Velvet Hammer Time

Photo by Jack GouldTwenty years ago, feminists weren't allowed to be pretty, with the exception of Gloria Steinem. And even Steinem—who co-founded Ms. Magazine, for God's sake—was suspect in the eyes of a lot of Womyn.

Primping and blow-drying—hell, even washing one's hair—gave men tacit permission to ogle, leer, objectify and refuse to give equal pay for equal work. It's now been a decade since the first Riot Grrrls came on the scene to birth feminism's Third Wave—or "do-me feminism," as the peeps at Time and The New Yorker like to sniff in a perennial parade of features about the death of feminism, as evidenced by the abundance of stiletto heels and poor, man-hungry Ally McBeal.

Riot Grrrls are messy types. Think of Courtney Love before the Prada makeover (and after, judging by the tales of friends of mine who've had to assist her on video shoots), with ripped silk and makeup that looked like a bruise. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before the titties began a-flyin'.

And that's what "The Velvet Hammer: A Peep at the Neo-Burlesque" at Santa Ana's Grand Central Art Center brings us —flying titties and a whole lot of nipples. It's chick-positive soft porn, minus the penetration (or any men at all, actually). It doesn't really say much, but I guess it doesn't have to.

"Velvet Hammer" is an exhibit by and/or about the women from the once-a-year burlesque troupe of the same name. These are artists with an enduring affection for the almost-lost art of striptease. Yes, some atypical few strippers can still dance, but that's not the norm in today's gentlemen's clubs, in which all you need to get ahead is a fine set of saline knockers. "Velvet Hammer" isn't about pretending you could ram that chick who's wagging her ass in your face: it's about the artistic process. There are the sublimely ridiculous costumes; the silly, made-up stage names; and the very real brazenness of the women under all that paint. Now bring on the nipples!

The gallery exhibit, curated by OC Weekly alum/LA hipster queen Rose Apodaca Jones, follows the newish tradition of galleries examining a subculture under the guise of "art." It's a somewhat controversial practice, at least among the crotchety old guard—who also don't care for the Guggenheim's Harley exhibit. But OC has been out in front on this one, with the former leadership (since deposed) of the Huntington Beach Art Center putting up nationally regarded exhibits on such weirdoes as alien hunters, Camaro lovers and Deadheads. "Velvet Hammer" isn't terribly successful in this respect; it never really illustrates anything about these women but the fact that they find the female body beautiful, even when it's flabby. That's great, but what do the members of the Velvet Hammer do the other 364 days of the year? There are the long-clichd but nonetheless interesting backstage photos of dancers applying their garish cosmetics, but there are none that show them completely without makeup. It's all glitter and marabou, but there's no reality with which to juxtapose the false glamour. It's a very slight exhibit, but at the same time, it's a very enjoyable one. Just don't try to look beyond the camp because there ain't a thing there.

Marc Lecureuil photographs all kinds of lovelies in the throes of the dance. Breasts are airborne; flesh sags from bulging waistlines. It's raw, but we've seen it before. The best of the works is a series of 12 pictures for a pinup calendar by Blanca Apodaca (Rose's sister). The gorgeously drawn broads—legs up to their proverbial necks, in horribly painful shoes—do such things as barbecue vacantly wearing nothing but an apron. Yes, Miss June is all that. For better or worse, these are still the women whom Third Wavers most want to emulate. No matter how confident and real-body-friendly the dancers may purport to be, they'd much rather have a 14-inch waist and big cans.

The rest of the works aren't as beautifully done. Annie Sperling-Cesano paints large canvases in choppy, fast brush strokes. They are portraits of the troupe's alter egos—Bubbles LaRue, Senorita Bunnypants, Valentina Violetta—and they're generally bathed in hellish reds and embraced by demons. Stacy Lande paints them, too, including She Devil, Pandora's Box and The Three Graces, which are spooookily underlit, as though they were telling a ghost story with a flashlight beneath their chins. Why the heavy connection with Satan? Don't know, and the exhibit doesn't see fit to fill us in. But it does share the delight of several sensual homemade costumes, like Valentina Violette's "Serpentina"—a gorgeous green silk sari with bugle beads and peacock feathers that one itches to finger furtively. Is anyone around?

There are glimpses of something powerful going on in these women. A sneer here and a snarl there seem as fierce and sincere as the ecstasies Dionysius' women used to exhibit while tearing a doe to shreds with their teeth. If only the exhibit would do the same.

It's a particularly delightful coincidence, though not especially germane here, that the troupe shares the moniker "The Velvet Hammer" with right-wing shill Jim Baker, who is currently running up and down Florida like one of the saline-enhanced pros who makes her living entering wet T-shirt contests from Miami Beach to Fort Lauderdale. A reader from St. Tammany Parish, Louisiana, writes: "What is the undeniable fondness men of power have for dressing up like women and performing? I'm not sure if Jim Baker ever goes to the Bohemian Club on the Russian River, but I have heard that Secretary of State George Schultz used to run around in drag up there. Henry Kissinger, too. And I recall seeing a photo of George W. in drag during his frat days. Baker was a frat boy, and I doubt that there is even one powerful man in the U.S. who during his frat-boy days didn't make an appearance in skirt and pumps." Thank you for your time.

"The Velvet Hammer: A Peep at the Neo-Burlesque Show" at Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana, (714) 278-2011. Open Tues.-Sun., 11 a.m.-4 p.m. Through Jan. 20, 2001.


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