AMONG THE FEW AMBASSADORS OF THE DISSIDENT SPIRIT OF PRE-GENTRIFICATION NEW YORK, DANNY MCDONALD “YESTERBATES” WITH ALISON GINGERAS AND DISCUSSES THE GAY SUBTEXT AND SUBVERSIVE UNDERTONE OF HIS DEFT ASSEMBLAGES—WEAVING OCCULT REFERENCES INTO ICONOGRAPHIES OF MYTH AND TRASH CULTURE, TO SATIRIZE OUR NIGHTMARISH PRESENT AND “QUEER” THE SYSTEM.
Amongst New York’s cognoscenti, Danny McDonald is a legend. While outside these quarters, his occult-soaked practice shrouded in mystery. His artistic life has spanned three decades in the most influential art scenes of the un-gentrified quarters of downtown New York—a microcosm of this city that feels like it is an endangered species. As a student in the storied art department of Cooper Union having studied with the likes of Hans Haacke, Laura Cottingham and Douglas Crimp, McDonald was a founding the cult collective Art Club 2000. From there, McDonald became a lynchpin in Colin de Land’s fabled American Fine Arts—one of the most influential scenes to emerge from late 20th century New York.
I have known Danny since 1995—he manned the front desk at American Fine Arts where as a lowly student and administrative assistant. I would come to ask to see the slides of artists like Zoe Leonard and Tom Burr for my Whitney Program dissertation project. An art nerd wall flower, Danny would chat with me while I would drink in the incredible scene around Colin and his artists. A sharp-eyed key master of this downtown bohemia, Danny shepherded me into this East Village milieu; since those days, we have always traveled along the same artistico-political highways and byways. When I opened a small curatorial space in the East Village in 2012, Danny McDonald the first artist that I dreamed of working with—his mix of occult performance in the guise of his alter-ego the gypsy witch Mindy Vale as well as his sculptural assemblages were the perfect fit for this experimental space that I hoped would capture the spirit of our neighborhood and its history. I caught up with McDonald on old times and his upcoming show this spring in Berlin. We talked from his studio, this deranged doll house of paranormalia, his toy collection which becomes the raw material for our collectively queer unconscious.
Alison Gingeras: In this morning’s New York Post, the alarmist headlines caused me to flashback to our first project together; the storm that is hitting New York today is predicted to be as strong as Hurricane Sandy (September 2012). Normally weather and art have no relationship, but that city paralyzing catastrophe is indelibly linked in my mind with you and our project together in a small East Village storefront called “Magic Fingers.”
“Magic Fingers” was the name of the storefront I rented—it was an old woman’s (a practicing witch!) vintage jewelry store and you were going to do the first show in the space before we renovated. But with Superstorm Sandy, you went from getting ready to do an art show and performance with occult references to practically running a shelter for everyone who had lost power (all of Manhattan below 23rd Street). Practically every surviving member of the East Village art world stopped by Magic Fingers to hang out with you in the aftermath of Sandy. So today is the perfect weather for us to go down memory lane together….
Danny McDonald: Memory lane… Kembra Pfahler calls it “Yesterbating”! But yeah, there was a great sense of the old East Village community after Hurricane Sandy. Without power for days, it was immediately clear that going outside at night could be dangerous, but during the day, restaurants with gas prepared food to serve to anyone on the street. The theater company put out a generator with multiple extension cords so people could charge their phones, local delis gave away ice cream, and this was just on one block. Magic Fingers became a great safe-house and meeting point at that stage, but as an exhibition space that hadn’t really opened yet, it went through a lot of stages of strangeness before the storm.
This spontaneous, improvised act of community was so beautiful—and those kinds of experiences are more and more rare these days, with smaller galleries shutting down, and less and less spaces for non-monetized experimentation! Since we’re “yesterbating,” how do you digest all these radical shifts? My understanding of your history as an artist is totally imbued with various collectives and communities. From your days at Cooper Union (also an East Village institution) when you were part of the visionary Art Club 2000 to your time helming the incredible “chosen family”-cum-gallery of American Fine Arts, Co.
In many ways, you’re one of the few eyewitnesses and ambassadors of this dissident spirit of fin de siècle New York, pre-gentrification. Yet you retain this magic and spirit that isn’t contaminated with a bitter nostalgia of this almost lost bohemia. How do you do this? I mean, I know it’s an impossible question… but our joking term about “yesterbation” is also deadly serious. Resuscitating lost figures of more underground scenes has become an art world industry, where dealers and museums try to historicize and monetize underground scenes whether its American Fine Arts, the various artists of East Village….I’m even thinking about MoMA’s recent “Club 57” show which resurrected so many artists and moments lost to St Mark’s Street obscurity.
