Ted Stamm. Installation view of The Great Attraction by Aline Mare and Jane Sherry, 1980. Photograph courtesy of the Ted Stamm estate.
Cara Perlman and I met at a downtown bar that was a neighborhood hangout near Lispenard Street. In those days we'd drink locally at the small bars on the cheap, then go dance at the Ocean Club where Patti Smith was a regular and one could see Television perform. It was the beginning of the art bands, and we often hung out at Max's Kansas City, CBGB's, and the Mudd Club.
Cara introduced me to Tom Otterness. Tom and I started seeing each other, fell in love, became an item, and moved in together in an apartment on Essex on the Lower East Side. At this time, there were only a few white kids, mostly Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, and Hassidic Jews living in the LES, long before the gentrification of that neighborhood. I was already working as a topless dancer (I was the first woman in Colab to work as a topless dancer) and I billed myself as a feminist topless dancer and in that way, I got to live my politics of "the personal is political" as well as make enough money to support myself as an artist. Even then, I didn't see my life as separate from my art.
I didn't want to be part of the gallery system and that was one of the reasons I was attracted to Colab. Although I wasn't good at the administration and inside politicking, I was still invited to participate in many shows such as the Doctors & Dentists Show, the Real Estate Show, shows at ABC No Rio, Potato Wolf cable shows, and of course the Times Square Show, where I exhibited drawings and also had a collaborative installation called "The Great Attraction." I also had a private show (The Library Show) with Barbara Ess at Coleen Fitzgibbon's loft where in addition to our own work on display, we solicited artwork from everyone who attended the show so that we could produce a large-format news magazine, one of Barbara Ess's Just Another Asshole series. I think this was the first one of her JAA projects that was produced as an edition.
I had worked at Magoo's, a notorious Tribeca art bar and restaurant, and also at Sweet Basil, a jazz club in the West Village, and after that I started dancing. I started dancing in part because I wanted more money. And it also seemed like the perfect performance vehicle to work out a lot of the anger I felt towards men and the nuclear family. It fit in with my vision of myself as a sexually independent and powerful woman. It was a vehicle in which to explore sexual dynamics and the ways in which they contributed to the objectification of women. A big theme at that time in my artwork was the dynamic between the archetypes of "The Virgin" and "The Whore" as well as exploring various myths of our patriarchal culture.
One of the illusions women who work in the sex industry have is that they are in control. I feel like Topless [the film I did with Cara Perlman and shown at Times Square Show] was a missed opportunity and somewhat glamorized or glossed over the more seedy and violent aspects of that workplace; because in reality, as a dancer you are at the mercy of the management, the owners, and the male gaze. In some of these clubs, they showed pornography while the women were dancing, so [as a dancer] you would be standing right there, practically naked in some guy's face, and he would be looking at the monitor and not you. Dancing also helped me to refine and understand what it meant to be a feminist. That is why I billed myself as a "feminist topless dancer" which sounds like an oxymoron but for me made perfect sense as dancing provided a glimpse into male-female dynamics, which is always what my work has been about.
In Topless, we had three guys playing the role of the Johns: two of them were named John, one of whom was John Rubin the filmmaker. As part of the set, Cara made cardboard cut-outs of men that were interspersed with the real men. It was a really rinky-dink and wonderfully tacky set, but people thought it was shot in a real club. I suppose in the context of the time in which the Super-8 film was made, Topless was a very bold, in-your-face, rebellious look at the fringes of acceptable behavior. Part of its charm was the mixing of fact and fiction. I remember John Rubin acting totally stunned during the shoot. Even though he'd agreed to be in the film, I don't think he was quite ready to see me half naked. I had a whole rap I used at work to sell drinks to the men who came into the clubs, since that was the real way we earned money—on commissions for "drinks" we'd sell in order to go up to the lounge. And a bit of this is used in the film. I met many men in the clubs who were high-power people in their work lives, but to me, in the environment of a topless bar, seemed very dis-empowered around women and sex. This was part of how I began to understand the role that power plays in our society. And of course, since the Times Square Show took place in a former massage parlor, it seemed appropriate to screen Topless there.
A funny thing happened at the club one night when I came in to work. We were told that our commissions had been cut, so in response one of the dancers apparently had jumped off of a one-story stairwell into the bar below and was sent to a hospital. We were all angry our commissions had been cut, so I ended up organizing a dancer walkout. I somehow convinced the other dancers we were entitled to our full commissions and that we should strike and stop working. Most of us put our street clothes back on and went outside to talk to the lone reporter who did show up from my calling major TV networks. I believe his name was Peter Bannon, an American apple-pie kind of guy, all blond and blue-eyed, looking incongruous in the seedy New York night.
