Artist Narcissister employs image scavenging - the theft and deployment of representational codes - in her playful neo-burlesque vignettes. A daring media-maker with a commanding grasp of modern dance, her background in fine arts including quilting, sculpture, installation and collage has inspired the stellar inventory of costumes and props she makes by hand. She also fashions videos and works cooperatively to produce tailor made soundtracks for each piece, reconstituting burlesque - a classic genre characterized by its embrace of pastiche, parody, and wit - through digital mirroring and original harmonies.
In his seminal essay, French literary critic Roland Barthes applies a structuralist reading to the seductive art known as Striptease. “Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked,” he remarked in Mythologies (1957). Moreover, striptease is a game in which the woman is only pretending to strip herself bare, she will in fact, remain “remote.” In her signature piece I’m Every Woman, Narcissister masters the sovereign artistry of the “remote” seductress; simultaneously rebuking Barthes’ simplistic analysis of female performativity. Fast-forward to corporate media-saturated post-modernity, the female body, always a vulnerable personal space, becomes even more highly subject to a rotating script of global social imperatives regarding gender and sexuality. As Narcissister explores in I’m Every Woman as well and many other incantations, gender is a series of social investments manifest through intersubjective symbolic exchange.
While spinning her naked, masked body on a stage to Chaka Khan’s famous anthem, Narcissister removes the “tease” from the strip as she slowly redresses herself from clothing she pulls out of various bodily orifices. Amidst such erotic spectacle this work drives its point home: woman cannot pretend to strip herself bare because as long as she is called “woman,” she can never be bare. Gender, as such, is inscribed on the body to symbolize and reproduce social order.
If femininity is merely a series of ministrations - a disguise much like Narcissister’s characteristic mask – might the body serve as a woman’s chief means of critical resistance? Might it be a screen upon which she can project her own arrangement of the very images she is forced to consume? Narcissister waves a double-edged sword. On the one hand, she is very easily able to reflect back a particular set of cultural projections, on the other, she is master of disarticulation, unflinchingly able to appropriate feminine likenesses to new subversive ends.
Narcissister’s expert use of self-generated media portend a black female subjectivity that challenges the fixed meanings of race, gender and sexuality. Her glittering accoutrements – larger than life hair, the assortment of baubles she pulls from bodily orifices including a matryoshka doll (Justin Timberlake once gave her a standing ovation for said feat), as well as the striking mask she wears during each show serve to enhance her simulacral play with gender, signifiers and spectacle.
Heir to the original genius of self-adoration Narcissus, the boy-come-flower who died in desperate longing to grasp his own reflection, Narcissister’s project offers a complex and nuanced critique of popular culture and its spurious conceptions of women. Through her clever appropriation of popular imagery, artist Narcissister pushes her audience to dismantle their own deeply held beliefs, ultimately restoring the critical faculty to the experience of visual pleasure in performance. What registers at surface level as a satire of exhibitionism and vanity ubiquitous to our image-obsessed celebrity culture, is at its core a powerful and genuine message of female empowerment in the spirit of sisterhood and self-respect.
-Katie Cercone 2009
Tony Stamolis, 2009