I moved to NY in 1989. Today the East Village is kind of like the Disney version of its old self. But there are still aspects of the neighborhood, some people, restaurants, institutions that remain as touchstones. Outfits are less freaky on the streets and rents are unaffordable, but, I heard the old-timers saying all these things back then too, so, I wasn’t surprised to see the displacement and gentrification that has happened. Nor am I surprised by the role that artists and galleries sometimes play in it. Now, the speed and voraciousness of this process is just so alarming and widespread, as half-empty luxury money-laundering towers stack up like poker chips and landlords harass long term tenants with private investigators, unsafe renovation projects and other forms of intimidation. I’ve lived in a rent stabilized apartment for almost 20 years, which has enabled me to maintain an art practice. I have been very lucky, but I am bitter that I’ve had to go to court to protect my tenancy, and I am nostalgic for the times when things seemed more possible here.
At Cooper Union, we learned to do group critiques, and part of the desire with Art Club 2000 was to continue talking about art together after art school. This collective energy is something that was fostered all through the years I worked at American Fine Arts (Colin de Land’s gallery). Getting to know the artists that showed there and to be able to continue to follow their work provides a great sense of continuity for me. As does the relationships that I have maintained with my instructors, collaborators and friends from school. Over time, these connections can build on themselves as much as they fall away. I think it’s important to preserve a lot of this material, and especially records of all the social relationships around the production of art. In relation to the art industry, this type of stuff is vulnerable to fetishization and manipulation by the market, as is any form of production.
It’s important to talk about all this, not only because it is our shared community and neighborhood, but this East Village history informs so much of your work and those who don’t know your work well might not be able to access this. It is also the reason you were the first artist I invited for “Magic Fingers” on East 10th Street. For your Magic Fingers performance, you gave me this incredible list of things we needed for that dark November evening…a box of Turkish delight, a canister of helium, an old broom, a stack of fake hundred dollar bills rugs, dry ice ….and a purple funerary display in the shape of question mark. “Questionable Beliefs” is a title you have given to numerous works, including that performance we staged after the power came back on and Hurricane Sandy clean-up was underway. This title is almost oracular now…in our current age of fake news and alternative facts.
Your work has always had barbed anchors into the realities of our socio-political present—even if it traffics in iconographies of myth, witchcraft, Halloween, trash culture. How are you feeling about those “questionable beliefs” today? It is as if your piece anticipated the Trump years as the Era of Questionable Beliefs?
The “Questionable Beliefs” concept started out was a charm bracelet with Santa Claus, An Extra Terrestrial, A Crystal Heart, Jesus, A Dollar Sign, A Fairy, & A Unicorn. In 2010, I came across a book called, The Faith Instinct, which discussed the human propensity for belief as an instinctual drive that was selected through evolution because it encouraged group cohesion in early societies. I’ve heard of the emergence of music being discussed similarly. The Turkish Delight was in reference to the lure used by the White Queen in The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. Visiting Narnia in permanent lifeless frozen winter might be a vacation from where we are now. It is certainly surreal to see your country’s government re-organize and engage in an undeclared civil war against its people. Through the Looking Glass, Superman’s Bizarro universe, The Twilight Zone have all been thrown around to describe the general nightmarish vibe. Once the news became tied social media, that group-cohesion-building faith instinct allowed people’s imaginations to be collectively hacked, with little endorphin rushes of approval, to believe in what is demonstrably false. The ludicrous monstrosity that is the Trump administration, and his odious personality, may make them less challenging to satirize and expose as “questionable”, but it seems like an effective method of attack when faced with a person and a regime so impervious to the truth. He has used fear to inspire his believers, so I think humor can help us defend the things we can believe in.
Your work seduces us with its humor and deft assemblage of these found objects, yet what’s truly subversive is this analytical, dare I say critical, is your ability to weave together a narrative with all these deep references from literature and pop culture and relate them to our collective history and present. For your current show in Berlin, you take this 70s/80s television show “In Search Of…” as a jumping off point for your weaving process. As a kid, my whole week revolved around waiting for the new installment of this occult and metaphysical pseudo-documentary series In Search Of… Not only did I start to believe in various conspiracy theories and popular mysteries like Area 51, the Loch Ness Monster and the Yeti, I was forever In Search Of… the dark side of any official story that was in the press or history books. “In Search Of…” spawned a generation of conspiracy theorists and cultivated our wild distrustful imaginary. And you, an occultist artist!
