A Punk with Spunk by Daniel Hoppes
on Remember the Upstairs Lounge by Skylar Fein
Contemporary Arts Center
What is so appealing about “a punk with spunk”? That phrase is faded into one of the photos hung on the wall in Skylar Fein’s Prospect.1 installation Remember the Upstairs Lounge, a piece inspired by the New Orleans Upstairs Lounge which was burned down in 1973. The piece is composed of an entrance alcove, a hallway, a large rectangular room, and an exit. All around the main room are enlarged photographs of blurred punk rockers, aged wood signage advertising adult-male bookstores and depicting numerous homosexual symbols, and lit-up bar signs. Though Fein sets the various pieces up democratically so none takes precedence, for me a certain portrait stands out.
This particular picture, “A Punk with Spunk,” shows a punk rocker wearing nothing but the leather briefs that his hands are unbuttoning to reveal his bushy pubes. Near his thigh a shirt lies rumpled on what may be a stool. The photo’s blurred like an old newspaper. The punk stands mid-canvas, with an undefined gray-black background making him appear as the only thing existing. Remembering the photo, my image of him expands: I see him on a stage when there’s a spotlight shining on him while noisy music and the loud cries of fans envelop him. Godlike, confident, he’s just looking down to where his hands are reaching, intoxicated in the exuberant roar. Standing there, he seems beyond reality though centered in it. From the softly pouted look of his lips, we gather that he’s quite serious here, truly experiencing what he does. However, just the fact that there’s silver metal studding his underwear reveals this moment to be in some way artificial. It’s like he clothes himself in illusions if only just so he can charmingly strip for us.
What separates this punk with spunk from those represented elsewhere in the piece is foremost how sweetly serious he looks. We can understand this distinction clearly if we compare his to the portraits of the four other punks, who often flash a self-parodying camp that detracts from their sincerity, as one punk unsubtly does by exuding such an excess of gusto in ripping his t-shirt you kind of doubt his earnestness. As we can see from the numerous photos in the hall leading into the main room, the Upstairs Lounge thrived in a time when homosexuals lived in un-gentrified subcultures filled with teasing illusions, elusive gestures, secret meetings, outrageous outfits, costumes for the everyday, glory holes, and restrictions (sodomy was illegal in Louisiana until a 2003 Supreme Court case) that spawned both an inventive subtlety and a cocky swagger.
Outside in the hall are colorful photos of the Upstairs Lounge’s patrons. There’s a certain sweetness inherent in them, signs of playful handlers in illusion: a lone smiling sixteen-year-old sailor, a boisterous transvestite get-together, two men grinning next to one another. Yet nothing there is as raw as “A Punk with Spunk.” We get the impression that the people in these photos, sipping martinis, sprawling on couches, looking worn and almost jaded, have become entrenched in the illusions they cultivate and that these illusions have become a reality as enduring as that of suburbanites who understand to be real the delusions brought out under the asphyxia from a choking white collar.
Fein draws attention to the discrepancy between art (and illusion) and reality throughout his piece. The velvet curtain draped over the entrance hangs like a fortune teller’s plastic beads, a border between the rest of the museum and the rendered bar you’re entering. Walking in you feel an odd coziness that compels you to sign the guestbook. You become introverted listening to the soft music coming from the speakers overhead, and notice there’s a deep maroon wallpaper with steadily repeating arabesques, that you don’t yet realize has the same design as that which covered the Upstairs Lounge’s walls. But the coziness isn’t permanent because right behind fiberglass— the second thing you see after a cheap poster portraying a teary-eyed man in a fishnet shirt gazing up at a smoking building—is a sign that only vaguely prepares you for the upcoming horrors. The sign starts us off simply: it shows a burning building and delivers the anecdote of a woman out to buy cigarettes for her husband when she smells smoke across the street.
When you turn into the hallway at left, you’re forced to make a quick decision of whether to first examine the buoyant photos of the bar’s patrons on the right, or on the left to inspect the images of charred corpses and barstools. The glee of the patrons represented in those first pictures, and the fact many of them were burnt alive, contrasts harshly with both the grainy reproductions of old newspaper articles telling of arson in the Upstairs Lounge and the coroner’s list of 32 dead.
There’s this sort of duality present everywhere in Fein’s installation. Here, on the right, you have illusion and on the left reality (by which I here mean death, utter honesty, the destruction of illusions or contentment).
Wooden slats line the hall walls much as the actual bar’s walls must have been lined, except this paneling rises only about ten feet before the solid whiteness of the standard museum wall disrupts the effect. A fine line literally divides the art and the reality.
This you wouldn’t notice at first since you’ve probably stopped to skim the news clippings and eye the photos, set there almost like concert fliers in a stairwell. Add to this distraction the music and an anxiety to get into the actual bar you suppose exists behind the swinging doors at the end of the hall—where maybe you’ll find the cheery patrons of the bar alive and waiting—then, only once you notice the metal lamp flickering just above your head and trace its cord to see it’s suspended from a rather high plastered white ceiling, will you understand again that this is a museum and not the bar or tomb or whatever it is you imagine you’re inside.