The club was down the street from Studio 54 and drew a mixed crowd. Soon, the manager (ironically named) Rocko, came out to tell us our commissions had been restored for the evening and that the bosses would have a meeting about it. Well, all of the women went back inside, took off their clothes, put on their dancing g-strings and went back to work. I couldn't believe it. I hid out in the bathroom, incredulous that they all went right back inside, believing the management and not at all concerned about what happened to Frenchy, the one who'd jumped.
Later I find out she was a gymnast and she was pissed they [the club management] tried to lower our fees on the bottles we sold. Many of the people who worked in these clubs were in the sex industry: pros, junkies, and a few regular people. It was an assorted cross-section of people, but I was the only educated white girl that I remember being in the bunch. As the years went by, I noticed more and more artists, dancers, and other upper middleclass women joining the ranks of topless dancers. In those days, clubs were very different and the main idea was to hustle drinks, not bodies.
I hid upstairs in the bathrooms, refusing to go back to work and soon dancers and waitresses floated upstairs to say, "Max (my stage name at the time), Rocko said that heads are gonna roll" and to "get back to work." Soon, I realized I should probably leave. Another bouncer started screaming at me, then approached me with a five-pound container of Charles Chips or pretzels and was ready to throw it at me when another dancer started screaming at me to run. I literally grabbed my purse and ran out the door. By the time I got home I was so full of adrenaline, I needed to talk to someone. I had a book by Susan Brownmiller, and I knew she was a feminist who lived in Manhattan and thankfully her number was listed. I called her at 11 PM at night and said to her, "You don't know me, but I am a feminist artist. I need a job, and I don't know what to do." I told her my story about the walkout of topless dancers and then she gave me Maggie Smith's number.
The Times Square Show was an important turning point in my life. When I abruptly stopped working as a topless dancer, I ended up working as a day manager and bartender at Maggie's Tin Pan Alley, an eclectic Times Square neighborhood bar and restaurant. Maggie Smith had a very cool jukebox and a very mixed crowd made up of sex industry people, blue-collar people, film industry people, and others who all worked in the area. Great jukebox, great food, cheap booze. It was a really fun scene at the time. And fairly soon after hiring me, Maggie was introduced to the downtown art scene and Colab folks.
At that time, Maggie was working with Women Against Pornography, and they were doing tours through the Times Square district. I remember going on one of those tours with Maggie and was horrified by the way the women treated the industry workers—these privileged, mostly white women clustered together during the tours watching the women in the bars, and I felt they were deeply disrespectful and treated the women in the bars like zoo animals.
Soon after joining forces with Maggie, I incorporated research I'd been doing for my artwork, on the various ways that misogyny had been carried through history (this was later connected to my and Aline's [Mare] research on misogyny that we did in our collaborative artwork together). I tailored this work into a slide show, which we mixed into the WAP's existing slide show about pornography. We had amazing pictures of the bound feet of Chinese women and illustrations of clitoridectomies as well as lots of great images of corsets, deformed rib cages of Victorian women, chastity belts…you get the idea. In fact, one of my "found" artworks at the time was an image of a corseted woman used on a poster to advertise the Times Square Show. I also created some art postcards that were sold in the Souvenir Shop of a chastity belt and a bound foot, to juxtapose images of glamour and violence. In fact, one of the postcard pieces is called Glamour. These were the days of conservative anti-feminist sentiments by people like Phyllis Schlafly.
Maggie and I gave slide show presentations at Tin Pan Alley, Franklin Furnace, and various places around town as well as by invitation, all-women showings in my loft on Stanton Street where I lived with Tom. About a dozen women showed up to view the private screening, including such artists as Nan Goldin, Janet Stein, and more. I'll never forget Nan defending high heels, saying they made a great weapon!
The Great Attraction installation at the TSS grew out of my research on the history of misogyny. Aline and I did lots of historical research into the history of gynecology, witchcraft, fashion, and mythology. We used the New York Public Library Pictures Collection, loaded with over one hundred years' worth of prints, etchings, and illustrations. And of course the research also included the WAP take on cultural history and contemporary media representations of women.
We decided to portray several of the main female archetypes. These archetypes were a major theme in my work and research into misogyny. A big one was the Madonna/whore divide. We wanted to present the ways in which our culture objectifies and abuses women simply because they are women.
