BY Philomena Epps in Profiles | 14 NOV 19

The Trash Couture of Stephen Varble

An artist who made a mockery of wealth and class pretensions is revivified as a prophet of possibility in a corrupted world

BY Philomena Epps in Profiles | 14 NOV 19

Stephen Varble in the elizabethan farthingale, 1975. Courtesy: The Horse Hospital, London; photograph: Greg Day 

When the artist and cultural anthropologist Greg Day first saw Stephen Varble perform in Sheridan Square, Greenwich Village, in 1975, he knew he wanted to be his photographer. ‘Stephen appeared wearing a see-through woman’s dress made of white pipe cleaners,’ Day recalls. ‘For breasts, he wore quart-size milk cartons. He had a headdress with chicken bones sticking out and carried a mop and pail. He mimed alternating male and female gestures and made clicking and moaning sounds.’ Day became Varble’s closest photographic collaborator, documenting numerous performances and events. In addition to archival material, Day’s photographs are the focus of ‘The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s’, an exhibition curated by the American scholar David J. Getsy and currently on view at The Horse Hospital in London.  

Distinguished by his use of guerrilla tactics, Varble was familiar to the cultural milieu of 1970s New York. Unusually, he had also been involved in both Fluxus and Andy Warhol’s Factory, and was photographed by notable downtown artists such as Peter Hujar and Jimmy De Sana. However, his name faded into obscurity after his death from AIDS-related complications in 1984. Getsy only came across Varble’s work through his research on the performance artist Scott Burton. Much of the archival ephemera and visual documentation that has been sourced by Getsy since 2011, notably presented in the 2018 exhibition of Varble’s work at Leslie Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art, has been donated by those who personally knew the artist. 

'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day', 2019, installation view. Courtesy: The Horse Hospital, London 

In a 2018 essay for Granta magazine, Varble’s friend, the writer Fernanda Eberstadt, suggests possible reasons for the amnesia that followed the artist’s death: ‘He was forgotten because his art was so militantly ephemeral, and because most of the photographers who documented his performances also died of AIDS and were forgotten.’ Meanwhile, Varble’s staunch resistance to the art market’s co-option of political art and the institutional exhibition circuit would have further erased him from the public consciousness. She notes that there was something ‘virulently anti-institutional in Stephen’s ethic that made him sabotage any glimmer of even supposedly “indie” success’. 

An anti-materialist, Varble infiltrated corporate and commercial spaces, often feigning flattery and enthusiasm towards his targets, making a mockery of wealth and class pretensions. For his ‘costume tours’, for example, he would encourage passers-by to join him on unofficial ‘art tours’ around SoHo and the Upper East Side, launching into galleries unannounced, while his impromptu ‘gutter art’ performances often took place on the curbs outside luxury boutiques on Fifth Avenue. As part of his criticism of throwaway capitalist culture, Varble embraced detritus and the discarded. When making his idiosyncratic costumes, which he labelled ‘trash couture’, he would repurpose found and stolen objects, in addition to using food waste and rubbish foraged from the street.

Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor, 1975. Courtesy: The Horse Hospital, London; photograph: Greg Day

In a letter he sent to a friend while in art college, Varble refers to having ‘a woman’s mind in man’s body’. He would often adopt the performed persona of Marie Debris: a female alter ego, who was less rooted in traditional drag performance than in the desire to queer the notion of gender altogether. As Day observes: ‘Queer sex, which was still a felony, was celebrated in the streets as a political act. Gender non-conformity, a frequent target for violent assault, was flaunted in public places. The community’s butch/femme gender polarity was expanded with new hybrids and variations. In those days, we called it “genderfuck”.’ This desire to break down the binary system is particularly prescient with regard to our contemporary understanding of gender identity as a spectrum, although, as Eberstadt writes: ‘[Varble] would have found the whole notion of “identifying” drearily bureaucratic.’ The historical relationships between drag, cross-dressing and trans identities are complex, with Varble’s work demonstrating how gender non-conformity has its own long and varied genealogy. 

In 1975, in collaboration with his friend Shibata Atsuko, Varble created the Piggy Bank Dress, which he wore (uninvited) to the opening gala for the legendary ‘Fashion as Fantasy’ show at the Rizzoli Bookstore. Playfully combining caricatures of genital imagery, the garment fused phallic and labial forms as a visual metaphor for the dual and fluid nature of gender, and also included satin breast-like pouches with long ties, which rained coins on the floor when pulled. Similarly, in 1976, as part of one of his most notorious disruptions, The Chemical Bank Protest, Varble’s costume combined condoms filled with cow’s blood for breasts (which he pierced when inside the bank) with a large toy jetfighter functioning as a codpiece. 

'The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s, photographs by Greg Day', 2019, installation view. Courtesy: The Horse Hospital, London 

In addition to the public performances, many of Day’s photographs also capture more private moments from behind-the-scenes. In ‘Stephen Varble Destroying his Blue and Green Corrugated Paper Dress for the Camera’, a series from October 1975, the artist is pictured dancing and shredding his ephemeral garment into pieces. While, in ‘Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor’, from the same month, the medieval hauberk is reimagined as a 1960s shift dress, made from shiny, golden liquor boxes, carpet thread and six-pack beer holders. In April 1975, he crashed the opening reception for a Joseph Beuys exhibition at Ronald Feldman Gallery, donning a farthingale made from egg crates, tulle and elastic thread – a trashy twist on a Renaissance favourite. This deconstruction of fashion, occasionally through the fusion of gender signifiers or historical references, is a motif that runs throughout Varble’s inventive costumes.

From 1978, Varble devoted himself to Subud, an international spiritual movement that began in Indonesia in the 1920s. He stopped performing in public and turned his practice inwards, focusing on the unfinished film Journey to the Sun (1978–83), which narrates a spiritual journey toward enlightenment and transformation, and on a limited series of ‘video books’, which he had planned to distribute among his network of friends and collaborators. In his fantastical and detailed drawings from this period, Varble depicted himself as a composite being, often replacing his eyes with other faces: a representation of his multifarious selfhood. Moving away from the radical, eruptive performances of the 1970s, which functioned as a subversive form of consciousness-raising, Varble’s work from the 1980s was intended as an antidote for a world mired in capitalist materialism. While one wonders how he might respond to our current era of rising conservatism, his work is a reminder to resist the rampant commodification and increasing privatization of the arts. 

Philomena Epps is an editor and writer based in London.