Art is Sharp: The Link Gets Burlesqued

A review of Henry Horenstein’s SHOW by Naomi Deplume

This article was originally published in the third issue of VIA Noke Magazine, printed in Roanoke, Virginia in October 2012.

Ladies and Gentlemen! Come! Feast your eyes on exotic physical feats, daring décolletage and oddities of America’s erotic underground, all at the O. Winston Link Museum. Henry Horenstein’s SHOW is an exhibit of twenty-four black and white archival pigment prints in silver frames, ranging in size from 24 x 16” to 40 x 26”. SHOW covers the re-emergence of burlesque entertainment in America from 2001 – 2009 in venues like LA’s California Institute of Abnormalarts, NYC’s Slipper Room and New Orlean’s Shim- Sham Club. Performers Jackie Beat, Prince Poppycock, Miss Saturn, Violet Valentino, Amber Ray, Catherin D’Lish, Dita von Teese and others mix it up before Hornestein’s investigative eye.

In burlesque tradition we see the hips and bill-spangled legs of a faceless dancer presenting themselves to us in Fishnets, New York Burlesque Festival, Southpaw, Brooklyn NY, 2005. Peeking in from the right are the crossed legs of a cropped, presumably male spectator, anonymous and stiff. Our perspective is roughly the same as his. At the other extreme we’re confronted with frame filing close-ups, like Amber Ray’s chameleon eye and sexy lips. Her features are titanic, grotesque, extreme, and weirdly funny.

SHOW swings wildly in tone, from raucous hilarity to uncanny quiet. In Melody Sweets, This is Burlesque, Corio, New York, NY, 2008 a young gal poses in a tiled hallway between sets. Wearing nymphal feathers and pasties she smiles at us, the embodiment of an earnest, curative, sexy fun. In Jess, South Boston, MA, 2008 a woman plainly stands center frame before a sheer white background. She’s topless, wearing a giant teddy bear mask, and affecting an arty seriousness that seems out of place among all these flamboyant freaks.

SHOW is more about composition, texture and light than context or narrative, a departure from Horenstein’s environment rich Honky Tonk series. One exception is Helen Pontani and Peekaboo Pointe, This is Burlesque, Corio, New York, NY 2008. Left of frame in the background a spectator looks up from her cake, dumbfounded to see the titular stars in flamboyant gowns. What’s this? Sammy Davis Jr. and Dean Martin are peering out of their plumage. I’m slapping both knees here!

This is a great fit for the Link, whose namesake conspired to save the smoke, sound and immensity of an industry he loved from being pushed out of collective memory. By the 1970’s American burlesque was going the way of steam rail. Horenstein investigates its comeback. Burlesque is attracting audiences who’ve wearied of the vast, sterile, airbrushed array of entertainment sold via net and newsstand. Through ritualized spectacle, playful subversion, and laughter burlesque essentializes the visceral, lived experience of our varied and shared sexualities. ‘SHOW’ revels in the burlesquers’ glitter dusted details; here they are, warts, wrinkles, hair and all, their bodies bound in the pomp and pageantry of a re-born American subculture.

Editor’s Note: This column is written each month by different authors with diverse viewpoints. The opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the viewpoints or opinions of VIA Noke Magazine or its publishers.