Mortal Makeup: Images from Mrs. Vera’s Daybook by Michael Johnstone
• A QAR EXCLUSIVE by Don Bapst © 2005 All Rights Reserved.
From a distance, the startling colors in Michael Johnstone’s Mrs. Vera’s Daybook are every bit as alluring as the garden in Wonka’s factory—brimming over with too-delectable-to-be-good-for-you goodies. Still, you can’t help but approach. And once lured in—just as you suspected—you find yourself dropped into a thick chocolatey mire, sucked up into Wonka’s glass tube for inspection, as sure as a post-punk Augustus Gloop. For like Wonka, Johnstone has a lesson to serve up with his confections, which are as much about the spectators who come to drool over their appetizing colors as they are about their subject, the luscious Mrs. Vera herself in all her über-chromatic glory.
“Mrs. Vera is the personification of many years and memories,” says Johnstone of the lead character in his series. “Her loud colors and theatrical appearance revisit so many of the eccentric, uproarious elements of gay culture that were lost to AIDS. ”
If you were to view only one image of Mrs. Vera, in fact, you might mistake her for a drag queen caught by a candid photographer getting ready for a big show. But then she doesn’t really look like a woman, and she’s not really camp. Her colors are too primary, her costumes too sculptured, her appearances too staged. And her context is always unsettling.
In one scene from the Daybook, you catch her in a private Bath—forced into the role of voyeur—but then you see that her face is blue and the suds are as neatly arranged as her expression. She knows she is being watched, so she’s playing you. But for what? There she is sniffing flowers, but then they turn out to be Plastic Flowers, and anyway, she’s not really sniffing them, and her eyes are on you, not the flowers—her eyebrows arched with authority. “I know what you’re thinking,” she seems to say, daring you to judge her—to call her the freak she ’s proud to be.
We can’t really say that Mrs. Vera is “dressed up,” and she certainly isn’t casual enough to be accused of “dressing down.” She’s not trashy enough to be tragic and not glamorous enough to be adored. In most photos she’s hardly human. In Titantic, she falls on a steep staircase where she is a frozen palette of pastels and primaries—a staged accident always ready to happen just as the shutter opens, like Angie Dickinson getting slashed by DePalma’s camera in her (oops) white raincoat. Then suddenly, Mrs. Vera appears again in Dahlia Gardens, pausing among the flowers in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, reflective and composed. That’s when you notice that there’s something wrong with even the natural flowers in Johnstone’s work: they are too violently, menacingly red to be real. Only they are very, very real—like every detail in the artist’s un-retouched work.
“While I prefer the images to be left to the viewer’s own interpretation,” says Johnstone, “the pictures definitely contain layered contents and contexts. The obvious manic slapstick humor is part of what I use to bring the viewer into that midway of persistent memory—a litter of lost nuance with a constant sense of discomfort, ‘dis-ease,’ and remoteness. Some of the images poke fun at all those glossy magazine pictures of healthy HIV+ people climbing mountains. She often misses her footing, falls downstairs, or trips on something, but she rebounds with gleeful amazement, though she knows it can happen again without any notice to put her down for the count. ”
Though the images first inspire a bit of uncomfortable laughter followed by an unsettling irresolution, it is ultimately Johnstone’s careful composition that invites us to linger over them. Form comes first in his work, which puts the artist in the strange post-modern role of further marginalizing his already lost Mrs. Vera in a harshly indifferent world. Who is Mrs. Vera and who will help her out of the rubbish bin and back on her feet? He has no answers. And, anyway, it doesn’t matter because we’re too interested in the position of her fall along with the colors she has sent cascading in the process. Along with the artists, we are guilty voyeurs who watch Mrs. Vera’s photographic execution over and over again, helpless yet mesmerized.
The Daybook series began in the early 1990’s when Johnstone introduced his partner David Faulk to the vibrant San Francisco drag culture that many of his friends—most of them already deceased—had been part of in the pre-HIV gay culture. The couple’s early collaborations were pure fun—dressing up at street fairs and shooting commemorate snapshots of the party they created with their Waters-esque antics.
