Reprinted from yesterday's late editions
Was it Carol Vaughn with an actual tongue of beef draped around her neck, or the fellow with the pierced nipples being tattooed on the lower abdomen right there by his girlfriend, or the woman with the brassiere stuffed with chopped meat and Polish sausages, or the perfectly groomed woman in the Werewolf of London outfit, or the lady so properly dressed with black-sequin butterfly mask and sensible shoes over her ears, or the guy with the rubber snake through his nose, or . . . just the general vibes that attracted about 300 members of Washington's propeller set up the opening of a month-long punk (ahem) art festival at the Washington Project for the Arts?
"There's a lot of strange energy here," said WPA director Alice Denney, wearing a P-U-N-K rhinestone dog collar.
Indeed Monday night's punk prom weathered two bomb threats during the day, opposition from some members of the WPA board who thought the festival in bad taste, and three gate crashers who denounced the evening as "jive, turkey, plastic, Georgetown" humnahumna - and even managed to make their complaint seem legit by vomiting before they were tossed out.
Such are they ways of punk, that nihilistic form of existence that is now passe enough to be fit into an art gallery. As one observer said Monday night, Washington is probably the only city where the concept of punk could arrive one year late and still be five years ahead of its time. Which means that a married couple from Fairfax can come chained to each other and a Georgetown student in canary pants and a Madras jacket and a can of Bud can say, straightforwardly, "You know, I can see my mother and father wearing that in a few years."
Washington psychiatrist Norman Tamarkin was not impressed. "There's nothing going on here," he pooh-poohed. "It's boring. Television is more shocking."
Well, maybe. Not quite as shocking as the videotaped presentation of Neke Carson's rectal realism - paintings done with a brush actually inserted in the human body. The painting in question was of Andy Warhol. Or perhaps Steven Kramer's "Destructive Mouse," a large, heavy, gray-metal mouse (moving around the floor on a long extension cord) that could hurt your foot if you're not careful. Not to mention the beer cans and eggs that were being tossed around - especially when a non-punk duo called the Signals broke into "You Light Up My Life" - only to be followed by taped music and white punks in polyester shirts who were doing the dog.
"There are no real punks here," said one man. "Punks are mean. They shoot heroin. They get into fist fights. Real punks would blow your mind."
Meanwhile, photographer Bettie Ringma - who is ensounced on the walls with the likes of punk rockers Willie DeVille and The Ramones and Tuff Darts - was saying to a well-dressed woman, "Oh I'm glad you could come; you must have gotten a baby sitter."
Upstairs, there was a fashion show by Asphalt Jungle featuring the casual cruisewear of punk designer "Animal": thigh-high black-leather boots; a hot pink plastic minidress accented by gold lame breastplate and silver spurs; a tight red plastic jump suit (modeled by local choreographer Jan Van Dyke); polka-dot frou-frou skirts and gold cha-cha heels. Gidget goes to Frederick's of Hollywood. It was the only fashion show where the safety pins were supposed to show.
"We didn't rehearse," said one manequin carying a toy machine gun.
And in the middle of all this, someone screamed out, "What the hell does this have to do with anything? Isn't it time for 'Kojaks?'"
A few days ago, Alice Denney was relaxing in her WPA office, explaining how and why she decided to bring punk to Washington. She wore a non-punk polyester pantsuit, smooth down pageboy and carefully applied lipstick. Denney is in her 50s and relatively calm for a woman caught between two opposing forces: the New York punks on one hand, who initially distrusted her motives, and the Washington art crowd, "who always thought I was ridiculous."
For nearly two decades Denney has made a habit of pulling the Persian carpet out from under the Washington art scene: from the Jefferson Gallery to the failed Washington Gallery of Modern Art and the pop art NOW festival in 1966 to the WPA, which opened three years ago as an experimental "alternative" space for the arts. It promotes dance, drama, video (and multimedia) madness - culminating in the current show (running until June 10), which is Denney's most ambitious, controversial and expensive project to date.
The controversy centers around the neo-Dada-influenced punk art, which Denney described as "bad taste." So bad, in fact, that the WPA's usual printing firm refused to print the catalogue. ("We had to go to New York," Denney says.) And at least one board member, John Whysner, refused to take part in the show.
"I'm opposed to it," Whysner said, "Punk strikes me as containing everything I'm against. The violence, terrorism. There's one picture in the catalogue of a guy in a Nazi helmet stomping someone to death. It's as if Alice is saying, Gee whiz, this is rally neat. As a member of the board, I'm not resigning, but as an artist I'm really opposed to the WPA making this its biggest event."
"It's a challenge to do something like this punk thing in Washington," Denney smiled mischievously. "It's such a conservative town."
But Denney sees the antiestablishment movement as "harmless" and "humorous," though she did back down from including one punk rock group in the show whose act included setting the stage on fire.
"The punks are basically gentle kids," she said. "They're frustrated, and they're sick and tired of being used. They're grown up on crime, violence, sex and bad commercials. The '70s are just so boring."