In the popular mind, Andy Warhol was known as much for his blond wig and quirky demeanor as for his famous soup cans. He knew and exploited the power of persona to attract attention, if not always credibility. It's a quandary local photographer Marne Lucas has faced for years and has finally begun to overcome.
In the mid-'90s, aided by her femme fatale looks and fashion finesse, she parlayed a gift for erotica-flavored performance art and pinup photography—which she showcased in Hustler publications like Leg Show and her 2000 Mark Woolley exhibition, Skirts and Skin—into a reputation as a provocateur, winning a cult following internationally in the process. But as she quickly discovered, cult followings do not pay the bills.
"Locally, I think having a persona has been somewhat of a hindrance," Lucas concedes. "It can open doors, but it does pigeonhole you. If men have a persona, it gives them permission to be really ballsy. But if a woman does, it's like she has something to prove."
Whether her persona hindered or helped her, Lucas, 37, has proved plenty, especially in recent months. Last summer, the Whitney Museum of American Art tapped her and artist-activist Teresa Dulce to curate an exhibition called Danzine Retrospective at the City University of New York. The exhibit re-created the Portland offices of Danzine, a nonprofit that promoted health, safety and self-expression for Stumptown sex workers from 1995 to 2005. In December, the Regional Arts & Culture Council awarded Lucas a nearly $3,000 grant to help finance her latest project, a portrait series of local artists, curators and gallerists designed to be a "2006 time capsule of the vibrant Portland art scene." It's an apt project for an individual who has spent as much time and energy in the past decade providing a forum for other local artists as her own work.
And all this month, Lucas and conceptual artist Bruce Conkle have been participating in a residency at Caldera, a retreat in southern Oregon, where they're developing a new project involving "glowy/shiny things" called Blinglab.
Above and beyond these endeavors, the photographer is continuing her self-portrait project, which has been part of her daily routine since 1996. It's in these works that Lucas' evolution is most striking. Nowhere to be found is "Gina Velour," the stage name she adopted years ago when she appeared in the porno-licious art film The Operation, arguably her biggest claim to fame to date. It's as if the glamour goddess of her past, that exotic creature with jet-black bangs and infrared lips, has disappeared and been reincarnated as a sage, sexy earth mother. In recent self-portraits she appears sans makeup, hiking in the woods or staring deeply into her mirrored reflections. The highlight of Amusement, her current show at Homestar, is a self-portrait called Lichen Anklepanties, taken during a hiking trip on the Olympic Peninsula. Before the hike, Lucas had fashioned what she calls a "panty/object" from old yarn. When she happened upon the perfect spot along the trail, she stripped from the waist down and donned the leg-ironslike garment as she lay upon a bed of moss. It's one of Lucas' strangest, strongest images ever: a woman in bondage to undergarments, sinking into the earth as in precognition of death, yet seemingly giving birth to the whole of nature from between her outstretched legs, all while a phallic tree stump rises in front of her. Far from conventionally erotic, the image captures the older, wiser strain in Lucas' visual thought these days: a kind of pagan poetry, a transcendentalist's serenity, hard-earned in the trenches of Third Wave feminism.
With the Whitney show, the RACC grant and the Caldera residency still wet on her résumé, Lucas is putting out feelers for shows outside Portland. While she has exhibited locally at Mark Woolley, Froelick and other venues, she says she has never been approached by a Portland gallery with an offer of exclusive representation. This is an astounding lapse. As a package, Lucas has it all: talent, vision, pep and, yes, a once-notorious persona that has won her an established audience. She needs to market
herself more aggressively, and she needs a champion in the gallery community. But without a doubt, she has the makings of a superstar. Perhaps 2006 will be this former femme fatale's breakthrough year.
Marne Lucas' photos are currently showing at Homestar, 4747 SE Hawthorne Blvd., 235-0349. Closes Jan. 31. For more information, visit www.marnelucas.com.