“It was shortly after I contracted bilateral cytomegalovirus that I began to see a change in the work,” says Johnstone. “That was around the time of Mrs. Vera’s Nap, where you see her in the dumpster. The photos began taking on a more serious subtext at that time. Luckily, I sustained only minor loss of sight from the CMV, though there are noticeably large ‘floaters’ in my left eye—a constant reminder of the battles still going on in my system.”
by David Faulk, Michael’s partner in both art and life for more than ten years, the
Mrs. Vera character is more than vaguely reminiscent of the Leigh Bowery.
However, unlike the late Australian performance artist whose personae began
on stages in the clubs of London and New York, Mrs. Vera has never done a
show. “People always ask me why Mrs. Vera doesn’t perform,” says
Faulk, “and I tell them that if she’s gone this long without
performing, then maybe that’s how it should be.” An accomplished
artist in his own right, Faulk holds a BFA from Syracuse and has exhibited
his paintings at numerous galleries around the country.
But though his artist’s sensibility clearly informs his intricate application of makeup and accessories, Faulk insists he’s never conscious of making a statement through costuming or posturing. “But then once the work comes back,” he adds, “we’re always struck by what we find in it. Most recently, I’ve experienced facial wasting as a side effect of HIV cocktail meds. As this physical transformation becomes more apparent in Mrs. Vera, she grows more and more pensive.” In the most recent work, more than ever before, Mrs. Vera stands out as a freak in a world of “normal,” “beautiful” people where she is often completely ignored, as in Zebra Crossing: Soho, London where she slinks away almost reluctantly from two indifferent pedestrians.
“Sometimes I feel like David is doing all the work,” says Johnstone. “I never tell him what to wear as long as he doesn’t use the same thing twice. And other than that, Mrs. Vera is all him.” But what makes the character so vital is Johnstone’s unflinching visual instinct that frames her so confidently. It’s his silent support from behind the camera that allows Faulk’s personae to blossom as a force that is at once hopelessly vulnerable and undeniably urgent. We may not know her, but we know that she is to be reckoned with.
Like Faulk, Johnstone has a history with the visual arts that long pre-dates HIV. Born in Scotland, he lived most of his young adult life in Kansas where his family immigrated during his early youth. In 1979, he moved to San Francisco where he has been an active artist ever since, working not only on photography but painting, multi-media performance, costume design, puppetry, and web design. He has also served as curator on a number of shows and even edited his own ‘zine, Rant and Rave.
With such a diverse artistic background, it would be easy to imagine that much of the color and texture in Johnstone’s work occurs during post-production, whether through digital manipulation or application of other media. “Whether shot in 35 millimeter or digitally, I keep my images as close to organic as possible,” says Johnstone. “I use only available light with no gels or filters. People always ask me what I do to get the colors. Sometimes they don’t believe these photos are simply recording the colors David creates with his makeup.”
Particularly striking in this respect is the recent Prometheus, taken at Joshua Tree, California in 2003. Here, the use of a common flash elevates Mrs. Vera to an almost ethereal level, with her subtly blended rainbow of skin-tones standing out spectrally against the darkening sky. Faulk says the makeup was inspired by the stretch-fabric rainbow shirt he is wearing in the photo, a garment acquired from one of the countless thrift-shops the duo has pillaged in their years of making art together. But where does the costume end and the makeup begin? How much is headdress and how much is the natural beauty of Joshua Tree? And what is the stuff on the tree stump? A sacrificial victim? No, upon closer inspection, it seems to be a bit of wood, possibly severed from its roots by lightning or other violent natural elements. How much of this arrangement has been posed for the lens? The line between fiction and reality in Johnstone’s work is increasingly blurry as his series matures, bringing a sense of deep sorrow that goes far beyond the nostalgia of the earliest images.
In Johnstone’s most recent work, we find an artist confronting not only his own mortality, but the mortality of his collaborator, friend, and lover. Will Mrs. Vera disappear entirely into one of her new Monochromes? Of course she will. And the recognition of this sobering fact makes us face our own mortality, whether we wear it on our faces as Mrs. Vera does or deep inside us where none “beautiful” people can see.
Don Bapst (www.donbapst.com) is the author of three full-length novels, several dramatic works, two collections of poetry, an original tarot deck, and numerous articles and features. He has performed original solo work in venues across the country and is a regular contributor to blue magazine. He is currently the editor of Swell, the eZine of the NewTown Writers.www.newtownwriters.org