(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Artist Cliff Hengst has been showcased in premier art venues for several years now. His unassuming yet conceptual approach to visual work, as well as the sincerity apparent in his monologist performances are swiftly becoming his trademark. Hengst’s quietly simple work is among the most elegant “funk” art being made today. It unfurls slowly at first, but the haunting quality of the work stays with the audience long after the viewing experience is over.
Elliott Linwood: Your recent month-long series of weekly performances at Art Space that ended on December 1st coincided with the show that you have work in at the Lab, called Without. This show is a little different than the work you had in the Situation exhibition at New Langton, and Real Tears at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery over the last year. Can you describe some of the recent shifts in direction in your work?
Clifford Hengst: The work I’m doing now is different for me because I’m used to having the reference of text in the work, almost as a safety net. In my piece at the Lab, I’m down to a single word on paper. Ultimately, I’d like to try to get away from that strategy completely.
I’m doing stuff now that involves a cheap glamour kick. I’ve just finished reading A Low Life in High Heels, the Holly Woodlawn Story. She’s really alive! In the most unstuffiest terms, she is in so much control.
Did cheap glamour surface as an interest while you were in art school?
No. It came up as soon as I stopped doing any work at school. I entered the San Francisco Art Institute as a painter then switched over to performance.
So you really started making art well after you were through with art school?
Yes, because I didn’t know what I was going to do. At the time I’d been doing a lot of performance work which involved really fucking around with the audience. I would get the spectators all settled in with an expectation that what they were about to take in was going to be fabulous. Then I’d turn on them. But after a while that, too, became a formula. It’s a bad-boy aesthetic that gets very tiresome.
So I told myself if I was going to do work, I’d have to start at the bottom. When I started, I just did pen and ink drawings of things like race cars and monsters – anything that was really big for me in the seventh grade – except that now there was this big education behind it. In a show of this work about three years ago, I lined them up along the wall at the height I was when I was in the seventh grade. That was the first thing.
The second thing I did were the lists. These were purely a reaction to buying a bunch of sketch books that I just could not draw in. I’d sit there and not draw anything. So I’d make these lists like: books of the Bible, cities that start with a “D,” places I’ve been, etc. That’s when I did the list pieces like the ones in the Situation show.
What is your sense of these personal index lists – or low art forms in general?
There is this big movement right now. Some of it works as a critique, some has to do with purely economic factors of producing work. But a lot of this stuff also brings in different aspects of people’s lives and backgrounds. There’s an honesty to much of this kind of work that I haven’t seen in art for a long time.
Anytime you make something into a genre, there’s an edge that immediately gets hacked off and squeezed into the accessibility of marketing for the general public. That’s my fear.
The lists were loaded for me because as a kid I really wanted to impress people. So I would read all these glamor magazines and then drop names. This was in a shitty little town called Duarte, about ten minutes east of Pasadena, which was predominantly known for its huge mental facility called City of Hope. There was a poor side of town where I lived, and there was a rich side.
In my neighborhood there was always this longing for me to fit into black popular culture. But my mom is from Indonesia. Before I went to school, the whole family spoke Dutch. Then a Jehovah’s Witness identity started to develop in the family. On top of that, I had to dismiss my gayness for the longest time, denying that part of me for years. All along there was a need to feel wanted, which for me was fueled by notions of glamour that I got from TV – the worst glamour of all, the game show type that never goes all the way.
How does the appearance of the fag hag in your work fit into this glamour continuum?
When I first started going to gay discos I noticed women with some of the men. They were typical fag hags; girls who dressed themselves up and held their friends’ hands as they walked onto the disco floor. They were always amazing, fun to talk to and share our problems with. This happened in an honest sexual environment where they’d say stuff like, “I wish you were straight, then you could fuck me.”
I’ve begun thinking a lot about the incredible place of the fag had in the homosexual community. There are many strong women in my life, that I have not given proper respect to, who helped me grow. The piece at the Lab called “Fag Hag” came out of recognizing the loss experienced by many really tough women out there who have lost a lot of their friends.
How does subtlety function in your work?
This may sound corny, but I’m interested in achieving a sense of poetry and metaphor in what I do. For instance, in “Fag Hag” there’s this ultra-ordinariness of this stupid $5 lamp and a piece of paper, that slowly unfolds if you spend time with it. The red light has connotations of disco, sex, etc. The subtlety of red light on the red ink spelling the word “fabulous,” which is a gay word, allows it to eventually pop out at you. The shape of the lamp, as a woman leaning over to look into the casket of her dead friend, condenses the potential of cheap glamour into the beauty of the ordinary.