Viva Kiki of Montparnasse!
By Saskia Vogel
“Viva Bedlam” was the name of the show, and viva indeed. As photographer Rick Mendoza says, “I called it that because Bedlam didn’t go anywhere. We’re keeping it alive by doing what we do.” The Bedlam Mendoza speaks of is not so much the eponymous space, but the about that creative and raucous spirit that thrives in the downtown scene, some of which spun out of the Tuesday night event at Bedlam called Hades which was founded by a collective of art models. The memory of that scene is an enduring muse.
Image of Jennifer Fabos Patton
Surrounded by Mendoza’s abstract color landscapes and snapshots of the art and artist strewn space of the salon/drawing workshop/fête, I remembered my first time at that discreet place. As a solo art model for years, I wondered where all the other models were. So, stumbling upon a motley troupe of nude women rumbling like single animation cells of a lucha libre match was like Mendoza welcoming its light into his lens. And it wasn’t just Mexican wrestling themes, some weeks they were Medusas on moonless nights on the roof, or goddesses of the Winter Solstice. Other nights it was Spring Break debauchery resurrected.
The girls’ vibes mingled with the energy of the artists, peeping toms, the editorial crew of the Citizen, and other visitors from near and afar. Like founders Jennifer Fabos Patton and Sarah Streeter intended, they revived the decadent spirit of Kiki of Montparnasse, the leading art model during the thriving 1920s Parisian scene—muse to everyone from Modigliani to Man Ray. Ernest Hemingway described her as “about as close as people get nowadays to being a Queen but that, of course, is very different from being a lady.”
Jennifer says it was Sarah’s idea to bring Montparnasse’s radical creative vibe to L.A., remembering that feeling she got when poring over a book about Kiki Sarah shared with her. Sarah, a former ballerina, had a love affair with this golden age where artist and model worked and played together.
It’s fitting that Sarah, a lithe porcelain beauty for whom movement is art, and Jennifer, a mistress of illusion who captivated crowds for years with gory displays of psychic surgery and macabre magic and who is also credited with inspiring Zorthian to pick up his brushes after at least a decade-long hiatus and, would be the founders of the happening that helped cement the downtown art scene we know today.
The two started their own salon in an old bar off an alleyway in Pasadena. Artists creating, muses modeling, and barflys flying, this endeavor razed the walls of the art world’s inaccessible bastion. This lasted as long as the bar did, and a miscellany of venues later, it found its home in downtown. Though the new location drew modest crowds initially, Jennifer knew, “If we do this, they will come.” Word went from mouth to mouth. They came, en force.
Other women were drawn into their tight crew, now going under the collective moniker “Gallery Girls.” These “Queens,” like Kiki, aren’t just joyous carnal beings, but dynamically their own forces. For example, Marissa Gomez performed as Tipsy Toodles with the celebrated burlesque troupe Velvet Hammer and sings her own twist of country. Also, Nicole Strafaci’s wearable art, dubbed “Collage Philosophy,” is a tribute to Anaïs Nin.
The cocktail these ladies shook of nostalgia for a bygone era, exhibitionism, and illusion gave artists like Rick Mendoza a steady venue to be, develop, and do what they do in like company.
From Jim Marquez’s lust and liquor fuelled narratives to LA animators and Downtown luminaries churning out explosive figurative work until the doors closed, LA’s savvy curious and downtown’s cornerstones, including those of the stature of developer Tom Gilmore, could feel the intangible thing that shapes the art side of downtown.
“People still come up to me and ask about Tuesday nights,” Jennifer says. But like Mendoza’s take on his exhibition title, Jennifer affirms: “It hasn’t gone anywhere. We still do this all the time; it’s just not in one place.” Like downtown’s indelible, unknowable muse, models like these make it possible to hear the music at the edge of sound.
Of course, the models know they can’t take all the credit. There is a chicken-egg question with creative production. “What came first, the artist or the muse?” Jennifer asks, acknowledging, “One can’t exist without the other.”