It’s the same within the main room except there, behind the swinging doors, Fein amplifies the dissonance. As soon as Fein creates an illusion, he destroys it.
Here, the walls are a blank white, the museum’s standard. The wooden paneling stops at the door and there is no wallpaper or any covering to sustain the illusion that this is a barroom, yet somehow it feels as such. Fein groups the photos, signage, signs, and other works in bunches throughout the room, often collaging various pieces together so they fit like a puzzle trying to coalesce; however, the white wall shows blank between them. Everything collected here seems sparse as if these were the salvaged remains of the Upstairs Lounge, even though most items, as with the music, clearly originated in a more contemporary time. There’s one piece actually recovered from the bar, a small statue of a Hercules with muscles bulging out from under a scant lion skin, and even this in some way is not real since the statue is a replica of a much older work.
The ceiling lower, uncovered electrical wires line its wood structuring and light bulbs shine directly on the series of painting-sized photos that portray some punks. Drawing attention to the museum’s ceiling, Fein has one of these photos, that of a spiky-haired punk, with a clown’s white-smeared face and dark recesses for eyes, raised up apart from the rest, with an open mouth screaming near the divide.
Each of these effects and juxtapositions contributes to the feeling of an austere and lonely bar, except there are neither chairs nor alcohol. Obviously, this is a very different experience than going to the Upstairs Lounge forty years ago. Fein creates an uneasy yet oddly comforting atmosphere. Disturbed, you feel at home. It’s like all that’s missing are those chairs.
Besides the floor, if you want to sit and prolong the experience, the only place you can go is in the corner behind another curtain covering a lone photo-booth, where you can watch a news clip of when the real bar was incinerated.
On the night of the fire, a Sunday night, the Upstairs Lounge was hosting a beer chugging contest which much of the community attended, even a pastor. As opposed to Fein’s installation, the atmosphere in the actual bar would fuse more easily into an uninterrupted unity. The presence of the bartender and the other drinkers help to create this effect by lulling you deep enough into the harmony that the illusions would begin to offer some sort of comfort as a permanent or perfect reality. But since life resists any crystallization, the security you sense couldn’t last. And a frequent result of illusions beginning to feel immutable is that the open playfulness is lost, causing you to not be ready when something discordant does eventually stir you from this harmony, and subsequently you may cringe to realize the sequined dress and boa you wear have turned out to be less a costume than a drunken longing for escape.
Alternately, if you have succumbed to an overly destructive stance so that the illusions flicker at best and you find it impossible to sustain your grip on them—or else some other problem inherent to you prevents your properly participating, it’d be useless going to the Upstairs Lounge since the bar is already ruined for you and has lost even the comfort of a temporary escape. You can only stutter, unsure whether from the morbidity of being surrounded by so many blind ones dumbly clutching at what they think they is true or from an insecurity in witnessing such a surplus of skilled actors at work. Life soon becomes unbearable as if all that ever surrounds you are blank walls and mimes.
Only someone like a punk with spunk, who’s got both the best of clothes and a chiseled nudity, who’s forever donning and undressing, could have gone to the bar forty years ago and experienced a truer transcendence akin to that of Skylar Fein’s installation. Conscious of the discrepancy between art and reality, this punk with spunk accepts art and illusions, he plays and is a resourceful playmate who, when a dissonant reality tries to clamber over the walls of his fort, cleverly opens the gate and somehow subsumes it, though never not concurrently being witty, impish, wry enough to strip himself and others, to expose an un-resented nakedness.
However, largely due to the absolute rarity of his kind, it’s unlikely that a true punk with spunk was present on the night of the fire. Hours before the bar became an inferno, the prime suspect for the arson, Roger Nunez, was giggling in a bathroom stall, fiddling around with a glory hole, although no one rose or bent to meet his glory. Nunez, an out-of-work hustler, not joining the festivities outside, was little more than an annoyance to the customers who only wanted to relieve their bladders and get back to drinking; eventually the bartender evicted him. Confronted, his earlier anxious teasing evaporated, revealing the bitter isolation beneath. While being thrown out, he hollered, fussing about how they were all a bunch of idiots, threatening the bar’s existence and revenge. But, when stuttering Nunez was removed, the patrons continued to chug, ignoring the threats and the possibility of danger entering their sanctuary, until about an hour afterwards when someone torched the bar.
Some customers, sobering up, ran for the door while others found themselves trapped in corners, hugging the barred windows, hemmed in by flames. Thirty-two died, some charred so badly they’re still unidentified, and Nunez followed, committing suicide two years later.
Art is and isn’t an escape: it isn’t because it transports you into the concentrated core of existence, where life comes most intense, and it is because our distance from that heart is precisely what we long to escape. At least as long he’s prying into his underwear, this punk with spunk, we feel, is living in the core of it.
The art of this installation allows a transcendence, but more as an inspiration or a taste than an actuality, one that can only fulfill momentarily since Skylar Fein’s Remember the Upstairs Lounge, like the real Upstairs Lounge, no longer exists.