Stimulus Package

An academic publisher collects Joanna Frueh's charged performance pieces

For the past 25 years, Tucson performance artist Joanna Frueh has flirted with the conventions of postmodern feminism, gender theory, erotic writing and straight-up porn. Eighteen of her most significant works appear in Clairvoyance (For Those in the Desert), published by Duke University Press in a beautiful and very pink 400-page tome that looks great on a coffee table.

The book's visual appeal is primarily due to the inclusion of a copious number of black-and-white and color photographs of Frueh taken throughout her quarter-century career in the arts.

Unlike many of yesterday and today's leading feminist thinkers, Frueh embraces her own messy desires as well as the darker recesses of women's sexuality--particularly heterosexuality. She is not afraid to incorporate ideas and imagery from stroke mags just before referencing Susan Brownmiller's landmark text, Femininity. In the same intriguing way postmodern artists blend high and low culture to create exciting new narrative forms, Frueh mixes it all up--scholarship and smut, theory and T&A--into a series of autobiographical performances.

Interestingly, the book's introduction by photographer Jill O'Bryan is practically a performance piece in its own right. Titled "Fucking Hot," it involves O'Bryan reminiscing on a four-day shoot that she conducted (with Frueh as the subject) in the desert landscape and at the Arizona Inn. Told in second-person, the introduction addresses the performance artist directly, recalling how:

White is another of your colors. It is the most difficult to work with. As an artist, sometimes standing in front of a white canvas or a white piece of paper can be a terrifying experience. It can be a moment of either empowerment or disempowerment, and it can switch from one to the other in lightning speed. Empowerment comes when embracing the whiteness and reveling in the filth with which an artist is about to embellish it.

Clearly, O'Bryan understands Frueh's aesthetics and purpose better than any mere art critic, and her insight into her colleague's body of work is impressive. In any case, don't skip this primer.

The earliest of Frueh's pieces presented here, "The Concupiscent Critic," is from 1979 and features an unnamed character, presumably Frueh herself, wandering the beach towns of Mexico in a state of poetic rumination ("In summer the leaves looked amber beneath the streetlamps' garish night. If a murder were to occur, the knife would glisten red before even entering the victim's body.") From the very start of her career, it seems, Frueh had found her voice, one equally influenced by Anaïs Nin and Raymond Chandler. Indeed, as she observes herself at one point, Frueh writes like a man--at least in the sense that, like taboo-breaker William S. Burroughs, she risks everything and is afraid of nothing.

Heck, she's even a kind of rock star. Her lyrics to songs co-written with musical collaborators Thomas Kochheiser and Russell Dudley are superior to anything you find today on mainstream radio. Take, just for instance, the words to a 1982 tune called "Mistress of Desire":

Mistress of desire

Whip us, if you will,

Into our devotions,

The turbulence to kill

Our grasp of an idea

Outside of destiny

You know we are your lackeys

And we can barely see

The shape of stellar bodies

Other than your own

We live inside darkness

Of a none too torrid zone.

My single complaint with this edition of Clairvoyance is that it doesn't come with a CD/DVD of any of these performances. Even without a musical backdrop, however, the reader suspects Frueh needn't rely on a guitar for her words to soar as they do in more spoken-word type pieces like 1989's "Mouth Piece," where she updates the historical personage of Cleopatra with a bit of breathless verbal pizzazz.

Flat on the page, Frueh is still a lot of fun to read, but she's even more dazzling when she riffs on the pleasures of chocolate cake (2002's "The Aesthetics of Orgasm") or the real significance of Greek goddess Aphrodite (1997's "Dressing Aphrodite").

To receive the full impact of her work, it would probably be better to actually experience one of her performances firsthand. Otherwise, Clairvoyance is a great place to start learning about not just 20th-century performance art, but also about one of the more intriguing and unheralded performance artists of our time.

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