By Josh Edelson
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By Jonathan Curiel
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It turns out that the answer to the question we've all been asking — what would happen if the Cockettes and Cindy Sherman had a baby? — can be found right now in a creaky, squirreled-away second-floor gallery on Minna Street. It turns out — paparazzi, please, stay behind the line — that the baby resembles a bilious drag queen tossed like a rag doll into the back of a dump truck. Or washed up on a gray beach in crayon-yellow pants.
The baby's name is Mrs. Vera, and she is 14 years old, although in reality she's ageless. The result of a collaboration (both personal and artistic) between photographer Michael Johnstone and costumer David Faulk (who plays Mrs. Vera), the "Verasphere" series follows its subject all over the world, capturing her in mysterious, evocative situations, costumed outrageously, a personified streak of Op Art and graffiti smeared across found backdrops and gritty landscapes. Like the '60s psychedelic drag troupe the Cockettes, Mrs. Vera is a uniquely San Francisco invention, a "drag tornado," as Johnstone puts it. "As if all the memories of all the people I knew" were piled onto one sun-drenched figure.
As a series, "Verasphere" is mostly joyous, flowing with natural vitality and chock-full of chewy eye candy, but the project came about during the early days of the AIDS crisis. Throughout the 1980s, Johnstone had been photographing drag queens, queer theater people, and club performers. By the early '90s, many of his subjects had become AIDS casualties, and Johnstone was struggling with his health; at one point, he feared he might lose his sight to cytomegalovirus retinitis (his health has since improved). It was at this low point that he met Faulk. "When we'd get together he'd say, 'What do you want to do?' I'd say, 'I want to take some pictures. Let's go to a street fair. Let's dress up,'" Johnstone recalls. "I had told him about the Cockettes, about how they dress up really outrageously. I told him, 'Make your face a different color' — red or blue or green. His artistic sensibilities kicked in."
Rather than a stage persona, Faulk and Johnstone saw Mrs. Vera as "psychic flypaper," a way to both draw participation to events like the Pride Parade and document it. It helps, too, that Faulk's persona doesn't have a static look. She might wear bunny ears and a plastic nose in one shot, and a third eye and fake sideburns in another. "A lot of your basic drag characters tend to keep their persona very fixed, because they want to be identified right away," Johnstone says. "Mrs. Vera is a bit more transformative."
Some of Faulk's costumes are installed at the "Verasphere" show, and exemplify his "piled-on" approach. A pair of gloves (Nail Polish Gloves) has fake fingernails glued not just to the tips of the fingers, but all over, resulting in a kind of beautician's armor. An astonishing headdress bristles with plastic forks, plastic cups, and fake jewels. And a pair of shoes (Rocket Shoes) made of orange fabric with curled-up toes explodes with Christmas lights stuffed into hair curlers.
If Faulk has a painterly eye for costume color, Johnstone is his equal when it comes to placing Faulk, as Mrs. Vera, in photographs. In Prometheus, a large digital print on vinyl, her rainbow skin blends into a blue that matches the evening sky. The strange camouflage renders her part of the natural world, a goddess in a primly cut shiny purple skirt suit. In Walkabout, she is caught in a patch of tall grass that forests a sidewalk. The yellow edges of the grass blades pop in contrast to her outfit, which is elaborately adorned with pompoms and hundreds of tiny multicolored crocheted fruit.
Although Mrs. Vera is, by definition, steeped in camp, the photos manage to go beyond mere silliness by being slightly mysterious. Johnstone tries to play with a "psychological subtext," he says, although he avers that most of his decisions are "instinct." Like Cindy Sherman's famous "Untitled Film Stills" series, the photographs beg for a storyline, or else they seem to belong to a past narrative already established (such as Whistler's Mom, which — purely by chance, Johnstone says — parodies the famous painting by James Abbott McNeill Whistler).
Johnstone would like to see Mrs. Vera's storyline in book form, and it's a great idea. Someone needs to turn "Verasphere" into a coffee table tome, or, better yet, one of those fancy, artsy datebooks. There's already a Mrs. Vera for every month of the year. She's brighter than the Fourth of July, and better decorated than a Christmas tree.
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