We chose the archetypes of the little girl, the witch, the queen, the nurse, the bride, and the mermaid. We had a lot of trouble getting the chickenwire into a fish tail for the mermaid! Tom [Otterness] eventually helped us to do that in fact. We bought second-hand clothes to portray the various archetypes, then staged an elaborate magical ritual outside my loft on the corner of Stanton and Ludlow which ended with setting the witch's dress on fire in a metal bucket out on the sidewalk, to symbolize the persecution of witches. For the little girl, we bought a child's pink pinafore dress and glued jujubes all over it. And of course a big theme in pornography is the archetype of sex with a nurse or virginal bride.
We covered one part of a wall with a collage of pictures cut out from pornography magazines. We wrote misogynist words directly on the wall. (I dropped out of the fine art program at Parsons partly because I was told not to put words on my paintings and drawings. I was always making narrative art.) Another big part of my research and interest was in the ways that the hatred of women was evidenced through language and so I did a lot of etymological research into some common words to describe the female experience. I still have some of the drawings I did using words like woman, bride, queen, wife, and various derogatory slang expressions for women.
Around the same time, my parents were moving out of my childhood home, so I went home to help them clean their attic. I found old reports and papers I had done in elementary school that were a mixture of drawings, found imagery, and the written word. It was exactly what I was making as a young artist, even down to the same materials for collage: scotch tape, staples, found imagery, handwriting, and rubber-stamping. For me subject matter was always important. I couldn't understand conceptual art. My work was always about something. In The Great Attraction, Aline and I were bringing some of the skills and styles we had already used for many years to make a collaborative work hoping to empower other women to examine the way in which things we take for granted actually shape policy, self image, law.
For me I couldn't separate the sexual, political, or the narrative about the way men and women interact from my artwork. The personal was political for me. The Great Attraction came out of my experience as a woman in the world and the desire to inspire and empower others.
For me, the Times Square Show was a brilliant coming together of alternative perspectives around art and art making. I loved that we were ferociously committed to being outside of the gallery paradigm. It was separate from financial motivations. One of the results of the success of the show was that a lot of the young men were picked up by uptown galleries (later women such as Kiki Smith or Jenny Holzer were also picked up to be represented by galleries), and I felt somehow betrayed. In my opinion at the time, they were selling out. That is when I left New York and ran away from the commerce of art making. I went out to California with Aline Mare. We studied witchcraft with Starhawk, a forerunner of the political activist pagan movement. It was a natural outgrowth of my having studied the history of witchcraft or Wicca, inherently connected to an interest in empowerment, in magic; magic or wicca being defined as the ability to bend nature to one's will.
I left Tom soon after the Times Square Show in the summer of 1980, running off with Curtis Lang who is now my husband. I left New York, because I didn't want to be in a gallery, although I continued to make art. For me I have always made art to please myself. I never wanted to be part of the commerce of art; to make art to match someone's sofa or put up with the politics of the art market. To me art making was a spiritual practice and also about cultivating beauty. In Conceptual art there was no place for beauty.
New York in those days was affordable. You could be a poor, starving artist. To me that was how I refused to 'compromise' my art. I could be a waitress and still get by. I think because the economy was so bad, there was a lot of questioning going on in art and a very diverse mix of styles. When I came back to NYC in the roaring 80s, money had changed things both in the art world and the world of real estate so radically that it was no longer possible to be a poor starving artist anymore. For me, the Times Square Show was a very exciting time: it held a lot of promise. There was low overhead, and you didn't have to worry about fulfilling someone else's idea about what art was supposed to look like. It was a lesson in manifesting dreams, an eclectic and messy vision and a way of being heard which the galleries could never hope to achieve.
As told to Shawna Cooper, June 29, 2012
Jane Sherry (b. 1953)
Jane Sherry works in drawing, sculpture, photography, and artist books. Throughout the 1970s she attended classes at the State University of New York, Geneseo; Parson's School of Design, New York City; and Hunter College, City University of New York. In the 1980s and 1990s, she exhibited at New York City spaces including AIR Gallery, Printed Matter, Granary Books, and Tin Pan Alley. From 1977 to 1985 she performed at New York City venues including ABC No Rio, La Mama Theater Cabaret, and the Pyramid Club. Her work is included in the collections of institutions including the Franklin Furnace Artist Book Collection, the Museum of Modern Art Library, and the New York Public Library. Additional information is available at http://www.satyacenter.com/library-jane_sherry_archive-artist-statement.