There’s no denying Atlanta’s drag bona fides. The city has spawned some of the best-known drag queens in the country, from RuPaul to Lady Bunny and a new generation too of 10 performers, documented in photographer Jerry Siegel’s “Reveal” exhibition on view at Buckhead’s Spalding Nix Fine Art.
The show is composed of a range of views of Siegel’s subjects. There are the “glamour shot” oversized portraits of drag royalty like Brigitte Bidet and Evah Destruction so elaborately made up and outfitted they tend to make real women look like quitters.
There are also “behind the scenes” portraits of the artists’ personas in process, of Evah Destruction with an elaborately made-up face but shirtless and hairy, a head not yet capped with a wig. In “Orchid — Smear,” expertly applied artificial lashes, slashes of brow and pink eyeshadow are disrupted by the performer’s direct gaze at the camera, smeared lipstick and short blond hair normally hidden by a wig.
But Siegel’s most surreal, fascinating work in “Reveal” may be the sequential images that show, as they say, how the sausage is made. In a progressive frieze of images in his “Reveal” series, Siegel photographs drag queens as they take off their performance battle gear of wigs, makeup, padding, stockings, corsets and other accouterments to reveal what lies beneath. Stripped of his sequined coat and pearl festooned leather hat, Taylor Van Pelt looks like any of the tattooed and baseball cap-wearing denizens of East Atlanta. The “Reveal” portraits document the chrysalis that transforms into a butterfly, and back again.
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Some of the drag personas on display are more like Matthew Barney conceptual art projects. Paege Turner creates characters with faces covered in sequins, and “Mystery Meat” suggests a hybrid of Mickey Mouse, Pierrot and “Cabaret.”
The inventiveness and play involved in these personas draw you in. Stare long and hard, but it is still difficult to digest the extreme visual progression from the elfin, pale, boyish man who, as the gloves and the earrings and the lipstick coalesce, becomes the Jayne Mansfield study in pink of “Brigitte Bidet.” Many of the portraits are poignant in their performers’ imperfections and pulpy humanity; compelling in how their subjects reveal themselves to us.
Siegel’s images are fun and flamboyant and over the top, as you might expect, but they are also tender and touched with sadness, not so much because of the people depicted here, but because of the layers of deception or masquerade or performance all of us act out on a daily basis. “Reveal” is ultimately a show about the carapace of identity, which some of us wear lightly and which for others carries a more crushing weight.
“Reveal,” as you might expect of a show centered on performance, is all about layers. Layers of makeup, layers of artifice, but also far more complicated layers involving identity, masculinity, femininity and much that lies in between. If you’re inclined to see this as a one-note show all about extravagant dress and maquillage and outsize characters, “Reveal” won’t disappoint. Siegel’s large-scale portraits are especially satisfying: from a distance, gorgeous impersonations of female beauty. But get all up in their business, and things begin to fall apart in the lines where wigs and foreheads collide, in shaving stubble and skin texture and the subtle details that give lie to the mirage before us.
But there’s far more beneath the surface in “Reveal.” Beyond a fascinating documentarian’s peek into a subculture, “Reveal” has things to say about the divide between private and public selves and the complex ways we all present ourselves to the world.
Through Nov. 2. 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays. Spalding Nix Fine Art, The Galleries of Peachtree Hills, 425 Peachtree Hills Ave. NE, Building 5, Suite 30-A, Atlanta. 404-841-7777, spaldingnixfineart.com.
Bottom line: Beyond the documentary enticements of Jerry Siegel’s photographs, these candid, brave performers in Atlanta’s drag community reveal a vulnerability and connection to how we all perform in some sense for the world.