“I was once a dancehall girl,” says Rosie Velez, a young innocent, played by John Waters’ muse Divine, in the 1984 film: “Lust in the Dust.” “Lust” is a broad parody of Westerns, but specifically references King Vidor’s 1946 film “Duel in the Sun,” which itself playfully nicknamed “Lust in the Dust” due to the film’s appetite for sex and violence. “Lust” takes Vidor’s film, and the tropes of the Western to their logical extremes (i.e., if you have a bodice get ready for it to be RIPPED, if your bosom isn’t HEAVING with barely repressed HORNINESS, please focus, and if your gunslingers aren’t BARREL-CHESTED and TORMENTED are they really qualified to sling anything? If you have to ask what “anything” is, c’mon grow up.).
The line that separates my facetiousness and “Lust”’s own sense of playfulness is probably non-existent. This is not necessarily a bad thing (please also take this with a grain of salt, this schtick is easily, stupidly, annoying). Where “Lust” hopes to burlesque the Western as a form of storytelling, perhaps the only fitting way in which to speak of Joe Gallo’s burlesque photography exhibition, “Lust in the Dust” at Epiphany Art Center, is a burlesque of the traditional art review. Yet, as I write, I recognize this is unpracticed choreography and haphazard linguistic seduction; phrases and verbs hastily pinned and taped. This could be an utter embarrassment, increasingly incoherent, and woefully unoriginal. However, if you stay, perhaps you’ll witness something you’ve not yet seen. Perhaps you’ll be titillated, scandalized, or maybe even charmed. Perhaps you’ll want to see the show for yourself.
The subjects of Gallo’s show are female dancers in the yearly Miss Exotic World Pageant in Helendale, California. The site of a former chicken ranch, Helendale was a quiet midway point between Los Angeles and Las Vegas and a perfect place for dancers to recuperate between performances. What began as a space for dancers to find community blossomed through word of mouth into a museum, a pageant, a festival and an extensive archive of American burlesque. I mention an archive, but the world of burlesque is not well known to those unfamiliar with the art form. Gallo himself admits in the show notes that he had only heard of Miss Exotic World through his work photographing burlesque dancers in Chicago.
What then is burlesque? You may recognize dancer Dita Von Teese’s name, know her burlesque shows, and maybe you’ve even stood in awe at her coupe glass pool (intended only for seductive writhing), but where did burlesque come from? How do Dita and the dancers of Miss Exotic World make their art? With origins in the popular song and dance routines of Victorian England (those shows borne themselves of the period’s literary mode) and steeped in the traditions of America’s traveling sideshows, modern American burlesque combines glamor, sex, storytelling and stage persona in ways that traditional strip clubs do not necessarily allow their dancers. Burlesque also provides space for a variety of dancer body types and gender identities. In burlesque there’s an element of vaudevillian chutzpah alongside the striptease’s intimacy: It’s possible to be seduced by laughter and sheer nerve. Take author, union-rights activist and burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee as an example. When charged with public indecency she was known to quip, “I wasn’t naked, I was completely covered by a blue spotlight.”
The lovingly off-kilter glamor of Gallo’s subjects revels in idiosyncratic sexiness, the magnetism that’s found within quirks and eccentricities. Their candid poses are oddly fitting within their work-a-day backdrops: in one photo an Anna Nicole Smith look-alike squats in the shadow of a semi-truck’s wheels in rhinestone pasties and a g-string to reapply makeup; in another a bare-breasted woman cools off in the doorway of a trailer while wearing a sumptuous corset. The photos possess a somewhat surreal quality that’s reminiscent of John Waters’ eye for beauty. Divine, introduced in this review in her role of Rosie and as Waters’ muse, lives on in the moments Gallo captured in the desert. When I make such a claim I do think of Divine’s “look,” her vibrant eyeshadow and brilliantly colored bodycon dresses, but more so I think of an anecdote told by her friend, writer and fellow Waters’ doyenne, Cookie Mueller. Mueller once ended a story about a road trip gone awry, yet ultimately saved by Divine’s intervention, that she always felt safe when she was with Divine. It’s this feeling of comfort, of safety, of total unabashed acceptance that I think of when I see Gallo’s photos. In this little corner of the desert, you can cheer, laugh and be yourself.
For an art form that depends on seductive and the slow, tantalizing reveal of one’s flesh, I’m dangerously close to closing on a sickly saccharine note. Yet, that’s what I feel when I see Gallo’s photos. They’re intimate, tender, and fun. They’re people you might know vamping across the edge of a pool in a pair of stilettos or jumping in the air, blonde hair flying, while a presumably horny onlooker gazes with appreciation. They’re people who are happy. In the show’s promotional image, Dixie Evans, the Miss Exotic World grand dame, stands in front of her handiwork. The image is dated circa 2003/2005 and Dixie stands with red gloves, a red boa and a floor-length body-hugging red dress. Dixie is beaming, red lips smiling, the Miss Exotic World sign stands behind her. If you take anything away from Gallo’s show, think of Dixie’s smile, and think of what it could mean to feel like yourself, to feel safe, under that blue spotlight.
Joe Gallo’s “Lust in the Dust” at Epiphany Art Center, 201 South Ashland, through March 23.