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Of Dada and Dr. Davis

A portrait of the artist as him and her, performer and provocateur, underground and out there, renowned and all but unknown.

May 02, 2004|Hilary E. MacGregor | Times Staff Writer

He starts the day at 6:30 a.m. in boy drag -- khakis, a black T-shirt -- standing at a bus stop on Hollywood Boulevard like a veteran commuter, a newspaper tucked neatly under his arm.

He finishes the day at 3 a.m. in flapper drag -- white drop-waist dress, an auburn bob -- standing on a tiny stage in West Hollywood, spinning jazz records, singing and spewing subversive social critique.

This latest persona, the flapper, is Bricktop. Over the years he has also been Clarence, the white supremacist militiaman; Graciela Grejalba, a 13 1/2-year-old cholita; Cicciolina, the Italian porn star turned parliamentarian; and the Rt. Rev. St. Salicia Tate, itinerant preacher woman. He is way beyond "drag queen." He is a one-man psycho-socio-sexual revolution. As one academic who studies him has put it, this is "terrorist drag."

Who is he? For the purposes of everyday life, for this story, he is Vaginal Creme Davis. Ms. Davis. Dr. Davis. (His friends call him Vag, but refer to him as "her.") Performance artist, painter, writer, singer, filmmaker, poet, conversationalist.

Who is Vaginal Davis?

"Who is Vaginal Davis?" he says. "I don't know."

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IN THE PAST 25 YEARS VAGINAL DAVIS HAS produced an astounding body of work that few outside the demi-monde, or academia, will ever see. He is what an artist used to be, before the '80s made them market stars and the '90s made them eternal grad students: He lives for his art. He is incapable of selling out. And he is all but unknown.

Davis came of artistic age in the L.A. punk scene of the '70s. He appeared in Bruce LaBruce and Rick Castro's "Hustler White" and has made his own socially blasphemous films, such as "The White To Be Angry," which is studied by art students across the country. He has started rock bands such as the Afro Sisters, ¡Cholita! the Female Menudo, and Pedro, Muriel & Esther (P.M.E.). He has produced a series of 'zines, including his most well-known, Fertile La Toyah Jackson, which chronicled scandalous celebrity gossip in a manner reminiscent of Kenneth Anger's "Hollywood Babylon." One of his short stories, whose title cannot be printed here, was included in "Best American Erotica 2003." And for the past year he has performed every Friday at the Parlour in West Hollywood, where he plays Ada "Bricktop" Smith, the real-life redheaded African American vaudevillian and jazz impresario who owned eponymous nightclubs from Paris to Harlem to Mexico City.

Occasionally Davis pokes through into mainstream cultural consciousness, as when he appeared in PBS' "Tales of the City" or as a Santa in drag on the short-lived ABC series "Gideon's Crossing." Or, more recently, when he opened for Margaret Cho on her "The Notorious C.H.O." tour. Sometimes his name slips into gossip columns alongside bona fide celebrities, as when "drag queen Dr. Vaginal Davis" appeared in the New York Times and New York Daily News after he grabbed Gwyneth Paltrow at the Roxy, kissed her on the lips and squealed repeatedly, "You are a beautiful white woman!" Earlier this year several of his paintings were included in "Fade (1990-2003)," the Craft and Folk Art Museum's survey of African American artists in Los Angeles.

But Davis is far better known among his global cult following, the sort of people who might know he's the singer on the club hit "I Could Have Sex" by Technova and is featured on the group's coming album "Electrosexual."

"Vag is the most famous not-famous person in L.A.," says Susan Matheson, a.k.a. Crepe Suzette, a friend and costume designer for films. "I think Vag is aware of popular culture before it is popular. I feel like she is the Annie Warhol of our time."

Jose Esteban Munoz, a professor in the department of performance studies at New York University, has studied Vaginal Davis, written papers on him and put him on the cover of his book "Disidentifications: Queers of Color and the Performance of Politics." He considers Davis a "conceptual artist" in the Dada tradition.

"It's all about concept," Munoz says. "The execution is fine, but the concepts are great. She is all concept, all the time, starting with her answering machine. I could give you a history of performance art that would start with Dada and Surrealism and end with Vag. Her 'zines are like the manifestos associated with Dada and the Surrealists."

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