The Importance of Being Phranc by Julia Schlosser

Added on by Shona Masarin.

This essay was written in conjunction with Phranc on view at CUE Art Foundation December 6 - January 26, 2008.

The eponymous exhibition of the visual artist/performance artist/musician Phranc comprises at first glance no more than an apparently innocent, and anachronistic, [BW2] installation. The objects appear as if they could prop the set of a 1950s summer beach romance. A red-striped T-shirt, leather jacket and pink sleeveless dress float invitingly against the gallery walls, while a colorful picnic basket rests on the floor beside them. A second glance, however, reveals that this is no mere detritus from a Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello remake. Something "phunny" is going on here. These lifelike sculptural elements are fashioned entirely from found cardboard and c[BW3] raft paper, painted in gouache and acrylic, and held together with thread or glue. While these "phaux" costumes pay homage to the past, a third glance lets us know that these objects clearly belong to a world where the signposts guiding Frankie and Annette's on-screen characters have been inverted, where recognizable rules, roles and relationships have been turned on their heads, and where gender, memory and identity are all in play.

Phranc's name is already familiar to some viewers from her performing career, where she is knownfor[BW4]  her moniker - [BW5] "the All-American Jewish lesbian folk singer" - [BW6] and for her signature flat-top haircut and combat boots. However, even from her earliest days as a Los Angeles-based punk rocker in the late 1970s, Phranc has produced a range of artworks, artworks whose themes and strategies parallel those of her songwriting and performing. She interrogates social costuming and identity, powerfully transgressing traditional gender roles, while exploring complex, layered aspects of censorship, memory, personal history and nostalgia. Her earlier two-dimensional artwork often parodied postwar-era point-of-purchase advertising displays through the lens of gender politics, and this not-so-subtle critique of our consumer society and its rigid role assignments continues to play out in her contemporary three-dimensional work.

Phranc has consistently relied on debased materials throughout her career; cardboard and rolls of Kraft paper take the place of the brown shopping bags she previously employed. In 1991 she made her first three-dimensional object, a slice of blue-ribbon cake fashioned from cardboard, [BW7] and has produced and exhibited sculptural work ever since. The pieces are shaped, assembled and painted according to what she calls her "build and glue" method. She takes obvious pleasure in the materiality of her craft, delighting in the process of plying cardboard into outerwear and shoes, jumping and pounding on it to allow it to bend into the shapes she desires. For her, the vernacular democracy of cardboard holds a special resonance. "Cardboard has no culture," Phranc says. "It has what we bring to it. It is an equal opportunity medium."

One of Phranc's dream jobs had always been that of a cobbler. In the early 1990s, fueled by the success of her blue-ribbon cake and inspired by a biography of the famous couture shoe designer Salvatore Ferragamo, she set out to fabricate 100 pairs of (cardboard) shoes. She got as far as 20-  [BW8] including cowboy boots, mules, Converse sneakers, saddle shoes and high-heeled pumps- but even this partial realization of her goal sealed her bond with cardboard, hence her current moniker: the Cardboard Cobbler.

A technical breakthrough came in 2006 when, despite previous unsuccessful attempts, Phranc finally learned to sew. Mastering her grandmother's sewing machine with help from a friend and various sewing instruction books, she began to craft gouache-covered Kraft-paper "fabric" items. Phranc starts the process by painstakingly cranking out yards of patterned fabric. She rolls the Kraft paper out on the floor of her studio and inscribes pencil guide marks on it. Then, in a Zen-like, Agnes-Martinesque action, she applies freehand first the background and then the patterned markings of the fabric to the paper. Application of paint causes the Kraft paper to acquire a more flexible, "fabric-like" [BW9] consistency. Like any seamstress, Phranc uses sewing patterns to guide her as she cuts and sews her "fabric" into objects. The resulting pieces have a substance, a body and physicality that ordinary cloth objects do not possess. The subtle matte sheen of the gouache patterning imbues the objects with a tactile continuity, as well as with a redolent odor evocative of the tempera paints Phranc (and boomer children all over America) grew up with. The appeal of these items resides not only in their retro charm but also in the visual pleasure of their quasi-trompe-l'oeil quality. She has fashioned comfortably familiar objects from unfamiliar materials.

