Seeing Mrs. Vera: The Collaborative Work of Michael Johnstone and David Faulk

A QAR EXCLUSIVE by Heidi Thimann © 2005 All Rights Reserved.

To see, according to The American Heritage Dictionary's 1980 edition, is to perceive, to apprehend, to visualize, to comprehend, to imagine, to take note of, to consider, to investigate, or to understand the true character or nature of something… It might be said that these are the earliest goals of the history of art. In the collaborative project “Mrs. Vera,” however, Michael Johnstone and David Faulk problematize these definitions for the viewer. The act of seeing or viewing is somehow dislocated and decentered. When the old relationship of the viewer and the viewed is questioned, the photographs become somehow poignant and sinister at the same time, humorous and tragic, or knowable and unknowable. The narrative that seems to be laid out becomes entirely a projection of the viewer, but one filled with uncertainty.

Why do these images disturb yet fascinate? Why do they provoke a narrative, yet deconstruct that very narrative at the same time? This essay will briefly discuss the work of San Francisco-based artists Michael Johnstone and David Faulk to try to answer these questions.

The character of Mrs. Vera was first conceived in 1994 when Johnstone took a photograph with a basic flash camera of Faulk in a sort of theatrical drag in front of Davies Symphony Hall in San Francisco late one evening. The image that came from this encounter is Pensive, in which the viewer finds Mrs. Vera in an indeterminate space, next to a metal wall with a beam of light traveling the surface behind her. She holds an opened umbrella in one hand and seems to tug at her wig with the other. Already the character begins to be identified with a mode of dress somewhere in the 1970s and with the name “Vera.” Faulk describes the moment he decided to call his character Mrs. Vera:
“The spring of 1994, we went to Kansas to visit a friend, and I came across a shirt by the designer 'Vera'; Michael's friend told me a little bit about Vera and how she was looked down on in her day for being...well, he didn't say for being populist, but she signed her stuff. It was considered tacky and over the top. Now everyone signs everything, and it is completely typical.”

The photograph would be the cynosure from which the entire series of Mrs. Vera portraits would evolve. The painted eyebrows would develop into over-the-top theatrical make-up, the wig askew would become the intricately-fashioned head and hair pieces, the mismatched outfit would be the subsequently wild 70sesque creations. But most apparent, is the dislocation of the viewer. In what cultural moment are we to locate the character Mrs. Vera? The critical theorist Ihab Hassan says of postmodernity:
“Postmodernity is part of a culture of unmaking, whose key principles include decreation, disintegration, deconstruction, decenterment, displacement, difference, discontinuity, disjunction, disappearance, decomposition, de-definition, demystification, detotalization, delegitimation.” (Ihab Hassan quoted in Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations by Steven Best and Douglas Kellner, New York: The Guilford Press, 1991, p. 256).

As much as I dislike the term postmodern, it describes a particular “crisis of modernity” as the cultural critic Hal Foster states in his introduction to The Anti-Aesthetic: Essays on Postmodern Culture (Seattle: Bay Press, 1983) and as Hassan defines for us here. Mrs. Vera defies a cultural moment and at the same time places herself squarely in the late 20th century and early 21st century's angst of certainty. Mrs. Vera plays with the 70s culture of consumerism as well as the crisis in gender rolls. The artists' ask us to ask ourselves “who is Mrs. Vera?” Is she emancipated or confined, liberated or oppressed? Is she a part of culture or an outsider?

In NYC Canal Street Faulk emphasizes the outsider roll with a fabulously bedizened Mrs. Vera in a pink, orange, and white pantsuit and sandals in a desolate part of Manhattan. The sky is industrial gray and the artist painted his face blue as if to emphasize a despondent mood. Mrs. Vera is isolated, alienated, an “other” in a city devoid of charm. The narrative again is disjointed. Where are we? Only the title gives the viewer a compass. But this seems to be no finished street, but a construction site. The viewer asks why is Mrs. Vera posed like a fashion model in this setting? My point is, the photograph begs a narrative, but at the same time, the narrative seems improbable.

In Churchyard: Sydney, Mrs. Vera is in a Cindy Shermanesque pose, the location only hinted at by the steeple. To further the dislocation, the photograph is taken at an angle from below, disorienting the viewer. To heighten the effect, Mrs. Vera's face is painted in heavy theatrical make-up in a grotesque way. Her expression seems confused, pained. Her hair is disheveled. What is the narrative here? Are we to project the conflict of gays and the church? Again, the photograph's power is in the disorientation of the viewer.

Finally, in Soho: London, we find Mrs. Vera in a long blue dress and fantastic wig crossing a street in London with absolutely no acknowledgment from the gentlemen crossing the street behind her. She is the ultimate “other.” The element of humor in this mode of improbability is equally important as Mrs. Vera's otherness. Michael Johnstone relates why he began the project:
“I was critically ill with AIDS in 1996. I had 11 T-cells. I think the project of Mrs. Vera started out because the gay community needed the unlikely. The community was still in mourning. We had so many drag clichés like Rue Paul in the mainstream of gay culture. David and I were against this. We wanted to emphasize the color and effervescence of living.”

Part of Mrs. Vera's origins came from the gay theater people Johnstone knew who had passed away from AIDS. Faulk took the theatricality of groups like the Cockettes, a 70s-based performance group and adapted the looks to suit Mrs. Vera. The nature of theatricality and performance in gender is not new to the history of art. Artists such as Marcel Duchamp had an alter ego “Rrose Selavy,” and Warhol and Mapplethorpe both posed in drag for the camera. Faulk and Johnstone's project is different, however. The unnaturalness of make-up and accessories is played out in a sort of deconstruction of consumerism. The wild headpieces, jewelry, and face paint are deliberately exposed and can be disconcerting for the viewer. The notion of drag is thus deconstructed as well. The artists' work is clearly performance and artifice.

In conclusion, the collaborative project of Mrs. Vera puts us in the realm of the uncertain and the dislocated. Mrs. Vera's Daybook, the on-going series of portraits by Johnstone and Faulk, “questions what distinguishes the mundane from the extraordinary” as Johnstone states. In so doing, Mrs. Vera becomes a site on to which the viewer's experience is projected and then displaced.

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Heidi Thimann is the former Executive Director of Visual Aid, a nonprofit organization that assists artists with life threatening illnesses.

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