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Stephen Varble’s ‘Gutter Art’ was trashy genderqueer performance art

Stephen Varble

Genderqueer performance artist Stephen Varble wears a demonstration costume for the “Chemical Bank Protest.” Photo: Greg Day.

WEST HOLLYWOOD — Stephen Varble’s  art is trash, literally.

In the 1970s, Varble created outfits from New York City street trash, food waste, and objects (some stolen), and wore them around the Big Apple during “costume tours.” During these unauthorized, confrontational performances, Varble disrupted galleries and museums, challenging mainstream assumptions about gender.

Varble performed gender as an open question, sometimes identifying as a female persona, Marie Debris.

STEPHEN VARBLE

“The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble: Genderqueer Performance Art in the 1970s photographs by Greg Day” opens today at West Hollywood’s ONE Gallery, the space for the ONE Archives Foundation. The exhibit, which closes May 17, explores the collaboration between Varble and Day, who took hundreds of photographs of Varble’s trash couture and public performances in 1975 and 1976.

The exhibit also includes Day’s photos of Varble’s friends and collaborators such as Peter Hujar, Jimmy DeSana, Shibata Atsuko, Agosto Machado, and Andy Warhol stars Jackie Curtis, Taylor Mead, and Mario Montez.

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Stephen Varble Gutter Art

“Stephen Varble in the Suit of Armor” is a 1975 photograph that’s part of an exhibit focusing on Varble’s genderqueer performance art. Photo: Greg Day.

GUERILLA ART

Perhaps Varble’s most notorious performance art was the 1976 “Chemical Bank Protest.” Wearing a costume made from netting, fake money, breasts made from condoms filled with cow’s blood, and a toy fighter plane as a codpiece, Varble targeted this branch because it allowed a forged check against his account and refused to reimburse him for the loss.

In true disruptive guerilla art, Varble made a scene at the bank — puncturing the condoms and writing phony checks with the blood that spilled out.

‘GUTTER ART’

For his “Gutter Art” performances, Varble, arrived, outrageously dressed, by limousine in front of fancy Fifth Avenue shops. Once parked, Varble, sitting in the gutter, unloaded old kitchen utensils from the trunk and washed them with black ink.

Varble also showed up, uninvited, at red carpet events to bedazzle and berate the guests.

“The Gutter Art of Stephen Varble” builds on the 2018 retrospective “Rubbish and Dreams: The Genderqueer Performance Art of Stephen Varble” at New York City’s Leslie-Lohman Museum of Gay and Lesbian Art.

Varble died in 1984 at the age of 38.

About the author

Phillip Zonkel

Award-winning journalist Phillip Zonkel spent 17 years at Long Beach's Press-Telegram, where he was the first reporter in the paper's history to have a beat covering the city's vibrant LGBTQ. He also created and ran the popular and innovative LGBTQ news blog, Out in the 562.

He won two awards and received a nomination for his reporting on the local LGBTQ community, including a two-part investigation that exposed anti-gay bullying of local high school students and the school districts' failure to implement state mandated protections for LGBTQ students.

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