The Muse, Revised: Lissa Rivera at the Cleveland Print Room
“Women don’t usually have muses” explains Lissa Rivera, gesturing at her genderqueer partner, artistic collaborator, and muse BJ Lillis during her recent artist talk at the Cleveland Print Room. And of course it’s true – women most frequently are the object of the male artist’s inspiration, the bottom player of a power structure so ubiquitous that it has become ingrained in the very fabric of art history. But like most things determined by an unmistakably patriarchal Western canon, it wasn’t always the case – and it certainly isn’t now either.
The exhibition “Beautiful Boy” turns the muse binary on its head. It’s a beguiling show – glossy portraits of Lillis line the walls, each sumptuously elegant with crisp detail and luscious colors: Lillis in a pink boudoir, Lillis wearing a bathing cap in a pool, Lillis as a male impersonator, etc. And though I’ve never seen Rivera’s work before, each is strangely familiar (“Is that referencing a Baroque painting? is this one a Hockney? that one reminds me of the movie “Funny Face”, etc.) And though I try, I can’t place them, and that’s part of the magic. Unlike Cindy Sherman, whose film stills are so referential you can almost name the film – Rivera and Lillis dig deeper, toying with the familiarity of iconic feminine imagery, so much so that your brain instinctively responds. These visual cues of femininity are so strong that they have traditionally enforced how we see and understand gender. But Rivera’s images can’t be pinned down, they are elusive, fluid, much like sexuality.
Unlike some artists, Rivera and Lillis actively discuss and encourage dialogue about their personal lives, as it clearly has informed their work. After meeting while working at a museum in New York, Lillis shared that he had once dressed as a woman but had since lost the confidence to do so. Taking photographs of Lillis wearing female trappings, indoors, was an experimental and safe space for exploration and play. At a certain point, their shared love of artists and filmmakers like Man Ray, Rainer Werner Fassbinder, Kenneth Anger, and technicolor films like An American in Paris, developed into something of a language, and their friendship developed into love. As Rivera explains, eventually they decided: “why don’t we just make our own world?” It’s a world where Lillis felt free to recreate his identity – one day he could embody Marlene Dietrich in a tuxedo – the next he could channel Priscilla Presley in a nightie.
Lillis plays the parts, but is not simply a model – they work on these photographs together. It’s a true collaboration, so much so that Rivera and Lillis give gallery talks together, both ably voicing their contributions to this ongoing project. This is fairly unusual in the realm of artist/muse pairings, but not unheard of.
Rivera and Ellis’s equal partnership reminds me of the queer duo Claude Cahun (Lucy Schwob) and her partner and artistic collaborator Marcel Moore (Suzanne Malherbe), who were about 100 years ahead of their time in exploring gender roles through subversive photography. Cahun and Moore took turns playing the muse – dressing each other as both masculine and feminine characters, and sometimes they combined the two (in one shot Cahun is dressed as an effeminate body builder, wearing makeup, with nipples drawn onto her top and the words, “I am in training do not kiss me”). They lived on the remote island Jersey, which was far away enough from the constraints of conventional culture for them to explore such things. They could even wear trousers. As they worked together, their love blossomed, as Cahun wrote in a letter to a friend:
“…the moment when our two heads leaned together over a photograph (ah! How our hair would meld indistinguishably). Portrait of one or the other, our two narcissisms drowning there, it was the impossible realized in a magic mirror. The exchange, the superimposition, the fusion of desires.” (September 1920)
It was a partnership in every sense of the word. Moore was an excellent photographer, and Cahun had the ability to morph into countless characters, from a vampish coquette to a well-dressed man. “Under this mask, another mask,” she once said.
Like Cahun, Lillis is also a shape-shifter – an excellently talented muse – he can shift effortlessly from a nude pin-up girl to a dejected housewife. In addition to embodying this cast of characters, I think it’s clear that Lillis is also playing out the feminine yearnings of Rivera as he explores his own. You may only see Lillis in the photographs, but Rivera is certainly in there too. In the space of these photographs, inside the world they’ve created, there’s room for them both.
“Beautiful Boy” is on view at the Cleveland Print Room until November 4. Also on view is “Gratiot” – photographs by Laura Ruth Bidwell. For gallery hours and more info, please visit www.clevelandprintroom.com.