Inside Downtown It Girl Julie Atlas Muz
by Tony Phillips
Did you ever wonder who prompted those “not to be taken internally” warnings plastered across lip-gloss containers? Then allow me to introduce downtown it girl Julie Atlas Muz. The reigning Miss Coney Island has almost single-handedly revived the near extinct burlesque arts and even lists mermaid on her resume. She owns a headdress, probably several. She party hops with rent-controlled boho abandon, but most of the events Muz pops up at these days happen to be her own. Right now, we’re inside the Deitch Project gallery starring at a series of Polaroid portraits Muz has created for an opening that’s just one day away. I have to admit, I’ve never gazed into a women’s vagina this intently (read: at all) before, but even my eye misses a detail Muz is happy to point out. “That’s not digital artifacting,” she says tapping on the labia glistening in front of her under glass, “or something I added in later with an airbrush. It’s lip-gloss. You’re too nervous to get juicy when you’re in front of the camera.”
It’s naughty, yes, but then everyone in this group show — dubbed Womanizer — is playing on that wait till your daddy gets home edge. The invite even appropriates Hustler’s infamous meat grinder cover that gave people like Andrea Dworkin their life’s work. When I enter the gallery, it’s in a state of controlled chaos. A dried out roller sits in a tray of hot pink paint on the floor. Exploded couture sculptor EV Day has suspended flying panties across the ceiling on invisible wire, but merged being Breyer P-Orridge’s work has not even arrived, much less been mounted. Technically, I suppose P-Orridge can mount itself these days, but nothing else is ready. On one wall, a makeshift sign scratched with the words “Ms. Davis” is held up with packing tape, apparently claiming precious real estate for the legendary performance artist Vaginal Crème Davis, but I can hear Vag in the front of the gallery. I’m not sure what she’s talking about, but her audience is rapt as she catalogues all the different places she can store it. “I can put it in my pussy,” the statuesque black gender terrorist begins in her hypnotic valley girl lilt, “I can put it in my mouth.” I force myself to stop listening when she gets to her nose. Muz herself is in deep confab with the gallerati about what to do with her hair for the opening, but they all eventually agree a trip to Spanish Harlem is in order for a vertiginous up-do only Latinos and rat tail combs seem capable of constructing. The Voluptuous Horror of Karen Black front woman Kembra Pfahler — who co-curated Womanizer with Muz — is in the back of the gallery experimenting with a smoke machine and something goes awry. The gallery is filled with smoke and the only piece of work that’s hung is Vaginal Crème Davis.
It’s like something out of the Lucille Ball playbook. Muz is thrilled with the comparison, but there isn’t a worse possible time for Jeffrey Deitch to arrive, and suddenly he’s everywhere. Pfahler tries to smooth things over by presenting him with one of her Karen Black plushie dolls. “Um, it’s really not for me,” the bespoke and bespectacled Deitch stammers, dismissing the doll and Pfahler. “The boss is here,” Muz whispers, grabbing her coat and me and heading for the SoHo streets. She seems unbelievably calm given the circumstances, a good person to have on-hand when the rapture comes. We find a warehouse across the street from the gallery and sit down. Muz is not at all precious about being seated on a dirty loading dock in a gorgeous coat that’s certainly couture and looks like one of those Joseph Beuys felt sculptures. She places a Tab and a pack of Marlboro reds beside her, lifestyle choices as dangerous as they are glamorous. And that’s Muz in a nutshell. Live fast, die young, wear couture, but at least she knows it. I can remember chatting with her a couple of months ago in front of a dive bar at the rear of the Port Authority. Vaginal Crème Davis was in town (Again! Who knew expatriation meant never having to actually leave town?) throwing a speakeasy salon and she’d somehow been bequeathed with a fleet of NYU interns who were running around making things happen. I hear that Nightlife Studies program at NYU is really top notch, but this neighborhood is probably the last place in Manhattan where one could turn a trick. Muz stands outside the dive smoking in high heels and a bustier, but her concern is not for her own safety, rather for Vag’s interns roaming the block.
