Desert Metamorphosis

Joanna Frueh's performance piece kicks off the second annual 'Her Shorts' festival

Joanna Frueh believes in the transformative power of the desert.

"There are so many stories of transformation in revealed religions," says Frueh, an art historian and performance artist who joined the UA last fall as a distinguished professor of art.

Jesus went out into the desert to pray, she notes, and so did the Buddha and any number of Christian hermits, including one of her favorites, St. Simeon Stylites, whose claim to fame was spending long penitential hours atop a pole.

Frueh herself is not religious--"I'm a half-breed Jew," jokes the artist, the daughter of a Jewish mother and a father who was vaguely Protestant--but she's not immune to the spiritual benefits of the desert.

"The Sonoran Desert and Tucson are always an awakening for me," she says, sitting in an empty UA art studio on dead day, the day before finals. "I'm moved by this part of the country. It's why I moved back here, (for) spiritual awakening of the mind."

It's also why the performance piece she's staging this weekend takes desert metamorphosis as a principal theme.

Her "Shaking Out the Dead" will be the kickoff for Saturday's PerformIT 2007, the live-action portion of Her Shorts: The Second Annual Women's International Video Festival at the Historic YWCA Theater.

Frueh starts off the free event at 4 p.m. She'll be followed by Peruvian artist Elena Tejada-Herrera and Phoenix artist Jo Novelli, whose act is computer-enriched. Up next will be a series of videos by women hailing from 17 different nations.

Frueh's desert piece is a bit of a departure from her usual themes.

"A great deal of my work has to do with the erotic and the body," Frueh says, "but not this one. It doesn't have the graphic sexual territory where I (often) go. It has to do with self-transformation. It addresses the suffering of my earlier adult life. The images are about the bad stuff that just leaves me. There's a real joy about all that.

"I'm shaking out the dead; it's going away."

Frueh taught at the UA in the early '80s, then spent more than 16 years at the University of Nevada, Reno, where she built a national rep as a feminist art critic and provocative performance artist. During her earlier days in Tucson, she and her then-husband, musician Tom Kochheiser, did performance pieces heavy on music, but interlaced with spoken word. This weekend marks her first performance here since her return.

The new work, like most of her pieces, is personal but does not revolve solely around her own life.

"It's not just 'Joanna's life problems,'" she smiles.

Instead, she aims for universal themes that will make sense to her audience. She also tries to keep viewers entertained. Props might include a chocolate cake and sexy costumes in shimmery fabrics. In "Shaking Out the Dead," audience members will recognize references to the Old Pueblo, including stores on Fourth Avenue, local restaurants and the weather. And while her pieces are fun, punctuated by her singing songs she writes herself, they're also grounded in scholarship. Her readings from her own texts are a big part of the show.

"Doing research and being a scholar are essential to what I do," she says. So much so that she defines performance art as "wearing your heart on your sleeve in the most intelligent way you possibly can. It has to be informed by intelligence, research and personal experience."

Frueh grew up in a Chicago suburb, where she sang in a teen group called The Sugarhill Four, and even made a single, "My Lonely Life," with Mercury Records. But she was also attracted to academics. She got a doctorate from the University of Chicago in the history of culture, specializing in 19th-century French and English art and literature. Once ensconced as an art history professor at Oberlin College, though, she also began to dip into performance art.

At one academic conference, she experienced what might have been one of her earliest transformative moments. She'd delivered a scholarly paper with such expression that a stunned commentator afterward declared, "That was like a performance."

"Now I see!" Frueh remembers thinking. The remark set her on a new path. She began more consciously to do her scholarly presentations as performances, with costumes and props. For one lecture, she wore a girly version of the professional woman's suit, in shocking pink and white, and performed a piece called "Has the Body Lost Its Mind?"

Halfway in, she stripped off the jacket and elicited a horrified gasp from the assembled scholars.

"I thought, 'That's all I have to do to get that reaction?'" After that, she delved more into what's become a trademark theme, "the smart, intellectual woman who is a body, too, and erotic."

With her startling appearance--black bangs cut at a harsh angle across her face--and unconventional performance sideline, Frueh developed a reputation as a rebel at Oberlin. She eventually fled to the UA, hiring on as an art historian. (This time around, she teaches only a studio performance class.) But she started teaching performance during that first stay at the UA.

An older colleague by the name of Sheldon Reich happened to catch one of her performances at Dinnerware gallery. To her astonishment, he came to her office later and "asked me if I wanted to teach performance art. Sheldon was the senior art historian. I was blown away! I had never taught it. I said yes. It was great."

Now the author of at least three books, Frueh is publishing a collection at the end of this year with Duke University Press, Clairvoyance (for Those in the Desert): Performance Pieces 1979-2004. Frueh says that most performance artists come out of another art genre. Tejada-Herrera, also in this weekend's show, is a painter. For Frueh, "Writing is my main thing; it's foundational."

A broken wrist helped propel her work into the brighter realm she explores in "Shaking Out the Dead." She fell at a meeting in Florida, and ended up doing her act "on Vicodin, with my arm in a sling." But when she got back to Reno, she realized she'd have to give up her summer-writing plans.

"I decided, I'm going to just be. At the house, I just lay on the floor. I realized I was meditating. The summer was about really waking up. It was a conversion experience.

"My life changed. I made the decision to lighten up, to be happier. And that started coming out in my work."

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