In Search Of… was originally hosted by Rod Serling, creator of The Twilight Zone, and then by Leonard Nimoy who assumed the role after Serling’s death. Nimoy was widely known at the time as Spock, from the ground-breaking TV series Star Trek. Spock culture is centered around logic and science. As host of In Search Of… Nimoy’s presence lends gravity to the program’s dubious inquiries and it’s that slippage that interests me now. I feel like Spock was teaching kids the virtue of logic and then In Search of… polluted our minds through Nimoy’s guided tour into pointless conjecture like it was satisfying and training a cultural appetite for being misled. I like the idea that it was influencing a generation to be more skeptical of accepted facts…perhaps. These kinds of shows are all they have on TV nowadays, shows dedicated solely to searching for Bigfoot on National Geographic Channel, Hitler and The Occult on The History Channel, An entire series about one cursed shipwreck, Ghost Hunters, Psychic Detectives, etc. And I just found out that they will be reviving In Search Of… with Zachary Quinto (who plays Spock in the new Star Trek movies) as the host. I grew up in Los Angeles, so all these types of subjects seemed very close at hand somehow. Movies like E.T. and Close Encounters took place in suburban homes like those around me. I also had a copy of Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon and believed every word of it.
You are also “queering” so much in these new sculptures, I love how you can humorously and provocatively reveal this (sublimated) homosocial desire using some of the most mainstream characters from Star Wars’ C3PO to Michelangelo’s David (art historical doll version). Yet these works are not just about this gay subtext, their titles suggest that they are also allegories of other important issues of our day… Can you talk to us about some of these works?
Searching for Reassuring Statistics (Michelangelo’s David)) includes a beautifully produced and articulated action figure of the David statue. He is seated on the tiny mirror of an old photo-grain magnifier whose lens is trained on his tiny penis. A lot of my work pokes fun at male vanity, masculine social norms and mundane male anxieties. David is taken straight from the headlines, another article discussing penis size research and addressing the changing cultural beauty standards towards penises throughout time. Many of the figures I use come with some kind of pre-inscribed gay identity, like C-3PO, who is clearly boyfriends with R2D2. This kind of thing is widely explored in “Slash Fiction” or fan fiction that eroticizes and extends a popular fictional universe. In the sculpture Searching for Anonymity Online (VPN), I imagined this oversized C3PO as a kind of trophy, a bootleg academy award for stolen screener films, and other elicit online searches and procurements. He is wearing an oversized metallic gold masquerade mask to disguise his true identity. One of his arms has been replaced (which happens constantly in actual Star Wars films) with a golden bullwhip, which extends down to bind around his legs as he is caught up in his own disguise. C-3PO’s head is facing backwards out the back of the mask, and his frozen round-eyed look of permanent surprise adds to the drama.
Before there were people actually saying they were gay on TV, there was just gossip and lore around who might be and who they were with. Hollywood Babylon was full of this kind of thing, which added to your appreciation of a performer and helped to you to understand hidden meanings in their work. Searching for The Truth (Behind The Relationship Between Marlon Brando and James Dean), is made with a creepy life-mask of Marlon Brando, hung inverted and askew, with a cigarette dangling from his mouth. A James Dean doll with a burn-hole in it’s sweater lays listlessly atop his neck. This explores this story that James Dean was so obsessed with Marlon Brando that he would let him put cigarettes out on his chest. These days speculation around the sexuality of historical figures is even more wide-spread, but seen through a different lens. I’ve heard of serious inquiries into how gay Abraham Lincoln or Gandhi might have been, for instance. I like the alternate but old-fashioned definition of queer that implies that to “queer” something is to fuck it up. As in, to “queer” a deal that would have gone through except for you mentioned something that the customer didn’t like and they turn away. Or to “queer” the narrative by adding some disturbing or disruptive detail that leads you off track. In sales, it is often the result of adding too much information or saying something inappropriate. Maybe adding the right information is just the antidote to queer our way out of the bad deal we got going.
Danny, I always knew you were a brilliant artist, but you’re also a political philosopher “Queering” the system is the only viable form of revolt we have today. A panacea for all of our ills?!
There is no magic silver bullet; crucifixes are useless; holy water never works; garlic is a myth… they can come into your house uninvited, they go to church and walk in the sun, but, every monster fears a mirror–and everybody has one.
Photography by Tim Schutsky