It’s party as performance and what may look like perfect attendance to the casual Page Six reader is actually as carefully studied as anything that happens onstage or hangs in the gallery. Take Muz’ now infamous nude storming of the gates at the opening night party for 2004’s Whitney Biennial. Though that contemporary art survey is curated every two years to purposefully shake up the art world, one can only imagine what Gertrude Vanderbuilt Whitney would have made of the 30-something blonde walking into her party wearing nothing but a smile. But even when she’s wearing clothes, things are no less provocative. A 2005 benefit for downtown performance space PS 122 saw Muz and her merry band of chicks clomp onto the stage at Webster Hall dressed as giant tampons. Though the costumes impeded movement, the chorus line began to execute complex, old Hollywood choreography to the strains of Sinatra’s I Got the World on a String anyway. The big finish? The giant tampons pull out regular-size tampons and fling them into the audience. Muz begins very high concept talking about Busby Berkeley and how the size of the venue really lent itself to visual spectacle, but then admits, “I also wanted to get most of my friends in for free.” Muz returned to the same benefit one year later to collect her Ethel Eichelberger award and as best I can recall she was wearing clothes.
Though at times it can seem like she’s speaking in boldface type, I submit that Muz’ friends are also part of her artistic process. Muz agrees, saying, “Every couple of months when I’m feeling all proactive I try and have a couple of meetings with important people to get their advice.” Enter Jeffrey Deitch: probably downtown’s most famous gallerist, or at least the only one with a television show, but Muz makes it sound rather easy to snag a meeting with him, let alone a solo show. “After I was in the Whitney Biennial Jeffrey invited me to be in the art parade and I did good at that,” she explains, “then he came to the Slipper Room and he stayed until three in the morning. I sent him a little video clip of myself and asked for another meeting. We postponed it and postponed it and then we had it. He saw the first three Mr. Pussy portraits and he really liked them and put them in the Armory Show. Then he offered me a solo show.” Perhaps Muz realizes how Cinderella in fishnets this is all starting to sound because she quickly adds, “I told him there’s no way I’m ready to do a solo show in the art world. It’s such a scary place. I don’t know if it’s sharky waters. It’s just unknown. So I said to him I’d do it in two years and he said no. So I said then let’s do a group show and he said why don’t you and Kembra do something? So that’s how it came to pass. I thought I’d rather be a group of beautiful strong wonderful people and all do it together.”
And okay, not to belabor the point, but why is Mr. Pussy a guy? “He just is,” Muz says with a shrug, “Mr. Pussy doesn’t tell me very much about him. We don’t really have a good communication, but what I do know about him he’s told to other people when he’s gotten interviewed or he’ll just grab someone and take them into the bathroom to sing them a song and I’m like what am I doing?” One could almost say Mr. Pussy didn’t lick it off the grass, if that didn’t sound quite so profane in this context. But truly, the pussy does not fall far from the tree. Muz offers surprisingly little personal information for an interview that she began by showing me her vagina. I’ve heard she’s married and she does mention that she’s a Gemini, but there’s little else about her private life forthcoming. Perhaps that’s because it bleeds over into her professional life. Or maybe the woman who dispenses coiffure advice for the genitals — when using hairspray on your down there hair, kids, it’s best to cover the area just below. Muz has found a spoon works best, but did not specify table or tea — is actually a private person. Who knows, she might even be shy, albeit a shy person who wants to be sickeningly famous. Whatever the case, it’s telling that given both her own and Mr. Pussy's gallery debut, she’d much rather talk Pussy. Seen in all his glory at Deitch, Mr. Pussy takes on various guises. Muz calls the turbaned Mr. Pussy “swarma” and a more formal Mr. Pussy is nicknamed “opera man.” A cowpoke Mr. Pussy even comes complete with a tiny bottle of tequila. “He’s very patriotic,” Muz explains. “He’s got this whole story. He wants to be on American Idol. He doesn’t like me. He does not approve of me running around naked. So I support him, but he’s a little more touch and go with me.”
