consummated and is related in a romantic, epistolary narration. “Dear Bob—: … “Your eyes were blue, so blue I could have stood on a high diving board, jumped in and never touched bottom.” But Green’s love affair is altogether brief, ending abruptly when she starts to experience her painful saddle sores, soon after clinically diagnosed as herpes. From then on, Cowboy Bob’s personality and actions are couched in the terms they could have been seen as through the entire encounter: comically misogynistic.

The film’s subtitle A Blue Western recalls Maggie Nelson’s book Bluets, another dissection of complicated forms of desire. Just as Nelson’s associative essay is structured into brief stanzas that may or may not relate to what comes immediately before or after, Green’s videos function within this structure, as topics, techniques and modes of address are constantly shifting. Clips from old westerns rub up against conversations with friends, a meta-analysis of sexually-transmitted disease films, descriptions of encounters with Cowboy Bob and finally the story of a dream. As Green sits down in front of the camera, looking at it directly and intuitively describing the images of a sexual encounter and its messy, Freudian aftermath, we follow with rapt attention. She concludes:

“As we got ready to part, he said to me, ‘I knew you had herpes when I had sex with you.’ And I said, ‘well, how did you know that?’ He said ‘because I saw your videotape.’ That’s when I woke up laughing. And that’s when I knew that, although the story of my vagina may continue, this tape is over.”

Saddle Sores

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Though there are continual undercurrents of humor in A Spy in the House That Ruth Built and Saddle Sores, this hokey, Borscht Belt-style punchline comes out of nowhere and abruptly closes the video, demonstrating that the artist’s form throughout her three major videos is anything but predictable.

Vanalyne Green’s videos reveal the subtle complications and contradictions of one’s thoughts and actions. Jane Gaines describes at length the “incorrect” idea of “feminist heterosexuality” in A Spy in the House That Ruth Built:

“The Spy heroine is especially guilty because she loves a man’s sport for all the wrong reasons: it offers proximity to men’s bodies, valorizes voyeurism (looking for sex’s sake), and encourages fetishism… [The video] gives us a feminist who outspokenly admits her girl groupie obsession with sports heroes and pursues them aggressively. And it is in the heroine’s unapologetic appreciation of men’s bodies that the tape negotiates political incorrectness on both the Right and on the feminist mainstream Left.”[8]

Like Maggie Nelson, or Maryse Holder before her, Green understands that these contradictions, this pleasing abjection, is exciting precisely because it is taboo.[9] Interior thoughts and desires do sometimes run counter to one’s politics, one’s aesthetic considerations and the best-intentioned logic. But this doesn’t displace any convictions of the author, precisely because she is the agent of her own thoughts and experience. Green’s 2009 video Still a Feminist XX, shows her repeating the phrase “I’m still a feminist, I’m still a feminist, I’m still a feminist” as a mantra. This can be understood not only as a durational statement, with her nearly 40 years of feminist art, action and life up to that point, but also towards a hearty acceptance of the kinds of “incorrect” feminist pleasures that her videos so eloquently, interestingly and irreverently describe.

 


 

Herb Shellenberger is a curator and writer originally from Philadelphia and based in London. He has curated screenings at institutions such as Arnolfini, Irish Film Institute, Light Industry, Lightbox Film Center, LUX, New York University, Taipei Center for Contemporary Arts and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Since 2016, he has been Associate Programmer for Berwick Film & Media Arts Festival. He is a graduate of the Central Saint Martins/LUX MRes Moving Image programme, has lectured on film and contemporary art at museums, universities and art spaces internationally, and has written for publications including Art-AgendaArt Monthly and The Brooklyn Rail. He curated the series ‘Independent Frames: American Experimental Animation in the 1970s + 1980s’, which premiered at Tate Modern in 2017 and is currently touring internationally. In winter 2018, he has curated the exhibition Make, Believe: The Maslow Collection and the Moving Image at The Maslow Collection (Scranton, PA) and co-programmed the series ‘COMMON VISIONS’ with Almudena Escobar López, a film series on collaborative practices presented by the Flaherty Seminar at Anthology Film Archives.

 


Footnotes

[1] Huge credit to Alice Lea, Distribution Manager at LUX, for introducing Vanalyne Green’s work to the LUX team, programming it and beginning the process of bringing it into distribution through the organization. Maria Palacios Cruz and Laida Lertxundi programmed Saddle Sores into the Lertxundi-focused screening at Courtisane Festival in 2017, which was my first exposure to Green’s work.

[2] The first Feminist Art Program accepted fifteen students. Following this yearlong program, Chicago moved the FAP to CalArts in Los Angeles and delivered it in collaboration with Miriam Schaprio.

[3] Though her videos discussed in this article are crafted from a singular artistic vision, collaborative projects have remained an important part of Green’s work since these early days. In addition to the previously-mentioned groups, she has been affiliated with No More Nice Girls and Feel Tank Chicago. Each of these groups has a different focus but the aim of each was to provoke a political dialogue through the framework of feminist collaboration.

[4] YouTube. (2011). Woman’s Building History: Vanalyne Green. [online] Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MKpMIhYZz3M [Accessed 1 Feb. 2018].

[5] Like Green, I am an American living in the UK. Baseball is a foreign object of contemplation here, whereas it’s very much present in the culture of the United States, even today. While I can’t claim to follow it in any real way these days, beyond a tacit, uncritical support for the Philadelphia Phillies, baseball has made its mark on my life in ways too numerous to describe in a footnote. But I’m continually struck by the fact that, as a young (male) person, learning the names of baseball players, statistics, histories and minutiae surrounding the sport prepared me for life as an art historian, one who can recall the names of artists, dates films were released and many other kinds of synthesized information with ease. Art, like baseball—or many areas of life—can be broken down into different forms of quantitative and qualitative data.

[6] As Green delivers this quote, she is shown doctoring press credentials, insinuating that she had entered the field without permission. She says: “I actually received bona fide press passes but liked the visual trope of trespassing.” highlighting one of potentially numerous slippages between something presented as fact which could in fact be a construction.

[7] To date, there still has never been a woman baseball player on any Major League Baseball team, despite a ban on women players being lifted in 1992. Three women—Toni Stone, Mamie “Peanut” Johnson and Connie Morgan—played professionally in the Negro leagues in the 1940s and 1950s.

[8] Gaines, J. (1995). Feminist Heterosexuality and Its Politically Incorrect Pleasures. Critical Inquiry, 21(2), pp.382-410.

[9] Green’s text on writer Maryse Holder, “Feminism, Actually,” is an illuminating and essential read as a complement to her videos. In it, she discusses Holder’s Give Sorrow Words, a collection of sumptuously-composed letters which detail—in poetically graphic, or graphically poetic language—her sexual encounters with a number of men while she was “taking a vacation from feminism” in Mexico. The text is accessible via Green’s academia.edu profile: http://www.academia.edu/3130542/Feminism_Actually