Drag has travelled a long way from its roots as primarily a secret of the gay community. Now drag artists are among the mainstays of pop culture. But while familiar, the form still has the power to shake things up, and it has evolved far beyond the lip-syncing divas made familiar in such movies as The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar in the mid-’90s.
Drag has become, arguably, mainstream, with the Emmy award-winning RuPaul’s Drag Race reality show in the midst of its 11th season. And how many drag queens feature in television shows and movies, often as helpful mentors to the main characters? One need only think of the recent Lady Gaga mega-hit A Star is Born or the quirky film-festival favourite Dumplin’ to see how much drag has pervaded popular culture.
Performance is at the heart of drag, and it is the art of performance that is on view in Splitt: The Art of Drag by Halifax artist Brandt Eisner at The Craig Gallery at Alderney Landing. Eisner has been performing as a drag artist since 2005, using the medium to address diverse issues. His two stage personae (“Lickity Splitt” and “Persnickety Splitt”) allow him to explore a range of ideas and emotions in his performance art.
As Eisner writes, “On stage, I have presented work dealing with phobias, murder, abuse, bigotry, suicide, body image, religion/dogma, and every ugly psychic thing, both inside and outside of the queer community.”
It’s a broad claim, but where would drag be without hyperbole? And Eisner has backed it up with an exuberant and entertaining show in the Craig’s modest exhibition space. The gallery is packed, and the viewer weaves in and out around costumes that are displayed on mannequins as if navigating a crowded room. It doesn’t take too much imagination to envision the crowded backstage at a show, minus the chatter, music, and drama.
Interspersed with the costumes throughout the exhibition space are a series of photographs of Eisner inhabiting his various roles. Taken by a series of friends and collaborators, the photographs add context to the project, allowing the viewer to get a sense of how the costumes function in a performative way.
Eisner studied at NSCAD and his stage work is deeply connected to the world of performance art, a world often more at home in galleries than in theatres. Eisner, in his artist statement, writes that “Drag is a performance art; it can be used as a source of entertainment, or serve as a social and political act.”
Social and political activism are at the core of the works in this exhibition, reflecting the complexity of Eisner’s project. Included here, for instance, is a costume made from pages ripped from a bible, a work that has incited controversy when performed, and which reflects Eisner’s ambivalence and anger about how organized religion affected him growing up.
The culture of sports gets an interesting treatment as well, with a “Jersey Dress” made from various team jerseys and featuring a massive batting helmet covered in red plastic rhinestones. Eisner wore this one in the 9th annual “Dykes vs. Divas” baseball game at Halifax Pride.
A particularly striking piece (for its simplicity) is a simple blue dress shirt and tie combo. What sets it apart is the mask made from brightly coloured stick pins, which makes the wearer of this costume an anonymous drone, endlessly absorbing the pricks and stabs of office culture. Environmental concerns, the dehumanizing effects of technology, and some just plain fun are also on view in this chaotic and complex exhibition.
Humour is often most effective when liberally cut with anger. Splitt: The Art of Drag presents large portion of both. Eisner create characters, through, he says, “celebration, political/cultural reaction, intuition, and curiosity.” It’s a heady mix, leading to a trip well worth taking.
See Splitt: The Art of Drag at The Craig Gallery until Aug. 11.