But Muz is just fine with touch and go. In fact, sometimes she courts it. When she was chosen for the 2004 Whitney Biennial, she didn’t agonize over what she would perform. Instead, she went direct to what she calls “the birth of modernism.” When Igor Stravinsky composed music for The Rite of Spring he had no idea its performance by The Ballet Russe would spark a riot during its 1913 Paris premiere. Audience members literally tore their seats out and threw them at the stage and Stravinsky was seen leaving the theater in tears. “DTW is a proper theater so I wanted to do a proper milestone,” Muz explains of her version’s premiere at Dance Theater Workshop, “I’d seen my friends The Butchershop Quartet perfectly reduce this 118 piece orchestral score to four parts. I saw them perform it at the Knitting Factory and I was blown away. So I thought if this is a big fancy pants show and the piece should be performed live anyway, let’s do it that way. That was my first instinct, but that it actually happened is amazing.” And though pre-production included a visit to Stravinsky’s Parisian crib where Muz admits she couldn’t resist a little tap dance on the grave, her actual inspiration came from a grave much closer to home. “Penny Arcade says JonBenet Ramsey is the patron saint of the performing arts,” Muz relays, “So I wound up basing my Rite of Spring on her.”
A journey from classical Russian ballet to child star tragedy would seem to necessitate a few bumps in the road. “Time Out called it the worst humiliation for downtown dance,” Muz deadpans, “I was very proud of that. I use it as a press blurb all the time.” She even remembers an angry patron who approached the box office after the show. “She kept saying I really wanted to walk out, but I couldn’t. I was so offended I couldn’t walk. To me, it’s a good show if somebody gets offended.” Earlier, she’d excitedly recited Womanizer’s first piece of hate mail which had arrived via Kembra Pfahler’s website that very morning. So don’t like it. She’s daring you. Though I can’t remember anything objectionable about Rite of Spring and found its theme of pagan ritual sacrifice really lent itself to the Ramsey Family Circus, I do recall nude dancers in yogic headstands doubling for flowers in the first section’s “adoration of the earth.” And then, of course, there was the flower sniffing. But that dare lead Muz to an interesting place for the creation of her latest show that premieres at PS 122 at the end of this month. One of the first things she did was to create a description to be used in this round of press materials that said she was trying to create the worst show ever. Sounds like a lot of pressure to me, but Muz says, “That freed me up and allowed me to be not so precious.”
Interestingly, we come by this topic rather organically as Muz doesn’t really seem like someone who keeps a mental checklist of items to plug during the interview. As we discussed her attraction to collaboration, Betsy Ross and the way our flag was constructed came up in conversation. Muz sees the quilting bee format as one that is helpful, holding up your little bit of the flag up and asking everyone if they like it. “I think ladies tend to work in group collaborative situations a lot,” she adds, “it’s a very democratic art process.” It’s the same sentiment that gave rise to the focus group and the ending of every movie starring Jennifer Aniston, but in Muz’ hands it seems useful, productive even. “I find it very hard to be locked in a room all day,” she admits, “I do it when I’m doing my administration and my dreaming, but I think that 99 percent of the success of any artistic process is casting.” Of course, at the mere mention of the flag, she can’t help adding that another recent dance piece, I am the Moon and You are the Man on Me, contained a twist that probably wouldn’t have passed muster with the suburban housewives who rule the household product focus groups. “I stuck the flag in my asshole at the end,” Muz confesses, “but it had a beautiful logic so it sounds much more shocking than it is.”
Much as Rite of Spring blooms into preteen beauty queen, grandmotherly Betsy Ross leads to a discussion of inserting the American flag in one’s anus and the same Armory Show which introduced America to the likes of Gaugin, Matisse and Picasso in 1913 also gives us our first gander of Mr. Pussy, so to does Divine Comedy of an Exquisite Corpse become something else in the process while still not forgetting from whence it came. The new piece has had many other names and when we chat on the phone a few weeks before our interview, Muz tells me she’s re-reading Aristotle’s Poetics in the hopes that the show will percolate up from the Aristotelian tradition like Greek coffee. Cut to today and the name remains, but the philosopher is toast. Though she says Aristotle’s account of poetry is “like a handbook” when she’s creating new work, she had “to let it fall by the wayside and let it be more impressionistic.” On the phone, she tells me it’s not “dancey-dance” and today she specifies that “there’s a lot of language in it, but I don’t say any of it. It’s not created voiceover. It’s canned music that we found.” Perhaps the glut of sound cues brings it on, or maybe she’s just sweating the small stuff, but suddenly she’s apologizing to me for spelling her sound designer’s name wrong on the card for the show. What the fuck do I care? On the card I saw, she’s pointing a gun at the camera and I couldn’t decide if it was Debbie Harry or the Lady Bunny. In short, she looks fabulous, so who cares about the sound designer? Well, obviously she does, but then she looks slightly embarrassed. “It’s been a very elusive process, “ she explains, “I’ve spent hours on the floor of the rehearsal studio all alone curled up and crying.”
