Conceptual Cacophony

Photo by Liezel RubinSo how do we start telling you about Liezel Rubin? Do you want to hear about the time she visited some Manson Family girl in prison and got a hug so tight it still makes her giggle nervously? About the new coffin she just had upholstered? Maybe about the midgets? "I've always loved midgets," she purrs. Or maybe about her new hobby: "things in jars," such as the raccoon penis she's currently bidding for on eBay ($16.95 at last check). Oh, and did we mention the shrunken heads? We didn't? Well, we should stop here because that's all just her personal life. Her art is even more bizarre.

"Pretty much most of what I do would be 'forbidden' in terms of the general public," she says, ticking off the list. "Midgets, freaks, prostitutes, pimps, players, mac daddies—I'm turning into a rap song here!—and then 'King Hitler,' the crime scenes: it's all about that stuff that's . . . what's the word? Taboo!"

Maybe it's not what you'd expect—you know, the immaculately titillating photos of drunken clowns, naked Nazis, hot-to-trot white trash, fetish models, pimps and hos, and, of course, the gorillas—from a nice Long Beach girl whose mom was a bookkeeper and whose dad was a rocket scientist. She always liked elective courses in high school, she says. Is that what did it? Why, we ask, somewhere after the part of the conversation where we're discussing the differences between American midget porn and European midget porn, the fascination with the taboo, Liezel?

"I'm taboo," she says, smiling. Didn't even need to think about it.

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She's really not sure where it started. As a kid, she was stuck in the South Bay, but when she was lucky, she'd spend weekends in New York City, which her parents had grown fond of after they fled a Germany Rubin refers to as "Nazi-town." (It was this Holocaust-survivor experience that informed her gender-imploding King Hitler piece: see "Gender Vertigo," June 15, 2001). And that's probably when she first got into weird shit: she traces her "Sideshow" series (with the fire-eaters and the straitjacketed midget—always with the midgets!) right back to trips to seedy Coney Island.

"I have a lot of respect for people who aren't 'normal,' so to speak," she says, just after explaining her correspondence with a death-row serial killer. "I saw sideshows as a benefit to society—they allow people to be more understanding because they're having contact with people who are different, and they allow people who are different to make a living, to retire early, and to have other people around them who aren't considered 'normal.' Because together, they were normal."

It's as good a metaphor as any for Rubin's work, a razor-sharp pirouette through some of the least normal milieus out there. Her photo series are David Lynch meets Larry Flynt, Twin Peaks meets Teens in Heat. The sex is never vanilla, the lovers never quite normal, but somehow through all the insanity, Rubin crafts a precarious equilibrium. In her personal sideshow, she sometimes goes for the jugular and sometimes for the gonads (or the equivalent thereof)—but sometimes she's just out for a good laugh. She's at her best when she pushes past cheesecake into conceptual cacophony: her "King Hitler" series was disturbingly and intensely disorienting for several different reasons, not just because of the nipple torture. And it all just comes to her, she says. Call it dream-like, and you'd be close; nightmarish, and you might be closer: she lets her vignettes coalesce out of her subconscious, like a dream journal but with lots more naked people.

Her house is bulging at the rafters with handy props—giant tricycles, gorilla suits, antique traffic signals—and her little black book is likewise bulging with willing victims (or models, as the case may be). She's got a whole stable in there, everyone from polished pinup types to neighbors-next-door to semi-superstars (fetish mover-and-shaker Dita Von Teese, for one), even a few of those perennially fun midgets.

By the way, how do you walk up to a midget in a bar and ask him to be in one of your erotic fetish photos? "'Hi, my name's Liezel—what's yours?'" Rubin says, grinning.

Her parents make jokes about their daughter the pornographer, she says, but they've always been supportive—even when the first show they ever saw was cut short when the venue decided it was too offensive. "Beverly Hills," sighs Rubin. "They just couldn't handle it!" The rest of the world? Well, sometimes big British weirdo magazines like Bizarre commission pictures, and sometimes not-so-big local weirdoes spit on her photos. But the one she remembers is the guy who came to see "King Hitler" and didn't spit on it.

"As he walked in the doorway, he saw the work—he was enthralled by it and turned on by it," she says. "But then as he approached it and saw what it was, he became disturbed that he was turned on by it. And he was able to look into himself and see what that was about, and that's one of the things I want to accomplish.

"You can't expect just one reaction," she continues. "You're gonna get a whole vast array. But any reaction is a good reaction. It's just a matter of interpretation."

See Liezel Rubin's art on her website:

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