Little formal education in art undergirds Phranc's deft efforts, "I'm pretty much self- taught," she says. "I did get to take a few great art classes when I was a kid. When I was 9 years old I saw Claes Oldenburg's giant billiard balls at LACMA [the Los Angeles County Museum of Art]. They really wowed me[,][BW10]  changed my idea of art from just painting to ANYTHING. But I didn't go to 'art' school. After dropping out of high school to be a lesbian, I went to the Feminist Studio Workshop at the Woman's Building."

Phranc jokes about the "dichotomy" of her dual identity as a gay activist and maker of objects heralding from the golden age of Harriet and Ozzie Nelson - a time when the gay community was tightly closeted and notoriously vilified. "I bake a mean apple pie, too," she laughs. But that dichotomy drives her work's ready appeal. Phranc undermines the monolithic solidity of a rigidly binary gender system with gentle humor and compassionate humanism. She furthers her subversion of such fixity by cross-dressing herself, assuming male visual signifiers while maintaining her identity as a woman. And, of course, she is by no means alone in her recycling of postwar-era iconography; a whole generation of "lowbrow" artists (e.g. Marc Ryden, Shag) now exploits that retro look.

However, Phranc's objects, with their beguiling transparency, disguise a more urgent, emphatic social stance than that assumed by these younger artists. She hopes that her artworks will, as she states in her biographical note, "raise consciousness, trigger response and stimulate memories." Items such as the leather jacket, red bandana and kilt signal overt gendered references, while her Coney Island Souvenir Hat - the debut offering of"Phranc of California's New York line[BW11] " -[BW12] paints an arch picture of the now-fabled 1950s. Before we can dismiss such objects as safe or sentimental, however, we begin to perceive her subtle gender plays, twists of advertising text and visual double-entendres. 

In her quest to exhume a more inclusive view of the past, Phranc has created a number of "subsidiary companies" (Phranc of California, Phranc and Co.).  Phranc uses these identities, like that of the "Cardboard Cobbler," as platforms from which she can enter the male-dominated culture of 1950s and '60s advertising and consumerism and refashion a vision of that culture, opening it - and the inheritance it has left us -[BW13]  to myriad new possibilities.

The strength of Phranc's songwriting lies, as it does for many folk singers, in the simple yet evocative language and humor she uses to recount the lives of individuals whose stories might otherwise remain untold. The reassuring familiarity of the musical genres she draws on - folk and surf music in particular - allows listeners readier access to these unfamiliar stories. By refabricating coveted retro objects from past eras, Phranc employs a similar strategy. Manipulating familiar images, she is able-sometimes subtly, sometimes not -to infuse them with the same empathetic yet insistent argument found in her music.

Phranc thus asks us to reexamine the history of the 1950s and 60s in a new light. She uses her power as an image-maker to rewrite, rework, cobble together and re-insert the unwritten stories - her- and his-stories alike-[BW14] of those who had no voice of their own. Stubbornly resisting the advertising industry's relentless construction of a perfect, homogenized image, she proudly brands herself rather than assuming a brand that doesn't fit. Phranc offers up her objects to viewers to try on metaphorically, to see what "fits." And while her objects allow us to experiment with our identities, they remind us that any idealized images we construct of the past will turn out to be as illusory, as "phlat," as the cardboard they are modeled from.

The writer, Julia Schlosser, is a Los Angeles-based artist and art historian. Her artwork seeks to elucidate the complicated and multilayered relationships that can be formed between people and their pets. She recently completed her M.A. in art history at California State University, Northridge, with an analysis of images of pets in contemporary lens-based artwork, and has also received an M.F.A. in photography from California State University, Fullerton. Schlosser teaches photography and art history at various Southern California institutions