Scarier still, it’s not the curled up and crying part she finds alarming, but rather the all alone. It’s not the way she’s become accustomed to working. “It drove me nuts,” she says, “I’m in my own head so much as it is. It’s really important for me to be with people. Otherwise I don’t really know if the work exists. I’m not the kind of person who makes work with the thought of it not being shown.” Still, all this up with theater people jive notwithstanding, Muz is adamant about remaining HNIC. “The person who’s paying the bills has ultimate veto power,” she explains and then recounts working with OBIE-winning avant gardies The National Theater of the United States of America. “I don’t know how the fuck they got anything done,” she marvels, “when I was working with them they didn’t have any hierarchy. I work collaboratively, but with a hierarchy. And I’m the boss. For my upcoming show, I’m the boss until two weeks before we open. And then I have ultimate veto power, but I’m not the boss anymore because I’m the star of the show. Being the star and director/dramaturg is a conflict of interests, so I have Kate Valentine, who’s been the star of my shows in the past, and she’s directing. We’ve been working with each other for almost a decade.” As far as what the show is still becoming, Muz says she’s “just trying to listen to the piece.” She’s out of the curled up and crying phase, but admits it’s transformed quite a bit even from when we last spoke. “It was supposed to be about suicide terrorism,” she says, “now I’m trying to include Nicole Richie and Paris Hilton, but it’s still about death.”
And though it’s a one-woman show, her first evening length one, Muz is particularly excited by one of her discoveries for this production: her new AK-47. “I bought a non-firing exact replica online for $250,” she exclaims. “It was so easy to buy weapons online. It’s the exact weight and you can take it apart and everything. I’m very excited about that. I have a very serious arsenal now.” Not that’s she’s needed it. She’s survived New York City nightlife for the better part of a decade and recently added the ultimate notch in any NYC-based performer’s belt: an appearance on NBC’s Law and Order. The casting director was familiar with her burlesque nightclub work nightclub work and knew Muz could really smoke a pole so they cast her as a stripper. “I’ve never sent the episode,” Muz admits, “but I think you just see the back of my head and my ass.” She’s happy for the experience, but adds, “I would have gotten paid so much more if I actually was lap dancing.” Muz says she’s much better known for being a mermaid at Manhattan’s now-defunct Coral Room than any second girl on left role, but she’s done enough film work to instinctually stop talking when a truck or other loud street event happens and then pick up right where she left off when the noise ceases.
She also considers The Coral Room her best job, but swimming in the 10,000 gallon saltwater tank with live fish was also hard work. “People thought it was so glamorous,” Muz laughs, “but I smelled like fish shit and I was wet all the time.” Muz also remembers choreographing The Rite of Spring and I am the Moon and You are the Man on Me above the tank in between swims. A more recent gig in Spain was a bit scarier. “I was invited to the Valencia Biennial in 2005 and swam in Europe’s largest saltwater tank,” she says. “It was basically the size of a house and had over 400 fish, but also two sharks and an eel.” But Muz is more nervous about a gig in France this summer. “I’ve been invited to Nancy in June. They’re going to build a tank for me and they’re going to put carp in it. That’s going to be gross.” I tell her she might consider trading in her assault rifle for a harpoon gun, but she isn’t worried. She jumped right into her first gallery show without knowing if the waters were sharky, and look how that turned out. The night of Womanizer’s opening the sidewalk in front of Deitch looks like Studio 54. I never make it past the throng, but happily crouched in a doorway with Vaginal Crème Davis. Vag was nursing a 40 and holding court. She said a favorite game of Muz’ is to have Vag hide money on her body and then Muz tries to find it. “You have to punch fish,” Muz explains, “they are really smart and have memory.” I assume she’s still talking fish here, but it functions as a metaphor for the art world whether she intends it to or not. “They’re territorial,” Muz continues, “they’ll attack you, so you have to show your dominance.” French fish, you’ve been put on notice. Art world, you too.