Dirty Looks, a regular series spotlighting queer experimental film and video, presents a program called “Female Trouble” tomorrow night at PPOW Gallery. Alongside films like Zachary Drucker’s Fish and Narcissister’s Every Woman, the series includes Conrad Ventur’s Mario Montez Screen Test 2010, part of Williamsburg artist Ventur’s ongoing revisitation of Andy Warhol’s “screen test” films. In this one, he works with Mario Montez—neé René Rivera, the Puerto Rico-born, Harlem-raised drag performer and star of films by Warhol, Jack Smith and Ron Rice as well as plays by Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company—in Montez’s return to the New York art world. Ventur contributed some program notes to Dirty Looks; they’re reprinted here.
In December 1977, Mario Montez, Puerto Rican drag darling of the Downtown scene, got on a bus and left New York for good. After two decades of working on stage and screen—star of Jack Smith’s Flaming Creatures, Normal Love, No President; star in over a dozen Andy Warhol films; star of José Rodriguez-Soltero’s Life, Death and Assumption of Lupe Vélez—he left only one friend his contact details. The instruction: to tell no one where he was going or if he would ever be back.
Charles Ludlam hadn’t called him for months. The city was freezing. 1977 was a rough year for New Yorkers. Energy blackouts in the dead of winter began to take a toll on Mario’s optimism. His partner at the time encouraged him to put drag away; they both boarded the bus with all of his possessions carefully packed in boxes below. It was a new beginning yet bittersweet. The early years of “gay cancer” began to consume New York. Even as Mario was doing Ludlam’s Bluebeard, the disease had become a topic of speculation for everyone in the cast. They were told it was not treatable. Throat problems and rashes were appearing but had not yet been linked to a virus. With this in the back of his head, Mario left. His boyfriend split in ’78—returning to New York and falling victim only a few years later to AIDS. Of the years following, Mario’s exile from crumbling Gotham saved the person behind the Mario persona, but meant silencing a character that came to signify a complex relationship to the city he left and the friends who would perish in his absence, like long-time collaborator Jack Smith.
Fast-forward 30 years and his public gets a taste. Mario grants an interview to Mary Jordan for her documentary Jack Smith and the Destruction of Atlantis. Then in 2009, the writer, director and actor Ronald Tavel passes away. Amidst news of tributes to Tavel and urged by his close friends, Mario is compelled to resurrect fully the character he’d packed away years before on that bus. He agrees to an appearance during a groundbreaking Jack Smith symposium in Berlin that same year. But unlike some of his peers who either died in the 80s or stayed fairly visible over the years, Mario’s energies have compounded over time, building up like a capacitor. He realizes that there is a place for him even though so much has changed.
In April 2010 I began collaborating with Mario on a series of videos and photographs following my introduction to him during the Mario Montez conference at Columbia University. During the conference I learned that he never did drag other than for artistic purposes in photographs, films and theatre. My first idea was to re-stage Warhol’s Mario Banana. In his living room, we styled him as closely to the original as possible, positioning him within the original frame, using the same direction of lighting, and doing multiple takes until we got it just right. As reference, we used a booklet that the late curator Callie Angell had made him with photographic stills of Warhol films he’d been in. It took a pile of bananas before we got it perfect—and like a good sequel, the result is over the top. The peel hits his nose several times. The eyelashes flutter more than ever. This was the first time since the late 70s that Mario, in full drag, had collaborated with an artist, and I appreciate that he extended that honor to me.
Mario is the utmost professional. The hours can be long. The makeup can bake for longer than it should, but at the end of the day he’s still ready for more. A few days after we shot Mario Banana, we recorded Mario Montez Screen Test 2010 after an exhausting afternoon of doing photographs in a backyard around a swimming pool. He changed quickly out of the Norma Despond outfit and into the black lace dress with the pearls, just like he did 45 years ago. And then we started. We did two takes and the second one was perfect. The lights hurt his eyes during the recording—he blinks frequently. But he embraces these imperfections—welcomes them into the process. Working with him is a total pleasure. Forthcoming video and photographic works reference his personal histories with particular reference to cinema and music. Through the immensity of his experience, Mario is a kind of queer multi-generational hybrid to me—he has become my collaborator, my drag mother and gay grandfather—all in one.
The video portrait of Mario is part of a volume I started working on in 2009 that re-stage Warhol’s screen tests using the original subjects. In 13 Most Beautiful/Screen Tests Revisited the subjects perform again, 45 years after their first sitting with Warhol. The works approximate the art-historical lighting, frame and playback speed of the originals. Subjects include Mario Montez, Billy Linich [Name], Ivy Nicholson, Ultraviolet, Bibbe Hansen, Penelope Palmer, Jonas Mekas, Sally Kirkland, Randy Bourscheidt, Steve Balkin, Taylor Mead, John Giorno and Mary Woronov. I found my way to this project through my interest in archives and archiving. Although photography has been my passion for a decade, my interest in different processes and media began four years ago when I started exploring how to rework YouTube videos into installation formats. This kind of action, the downloading, projecting and fracturing of the recordings with prisms and mirrors, playing them individually or in groups, in-sync or out-of-sync, and putting this into a space for an audience, gave my time-warpy thinking an outlet. How I learned to look at archives and use them as material informed my approach to the screen tests. In these, the sitter is the material rather than appropriating an existing recording.